“I was like ‘Get out! Get out!’ and he kept saying ‘No! No!’
“He’s always been a sensitive kid and when saw me sobbing, he came over and just hugged me. And then we were both crying. I don’t know if he knew what was going on, but he did save me.”
By 14 and 15, Walker already was a much-talked-about basketball talent in the area. She’d go on to become a McDonald’s All-American at Chaminade Julienne and one of the nation’s top recruits. She chose the mighty University of Connecticut program over the likes of Duke, Georgia, Maryland and Rutgers and played a semester for the Huskies before suddenly transferring to Kentucky.
She had a stellar career with the Wildcats and though she was bypassed by the WNBA, she played on seven teams across Europe and in Australia in her four-year pro career. In 2016, playing in Visby, Sweden, she was named the Eurobasket.com All-Swedish Damligan Forward of the Year.
But for all the accomplishment and fame, she said she’s wrestled with issues of mental health – self-doubt, anxiety, depression and all the things that come with them – since those early teen years.
Samarie Walker, one of the highest-profile women’s basketball players ever from the Miami Valley conducting her podcast “Say Your Truth.” Walker was a McDonalds’ All American at Chaminade Julienne. She played a season at UConn and then transferred to Kentucky where she had a notable career. She played for seven pro teams across Europe and in Australia over a four-year period and retired in 2018. CONTRIBUTED
She was introduced to basketball age 2 and was playing on teams two years later. By age 7, she said her dad was coaching her two hours a day. But the more she developed, the heavier the expectations became for her.
Her early success often got her name in the newspaper, but that also attracted some envious critics and internet trolls, who – emboldened by their anonymity – wrote nasty things about her in the comments section attached to the online stories.
“I’d see them on the Dayton Daily News (site),” she said “I wanted to read their criticism. I knew Michael Jordan used to watch ESPN and would hear people talk about him and he said he used it to fuel him.
“I thought it could be the same for me, but I found out there are some really, really mean people out there. And I’m such a sensitive person, it just crushed my soul.
“My parents told me not to look at those comments, but I couldn’t help it. It became addicting and it just tore me down.
“Instead of me combating that with affirmation – that I’m a good player, that I work hard – I was listening to them and telling myself, ‘You do suck! You’re terrible! You’ll never live up to what everyone expects.’”
Soon she said she was having no fun playing basketball and wished she could quit.
The negative thoughts became a tidal wave at times, but she said her parents and coaches didn’t understand the gravity of it.
“They were like: ‘You’re a teenage girl. You’re just going through puberty. You’re emotional’…blah…blah..blah.”
She said she started to just internalize it and it nearly overtook her that day she sat there with the pills.
Then little Sam stepped in.
And by the way, today Sam is a 6-foot-7, 240-pound 16-year-old basketball talent himself at West Carrollton High School and with the Indy Nets AAU team out of Indianapolis.
“Yeah, he’s good, but he still can’t beat his sister,” grinned Samarie, who’s now 28. “He’s a better shooter, I’ll give him that, but he’s not as fast, can’t jump as high and isn’t as athletic. He’ll get there…one day.”
Samarie Walker from some years back clowning around with her younger brother Sam, who today is a 6-foot-7, 240-pound junior basketball player at West Carrollton High School. CONTRIBUTED
She was laughing now and it was a wondrous reminder that she’s got some of that old swagger back.
She believes her college career would have been better and her pro career would have lasted longer had she gotten the necessary therapy when she needed it most.
She did begin to talk about those issues with a professional once her playing days ended and she moved for a while to Chicago, where she went to grad school and helped coach North Park University’s Division III basketball team.
And now she’s created a vehicle to help herself and others deal with issues surrounding mental health.
In May of 2019 she launched a podcast – called Speak Your Truth! – that has become an earnest and often quite frank platform for herself and other current and former athletes and others connected to sports to “share their journeys of mental health throughout their careers.”
Athletes and their mental health have become a much discussed topic since Japanese-born tennis sensation Naomi Osaka – who lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Games Friday – skipped a pre-tournament press conference she was required to attend at the French Open and immediately was pilloried by some in the press, tennis officials and even a few players.
She then withdrew from the tournament, saying she needed to “take some time away from the court” and deal with some mental health issues.
This month the 23-year-old Osaka, the first Asian woman to be ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association, appeared on the cover of Time magazine with something she’d said – “It’s O.K. To Not Be O.K.” – as the headline. Inside she’d penned a piece in which she talked about the lessons she’d just learned.
“It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to mental health or knows someone who does,” she wrote. “The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that.
“As it’s new to me, I still don’t have all the answers. I do hope people can relate and understand it’s O.K. to not be O.K. and it’s OK to talk about it.
“There are people who can help and there’s usually light at the end of the tunnel.”
