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  • Writer's pictureBen Dickson

For Walter Johnson, Year Six Is A Gift


The road paved for Southwest Minnesota State superstar Walter Johnson has been a bumpy one.

Now in his sixth year of college, the 2016-17 National Wheelchair Basketball Association All-American is no longer the new kid on the block.

Wheelchair players come to the sport in a variety of ways. In Johnson’s case, the Deerfield Beach, Florida native possesses a condition where his big toe is under his second two toes. As a result, Johnson can do many things a non-disabled person can in most parts of life, but on the court, he is held back.

“I can run, jump and all that stuff, but I can’t do it at a level high enough to play collegiate able-bodied sports,” Johnson said. “So like, I can’t run, stop on a dime, can’t dunk. I can’t do any of that stuff.”

The NWBA classification system divides players into eight classifications, ranging from 1.0 to 4.5. Each increase of 0.5 means that the player has greater functional ability. Per NWBA rules, no one team can have more than 15 points on the floor at one time. Johnson, holding a 4.5 classification, can do things on the basketball court that others can not.

If it were not for a friend growing up, Johnson probably would have never played wheelchair basketball, and who knows where he would be in life. He would often go to practices with his friend until the team finally asked him if he wanted to play. Initially, Johnson did not think he could be cleared to play wheelchair basketball. Once he was, his life took a turn that he would never look back from.

Just two months after he began to play for the Houston County Sharks in Warner Robins, Georgia, Johnson got a call from SMSU head coach Derek Klinkner. Klinkner had a tough task: convincing Johnson to make the move from the warmth of Georgia to frigid Marshall, Minnesota.

As luck would have it, Klinkner convinced Johnson to come for a visit to the Mustangs’ basketball camp. Six years later, Johnson’s story on the court is still being written.

“A guy [who scouted Walter told me] ‘Hey, I have this guy, you need to recruit him,’” Klinker said. “I was just like, ‘Sure, why not’ type of deal and I got to know him and then he came through camp. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m glad we got him.’”

Klinker’s Journey

Johnson’s story is impossible to fully grasp without understanding where Klinker comes from.

Hailing from Artesian, South Dakota -- a nanoscopic town with a population of 143 in the 2019 census -- Klinkner grew up on his family farm. From an early age Klinker had big time athletic aspirations.

Klinkner committed to Southwest Minnesota State to play football and was the team’s star linebacker by his redshirt sophomore season in 2009. A full-time starter, Klinkner led the team in tackles for loss and was tied for the team-lead in interceptions. Regardless of his on-field success, family came first, and Klinkner would always go back home to give back to the family farm.

In 2010, Klinkner took the 125-mile or so trip back home to work on the farm. The routine trip took a dark, devastating turn, however, when a tire fell on Klinkner, and his football career was immediately over. He suffered a spinal cord injury, which consisted of a T-12, L-1 dislocation, leaving him instantly paralyzed from the waist down. After rehabbing, Klinkner was able to get limited function back and walk with a cane, but life would never be what it was.

Wheelchair basketball did not exactly fall into Klinkner’s lap. A hard-nosed football star, he had zero interest in making the transition to adapted sports. But, a friendly wager would soon change all of that. Klinkner’s friend made a bet with him, which was dependent on if the Minnesota Vikings won or lost an NFL game. If Klinkner’s side lost, he would have to play wheelchair basketball. He did with great success, but the transition was very tough.

“I would actually try and step out of my chair, but I’m like ‘Oh, my legs don’t work,’” Klinkner said.

Klinkner eventually came to love the sport and is in his ninth year leading the program after taking over in February 2013. At 32 years old, he is incredibly grateful for the university’s support today to sponsor the program.

“It would have been really, really easy for them to say, ‘No, we don’t want to do this,’” Klinkner said. Johnson and Klinkner had very different paths to wheelchair basketball, but now bond over a sport they both came to love.

A Missed Year

After having a national breakout year in 2016-17, hardship got to Johnson prior to his third season. A look at the Mustangs’ 2017-18 roster shows that Johnson was not a part of the team.

Coming off his All-America season, adversity swallowed Johnson. Make no doubt about it, Johnson is an intelligent mind. Klinker preaches this, making sure it is known that he is “actually pretty damn smart.” However, in addition to having a balance he could not pay, Johnson did not complete his summer schoolwork. Johnson had to leave the team to work to pay his balance back, and the program missed him immensely.

Johnson guided the Mustangs to a respectable 18-11 mark in 2016-17. In his absence the year after, SMSU stumbled. Its win total dropped by eight games, closing the season with a 10-16 mark and a 1-2 showing at the NIWBT Championships, which is men’s wheelchair college basketball’s version of March Madness.

Klinker admits they missed Johnson a lot as the team had to find new chemistry with a number of young players. There were ups and downs of Johnson’s missing season, but that team ultimately missed its physical and vocal leader.

Self-praise is not something that Johnson easily embraces. Despite the national honors and the consistent scoring averages of over 20 points per game, Johnson did not have much to say when asked about his strengths.

