It began with a human blueprint – a 4-year-old girl who could lay a crossover dribble on you and hit the jumper.
Lonnie Walker knew she was good because she was his daughter, and she’d been playing basketball since she was two. A family friend, Dante Jackson, saw Julianna Walker play.
“She was amazing,” he said.
Together, the two men began talking about putting together a group of young players – really, really young players – and training them to play the game together and build a team. Both had kids younger than Julianna, and they all loved hoops.
“We started our own program to cut costs, for people who couldn’t afford to play elsewhere,” Jackson said. “We joined AAU (Amateur Athletics Union) to work off their nonprofit status.
“We wound up with seven players, all of them special, all of them gifted. We trained and practiced twice a week, played against kids that were bigger and faster.”
And older. Walker and Jackson’s first graders were playing third and fourth-grade teams.
They wound up in Time magazine this month, and for good reason: The Washington Evolution, a team of seven kids, all from Tacoma, marched through a tournament that wound up in Memphis, Tenn., where it won a national championship for second-grade teams.
“The trophy was bigger than a couple of our players,” said Walker, who coached them.
The Evolution, begun late in 2005, has played competitive basketball and football every year of its existence. Julianna, now a fourth-grader playing with and against eighth-graders, helps out with the Evolution.
“She still trains with us and comes back to help us with the younger players,” Jackson said.
Think about that. A fourth-grader working with younger players. Second-grade boys playing for a national title. And all in a program that is 100-percent volunteer.
“It ain’t no living,” Walker joked. “It seems like a full-time job.”
But he already has one of those, working nights at Western State Hospital.
Jackson, a photographer for Q13 Fox News, handles the team’s administration, which means finding money.
“We don’t have a budget,” Jackson said. “We do car washes, whatever we can. If we get $300, we put $250 into a tournament the next weekend. We’re all about the kids. My coaches paid for some kids to go to a Portland tournament out of their own pockets. They lose money coaching.”
The Evolution trains new players but isn’t looking for them to play on the existing team. They have the seven basketball players who have played together for three years and a football team of about 40.
“I don’t think our football team has lost in three years,” Jackson said.
He’s the first to admit the world of amateur athletics has changed. When he was growing up as a high school athlete, he played whatever sport was in season.
“I don’t remember anyone scooping me up in kindergarten and saying ‘You’re going to compete twice a week against older kids,” he said. “I told Time magazine, it’s ludicrous – but it’s the way it is today.
“Kids play one, maybe two sports and focus on those. We play basketball and football and leave it at that. It’s ridiculous to start them this young, but when you see ability, you want to bring it out.
“If the kid wants to play and his family wants him to play, why not teach him to be the best?” Jackson asked.
When the seven-kid team went to Memphis, it matched up against the reigning national title holders – Maryland’s Finest. It was an education unto itself, Walker said.
“It’s like a high school state championship kind of environment, with screaming, yelling, it was never quiet. And most of the gym was for the other team,” Walker said. “It got personal at times.”
“Adults would be yelling at me saying, ‘Coach! That kid’s gotta be in the third grade!,” Walker said.
None of them were.
The Washington Evolution national title team is Logan and Tre Walker, Malik Samuels, Elijah Hall, Amari Jackson, Shawn Michael Stanley and Jasiah Amouzou.
“We’ll carry our second grade team together all the way through college as long as they’re together,” Jackson said.
And then, there’s the old, grizzled veteran of the organization – Julianna, who is now 11.
“We used to call her ‘the blueprint,’ because she was exactly what we were looking for,” Jackson said. “She’s an impact player. Every kid on our second-grade team has the chance to be an impact player in high school. Like Julianna, they’re all special.”
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638