Gabby Thomas – the Harvard-educated sprinter who trains with Dayton Olympic medalist and now coach, Tonja Buford-Bailey – will run the 200 meters at the Tokyo Games. Last month she told Cindy Kuzma, who wrote on her for Runner’s World:
“Naomi is a great role model in this situation.
“It’s so important to see another Black woman stand up for herself and take care of herself…So often we feel this pressure to just be quiet and do our sport. …And that can take a toll, mentally and emotionally.”
Thomas then brought up an issue that is the same one that so wounded Walker as a teenager.
“I see fans talking about myself or other track athletes on the internet as if you can’t read and you don’t have feelings. You can tell they don’t see you as a person.”
That’s one of the things Walker has been trying to address with her podcast:
“People treat athletes differently. I want to show we struggle with things too, especially mental health.”
Walker lives in an apartment in Vandalia and a few months ago, with the help of a friend, she collected some of her old basketball plaques, trophies and framed newspaper articles and put a modest collection of them up on the wall of one bedroom.
But while they represent the tide of accomplishments and ongoing expectations that lifted her basketball career, she said she also was dealing with a downward swirl of self-doubt and depression throughout her CJ days:
“I just knew if I didn’t play basketball, how was I going to pay for college? And I’ll admit I felt pressure from my family, my classmates and my friends. If I quit, how would I look to all of them?
“If I wasn’t Samarie the basketball player anymore, who would I be?”
Once she got to UConn her basketball never quite measured up to what it had been in high school.
“At that point I was very drained,” she said. “My self-confidence was gone. I had none.”
She said it was hard sometimes to even get out of bed and she said her problems often were treated as effort-related: “I had to do extra workouts and I sat in the office and did a lot of talking.”
CJ's Samarie Walker tries to get past Oakwood defender Elizabeth Haley during Girls Division II Southwest District sectional tournament action at Springboro High School Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010. E.L. Hubbard/CONTRIBUTED
She was a solid contributor much of that first semester, but it was reported that coach Geno Auriemma was critical of her in practice and things deteriorated and she transferred to Kentucky.
She played 96 games for the Wildcats, started 80 and ended up in the top 10 in career double-doubles, rebounding average and blocked shots.
But she struggled there too and her junior year she said she had some uncomfortable conversations with head coach Matthew Mitchell and eventually, thanks to the help of an assistant coach, she went to see a therapist. They didn’t click, she said, and they met just twice.
She believes she was bypassed in the WNBA draft because of her height – she was a 6-foot-1 post player – and that no one voiced concerns over her issues of self-doubt and anxiety.
She headed to Zaragoza, Spain, in September of 2014 and immediately wanted to return home. That’s when she said her dad stepped up and convinced her she could play.
And within a year she was an All Swedish League star.
After playing in Zaragoza and the Canary Islands, then Australia, Sweden, Lithuania, Finland and Luxembourg, she left the pros and settled in Chicago.
“It’s an adjustment after being in an arena with 15,000, maybe 20,000 people, and you’re knocking down shots and rebounding and the crowd is into it,” she said.
“Then all of a sudden you’re just another person on the street who nobody knows.”
‘Keep the conversation going’
In 2018 she said she was invited to speak to a group of high school and college coaches and found herself opening up to them about her mental health struggles.
“Afterward a lot of them came up to me and thanked me for sharing my story,” she said. “Some said they had players who were struggling with the same things now. And some of the younger coaches said they had struggled with it themselves throughout their careers
“I was like, ‘Man! I thought I was the only one with this!’”
She became driven to find a way to “keep the conversation going’' and that’s when she settled on the podcast that now can be found at: https://anchor.fm/samarie/support
For over two years she’s had lengthy, candid on-air conversations with dozens of guests.
But some of her best moments have been when she opened up about herself, though she laughed and admitted:
“My parents don’t listen anymore because I tell my truth. I know they’ve been offended at times and I understand. They didn’t see it that way, but my experiences were different.
“I’m trying to speak my truth.”
She said her purpose – besides self-healing – is twofold:
“I want parents and teachers and coaches to recognize some of the signs of mental health issues, so they can have the right conversations with kids and get them with counselors.
“And I want people to realize therapy shouldn’t be viewed as a stigma or anything like that. It is part of a healing process that allows you to feel better and be much stronger.”
Walker is working as a personal trainer now and hopes one day to coach again. She wants to help kids – especially girls who she said are dropping out of spots in their teen years -- and she wants to lift up women.
“Too often women are told to stay in their place and be quiet,” she said. “It’s so empowering to just be able to say what you feel, even if it does (tick) people off. That’s not always easy but I think it’s better if you speak your truth.”
And that brings us to something Naomi Osaka said she heard from Michael Phelps:
“(He) told me that by speaking up, I may have saved a life,” she wrote. “If that’s true, I think it all was worth it.”
Samarie Walker is now speaking up week after week after week and that – as much as her basketball talents – should be celebrated.