Johnnie Walker

A Mentor Mourns, and Wonders

After Bias died, his mentor Johnnie Walker, who taught Bias how to play at a young age, could not bring himself to return to The Rec, where he was still volunteering, and work with the players. “It kept me away from a lot of things,” he says. “I didn’t go to The Rec for a long time after that.”

The death of Bias affected how Walker’s coworkers perceived him as a police officer. Many of his fellow officers knew Bias, having seen him play basketball with Walker at the police-academy courts, and wondered how Walker could be unaware that Bias used drugs since Bias was spending a lot of time with Brian Tribble, whose activities were already suspicious. “It seemed like maybe people looked at me as if I should have known more than what I knew,” says Walker. “People who knew me said ‘How didn’t you know, because you usually don’t miss anything?’ People were like ‘How do you know he wasn’t using drugs? He was with a drug dealer. You didn’t know [Tribble] was a drug dealer? You didn’t know he was using drugs?’ It created a problem for me. People perceived me different after that for a very long time.”

Prosecutors in Prince George’s County investigating the death of Bias wanted to know why Walker had removed items from Bias’s dorm room the day Bias died. Walker testified before a grand jury, but no charges were brought against him. He says he took Bias’s personal belongings from the room only after receiving permission from police to do so and because the Bias family had asked him to remove the items. He placed the items in the van of Bias’s high school coach, Bob Wagner. “Once the police said everything could be taken out, I cleaned the whole room out,” he says.

Most often Walker has been left to wonder why Bias would fall prey to the temptations of drug abuse. “I think the drug thing with Leonard to this day was his perception that no matter what he did, he was just better and stronger, and it wouldn’t have that effect on him,” Walker says. Walker became the girls’ varsity head coach at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. in 1996. In 2001, he left the D.C. police force and took a job as a registrar for the city’s public schools. He moved to Dunbar High School in D.C. as its attendance counselor in 2006, the same year he became the head coach for the boys’ basketball team at the school. In the summer of 2010, Walker was named the athletic director at Dunbar. He still wonders what more he could have done to prevent his friend’s death. “It may not be true, but I felt like even when I was around his mom and dad, that they blamed me, that I should have protected him better,” he says, his voice quiet and his tear-filled eyes staring at a television showing sports. “I felt for a long time like it was my fault. Still feel that way.”

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Excerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

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