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Region XIV players come from far and near

By Gabriel D. Brooks
March 2, 2011 at 11 p.m.

Region XIV Conference men's basketball contains 14 teams and about 185 players who come from 112 cities and towns, 26 states, 15 countries and four continents.

Of those almost 200 players, four are from East Texas: Lon Morris' Dominick Walker (Pine Tree), Kilgore's Clema Holland (Longview), Tyler's Mitch Marquis (Whitehouse) and Tyler's Jaron Johnson (John Tyler).

In other words, it's not easy to go from the courts of East Texas 4A and 5A basketball to the gyms of Region XIV.

Ask Walker.

"I had no idea the level of play I was getting myself into," Walker said. "I figured it was gonna be difficult, but the difficulty level was far greater than I thought."

That's coming from a player who averaged about 18 points and 13 rebounds before a knee injury cut his senior season short. He averaged 13 and 9 as a junior.

At 6-4, 215 pounds in high school, Walker appeared a man among boys. He was often the biggest, strongest player on the floor.

Now ... not so much.

"The most difficult challenge was that I had to realize that I wasn't the biggest guy on the floor anymore," said Walker, who has bulked up to a sculptured 230 pounds. "The most important skill that I had to improve was my basketball IQ. Now I had to outsmart my opponents on the offensive and defensive end of the floor. I also had to get stronger, which has helped me a lot. Since I had two knee surgeries, and one shoulder surgery, I was behind. Tireless hours in the weight room and yoga helped me get back to where I was."

While playing opponents from Kilgore, Hallsville, Whitehouse, Marshall and the like can be tough, facing foes from Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago, three different boroughs of New York City and countries in West Africa and Eastern Europe is another issue entirely. Walker said the talent level in Region XIV is absurd, and everything from size to speed to basketball skill is exponentially more advanced than what he encountered in his high school days. Playing in the paint is especially treacherous for the uninitiated.

"We have to literally fight to grab a rebound now. Guys that would be posts at East Texas high schools are guards in the Region XIV Conference," Walker said. "You are also playing against guys that were the best on their high school teams. You had some who were All-Americans, but couldn't go to a UT or Pitt because of grades."

Walker embraces being on the small end of the big-man spectrum. The third-year sophomore, who had to sit out the 2009-10 season with an injury, comes off Lon Morris' bench to average 3.2 points and 2.7 rebounds as a key frontcourt reserve. Walker has 6-10 France native Niko Stojiljkovic and 6-9 Croatia native Igor Premasunac starting ahead of him, while 6-9 Brooklyn product Kyle Francis also comes off the Bearcat bench.

"I wasn't intimidated for one secon. It was just another challenge that I had to try my very best to overcome," Walker said. "I just outworked the bigger guys. They look at me and I guess thought they could push me around. Every time I step on the floor I plant in my mind that I'm the biggest guy on the floor."

Walker, like many advocates of Region XIV basketball, believes that the average East Texas sports fan is oblivious to the quality and high level of play in their own back yards. After all, Region XIV is the same league that produced NBA players Steve Francis, Marcus Thornton, Robert Pack, Fransico Elson and Chris "Birdman" Andersen.

"Most of us that are from East Texas have no idea how challenging the Region XIV Conference is. To be honest I didn't appreciate the quality of basketball in this conference until I became a part of it," Walker said. "I'm happy to be a part of it, and I believe it will help me when I continue elsewhere."

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