I believe every athlete who has ever competed imagines themselves coaching at some point in their life, even if the thought is held only briefly. And then there are those athletes who know from an early age they are destined to coach and make it their life’s work. Travis Walton falls in the second category. He was born to coach basketball.
Walton is currently an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers G league (formerly D league) team, the Agua Caliente Clippers. But he has his sights set on loftier goals. Judging from his success at every stop in his basketball journey, Travis is a good bet to achieve his dreams.
Local fans will remember Walton’s decorated career at Lima Senior High School. Playing for coach Mark Gaffney, he was the 2005 Division I Northwest Ohio Player of the Year. His jersey was retired by LSH. Even in high school he was earning respect from opposing coaches for his toughness, leadership and grasp of the game.
I recall devising a coaching scheme in an attempt to slow Walton down when LCC met Lima Senior in his senior year. We worked on a zone whose only hole was the corner 3, a difficult shot. But Travis read the strategy immediately. On the Spartans first possession, Walton dribbled the ball up the floor, passed to the wing, cut to the left corner and buried a three. On their second possession, Walton passed to the opposite wing, cut to the right corner and dropped another three-point shot. Down 6-0, I turned to one of my assistants and said, “We should probably think about getting the bus warmed up.”
Walton was not heavily recruited but Michigan State’s legendary coach, Tom Izzo, saw something special in Travis and offered him a scholarship. His hunch paid off. You won’t find Walton’s name on the leader board of many offensive categories, but his impact on the Spartan program was massive. “I realized that I was not gifted scorer,” Walton says. “My talent was vocal leadership and intensity.”
Walton was named captain of Michigan State’s basketball team for three consecutive seasons, a rare honor. He was named to the Big Ten All Defensive Team three times and was the 2009 conference Defensive Player of the Year in his senior season, the same year he led the Spartans to a Final Four appearance.
During his college career at MSU, he and coach Izzo formed a special bond. “He was very disciplined and demanding,” recalls Walton. “We were a lot alike.”
Walton took a shot at playing at the next level, joining the Detroit Piston’s summer league team, but was not offered a contract. Faced with a decision about what to do next, it was Coach Izzo who stepped in and made Travis an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I was nine hours short of graduation,” Walton says. “Coach Izzo encouraged me to return to MSU, work with him as a student assistant coach, and earn my degree.”
Walton moved into Izzo’s basement and spent the year completing his degree, learning the art of coaching and staying in shape by working out with the team. It was an easy transition for Travis. “I was always a big film guy, so spending hours watching tape came easy for me,” Walton says. “I began to see the game through a coach’s eyes,” he added. “The same mistakes I made that drove coach Izzo nuts when I was playing for him, were driving me nuts now.”
After earning his degree, Walton spent three years chasing his dream of playing professional basketball, joining clubs in Switzerland and Germany and playing for three different teams in the NBA D league. But when coach Izzo connected him with an opportunity to join the coaching staff for the Utah Stampede in the NBA’s D league, Walton jumped at the opportunity.
Coaching athletes that were only a few years younger than himself proved a challenge but Walton loved working with professional players. “In the pros, you are dealing with grown men,” Walton says.
“You don’t have to deal with recruiting, parents and headaches,” he says. “If someone doesn’t want do it the right way, they know they can be released.”
Walton has also begun a player development business, Team One Training, that works with athletes on skill development and conditioning. His clients include former Lima resident Tyler Ulis of the Phoenix Suns, the Chicago Bull’s Denzel Valentine and the Golden State Warrior’s Draymond Green.
Walton worked with Green from April through the playoffs last season. “We did a 45-minute workout in the mornings with a lot of target area shooting,” Walton says. The skill sessions were approved and encouraged by Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. “The Warrior staff watched my workouts and provided me with a detailed breakdown of their own practices so we were not working on the same things and I didn’t tax Draymond’s legs,” he says. Green’s Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals.
Walton’s coaching future looks bright. Many believe he will eventually join coach Izzo’s staff at Michigan State but Travis also has his eyes on being part of an NBA staff. “If a great opportunity at the college level presented itself, of course I would seriously consider it,” Walton says. “But the professional game is attractive because the entire focus is on basketball.”
Wherever he lands, Walton’s coaching philosophy will carry a heavy dose of Tom Izzo’s approach to the game. “If you look at the great coaches, they are all demanding and hold their players accountable,” Walton says. He added, “the great thing I learned from coach Izzo was the importance of honestly communicating with your players. You can’t tell them what they want to hear, you have to tell them what they need to hear.”
My bet is we will be hearing a lot more from this promising young coach in the years to come.
Bob Seggerson is a retired boys basketball coach and guidance counselor at Lima Central Catholic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.