Walker becomes Blast's power forward

Team's 2nd-leading scorer improving, can dominate


January 12, 2001|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

Just put your thumb and index finger close together to see how close Blast forward Tarik Walker came to playing basketball after high school.

Where would Walker be now if he accepted one of the numerous basketball scholarships that came his way? Hard to say.

And where wouldn't he likely be? In a Blast uniform, emerging as one of the National Professional Soccer League's most dangerous target men.

When Walker - both powerful and explosive at 6 feet 2, 200 pounds - chose soccer at Virginia Tech over basketball at, among other places, Connecticut, little did he know what course would follow. Got a map?

In eight years of professional soccer - both indoor and outdoor - the 29-year-old from Washington, D.C., has played for nine teams in five leagues and six cities, starting in Baltimore, where he was named NPSL Rookie of the Year in the 1993-94 season for the then-Spirit.

"I've always loved playing soccer. I guess, playing since I was 5, I just liked it more, so that's why I chose to play it in college," he said. "And now it seems like I've been a vagabond with this sport, but it's actually been a great experience. I got a chance to live in different parts of the country and experience different things. It's worked out, so far."

In 1994, at 23, he was in Las Vegas, away from home for the first time and winning a championship in the Continental Indoor Soccer League for the Dust Devils.

His one season in Milwaukee, playing for the Wave in 1997-98, was also time well spent. Not only did he win an NPSL championship, he also learned from coach Keith Tozer that you have to do more than just show up at practice for two hours a day to improve on your game.

He's been back in Baltimore with the Blast (11-4 going into tonight's home game against Toronto) for the past three seasons - at home and among friends - with no plans of budging. Just try to move him.

"He is, by far, the hardest to handle forward in the league right now, without a doubt," said Blast midfielder Paul Wright. "I wouldn't want to play against him; it would make for a hard night. And I'll tell you what, the scariest thing is he's still getting better."

Talk to Blast coach Kevin Healey, and he'll often refer to Walker's dominating 12-point performance in a tough 25-22 playoff loss at Cleveland.

"A man among boys," Healey calls it.

Healey said the keys to becoming an elite forward in the NPSL is consistency every time out, scoring at critical times and having some major games where you simply take over.

Walker - second on the team in scoring with 44 points, including a team-high 17 two-pointers - is getting there.

He's scored crucial fourth-quarter goals in wins at Philadelphia and Toronto, and his seven-point performance in a 19-10 win at Wichita last Friday moved him past Kevin Sloan into fourth place on the franchise's all-time scoring list with 313 points.

Although Walker is established and more than comfortable in Baltimore, he isn't close to satisfied.

Just ask the left-footed Walker about the two huge goals he scored - both with his right foot - in the Blast's 12-9 win at Toronto in December.

"I used to only be able to stand on my right foot, and now I'm able to use it to put the ball in the net, so it's put another dimension in my game," he said.

Blast defender Derrick Marcano said Walker was a "bean pole" when he first came into the league, easy to knock off the ball.

No more.

Defender Jason Dieter said Walker is the toughest mark, "and I know plenty of defenders around the league who will say the same thing."

When there's a loose ball in the corner during practice, fellow Blast defender Lance Johnson, also a rookie for the Spirit in 1993, doesn't even bother fighting Walker for it.

Come game time, when Walker plants himself in the middle much like a forward posting up in basketball, Johnson, Dieter and the rest are glad he's on their side.

"After he turns and scores a goal, we like to yell, `Game over,' because as soon as he does turn, it's pretty much lights out," said Wright.

Added Walker: "When the ball hits the back of the net, it's pure excitement - everything for 20-plus years just paid off right there when it goes in," he said.

Walker said he's here to stay and will settle for nothing short of another NPSL crown.

"I've been around these people and this organization for a long time, since I got out of college," he said. "And a little bit of winning a championship away from home was lost. Now, I hope to get the chance to celebrate one with my friends."

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