“[Scoring],” Johnson answered after a long pause. “I think that’s the correct word...never thought about it.”

Klinker chimed in immediately and went on for a couple of minutes about Johnson’s powers on the court. He preached his excellence in understanding team defense, while also detailing his offensive prowess.

“Offensively, [he] sees the court really well,” Klinker said. “From anywhere of if he has the ball in his hands, how does he have people open? How does he get himself open? And then if he does have the ball in his hands, how can he get in position to get a bucket?”

A high IQ player, Johnson has his hotspots on the court. Both Johnson and Klinker chuckled talking about them, but they could not disclose where on the court they were for rival Edinboro’s sake.

Everything Happens for a Reason

Both Johnson and Klinker shared the same sentiment. The star’s missed 2017-18 season “sucked.”

What also fell under that same category was the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. The Mustangs were having a great season in 2019-20, heading into the national tournament as the No. 4 seed. SMSU boasted four seniors, and Klinker said it was “peaking at the right time.”

But as the pandemic began to take shape in America as plans were getting demolished everywhere, the team got together and arrived at the sad realization that its opening game against Arizona would not be played.

“It definitely sucked,” Johnson said. “But, I mean, I don’t know. I didn’t really think too much about it. I didn’t want to think too much about it, at least.”

The following season was arguably even more discouraging for the Mustangs, only playing three games, all in the truncated, five-team national tournament. SMSU was shut down for two weeks last winter due to an outbreak on campus but was fortuitous to resume practice after. The team had games scheduled following its return, but other opponents had to cancel due to their issues with the pandemic. In what was ultimately a lost year for the Mustangs, Klinkner admitted it was tough to replicate game-like situations in practice.

The silver lining in all of this was that it provided a boost for Johnson to return for his sixth year. Not only could he continue to etch his name in the program’s record books, but there was a higher motivation that followed: a degree.

“What made me come back is, I’m like, ‘I came this far,’” Johnson said. “I can’t leave without getting a degree.”

Coming into this semester, Johnson had 18 credits left before graduation. The “why not” mentality was a no-brainer for him, knowing that, after all his academic struggles, he could get past everything and earn his Bachelor’s degree.

Echoing Johnson’s mindset is none other than Klinkner, who understands the importance of a degree. Johnson is one of two sixth-year seniors on the roster, the other being Ezekiel Ramudzi. Ramudzi is going for his master’s while Johnson is so close to his bachelor’s degree.

“If he wasn’t in college, if he wasn’t a student-athlete, would he have a degree?” Klinkner said. “We don’t know.”

It is a question worth asking. Life after college is a weekly conversation between the two. The goal for Johnson is to play basketball at the highest level for the longest amount of time possible. If not, his degree would help him get into the workforce.

“He’s worked really, really hard,” Klinkner said. “We have worked really hard to get him where he’s at. Finally, when he finishes his degree this May, no one’s going to be able to take it away from him, and I’ll be the first person to hug him off the stage.”

New Expectations

On a typical day during the season, Johnson wakes up at around 5:30 a.m. He heads to an early practice, followed by breakfast and a day of class. Once he finishes class, he works until about 10 p.m. to finish the day. As he gets under his covers at the end of the night, he knows he will wake up the next morning and do it all again.

The expectations are high for the Mustangs in the 2021-22 season. The feeling of unfinished business stings the program, but there is one clear goal to end that.

“Top-four seed,” a humble Johnson said on the expectations. “And possibly be able to put something on my finger for once.”

Klinkner had to immediately barge in. The program had achieved a top-four seed in Johnson’s career before. After all, there are only 12 teams in men’s wheelchair college basketball. Klinkner knows the standard needs to be set higher.

“We’re going for the championship,” Klinkner said. “I’ll just say it. We know what we got to do, how we got to do it...We want to win.”

As the program learned in the past two seasons, nothing is guaranteed. However, with a player like Johnson at the helm, the sky is the limit.

Southwest Minnesota State opened its new season on Nov. 5 with the SMSU Tournament. The Mustangs escaped with a record of 2-2, with two wins over Edinboro and two losses to Wisconsin-Whitewater. In the four games, Johnson averaged 19.5 points per game, including a 33-point outing in SMSU’s first loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater.

This year’s version of the Mustangs will go as far as Johnson takes them. Klinkner and Johnson have become the heart of the program’s identity, as Johnson has played at the school for two-thirds of Klinkner’s head coaching career.

Johnson’s ability goes well beyond the court. He has worked his way through moments that the average person cannot relate to. A modest 24-year-old with a bright smile, Johnson is built for success for this season and beyond.

“I guess it depends on the day,” a laughing Klinkner said about his relationship with Johnson. “I’m just kidding. I’m very, very thankful for Walter choosing SMSU. Obviously, as he has grown, we have grown...Walter has been here for a long time. But essentially there, he’s helped growth, he’s helped push, develop, not only himself, but the people around him.”

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