GAINESVILLE — When Chris Walker walked onto the O'Connell Center floor with 11:28 remaining in the first half of Tuesday's game against Missouri, the roar of the crowd and the reception he received nearly overwhelmed him.
For the freshman from the small Panhandle town of Bonifay, it was a startling introduction to a long-awaited chance to play collegiate basketball for the Gators.
"It lets you know Florida's got one of the best fan bases in the country," Walker said. "They're here to support their players."
His stat line read four points, two rebounds and two blocks in seven minutes. But after everything he had been through to get to that moment, the numbers mattered little.
The 6-foot-10 forward missed 12 games because of NCAA sanctions for impermissible benefits he received from agents and others while in high school and playing AAU ball, including free cellphones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel. He waited nearly two months to find out if the NCAA would allow him to play this season. All that came after Walker had to work to qualify academically and finally enrolled in December.
"I knew it had to end eventually," he said. "I just kept a positive mind and kept working and listening to Coach."
Walker doesn't deny there were third-party influences, but he said he didn't realize at the time he was in violation of NCAA rules.
"I was like 16, 17," he said. "I really had no idea about the rules or anything."
And that, Gators coach Billy Donovan said, is what made Walker's case tough to endure, but by no means unique.
"Chris is a really, really good kid," Donovan said. "I think one of the things that is very difficult in these situations is really whether they know the rules or not. I think obviously if Chris knew some of those things were a problem, I would believe he wouldn't have done those things. … I would imagine in some way there are a lot of kids out there right now that don't know that this is not allowed, that you can't do this, that this is an extra added benefit."
Walker was raised from an infant by his grandmother until her death when he was 12 years old. He was then cared for by various family friends and guardians. Donovan said it's clear Walker and his guardian were naive about NCAA rules.
"Janeen Campbell, who is basically Chris' guardian, is a great lady," he said. "She's done the very, very best job she can to help Chris. She doesn't know the rules. She was kind enough to help out Chris at a time when he was growing up to give him a home and place to grow up, and I respect her a lot. … She was forthright, she was open, she was honest. And I respect Chris from this standpoint: When he had a chance to sit down and speak with them (NCAA officials), he was open and honest and basically told them everything they needed to know, and probably gave them a lot more they weren't even aware of. I respect Chris for that. And I think Janeen did the same thing."
It is that candor and down-to-earth attitude that has quickly endeared Walker to his teammates since he arrived.
"He's a great guy," senior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. "He's eager to learn, he's humble and he's very teachable as a young guy. He has a lot of potential."
"The one thing that's really exciting about Chris is just how humble and how likable of a guy he is," senior center Patric Young said. "A guy that can come in as a McDonald's All-American and all the accolades he has, could come in here and have a little bit of an ego, but it hasn't been like that with him at all. You just feel for a guy that's a good guy as well, a good person, that finally gets something he's been dreaming to do."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]