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Originally published Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Joyce Walker takes hard road back from drug and alcohol addictions

Gotta look good. Joyce Walker's short hair is covered with bleach as she stuffs some last-second items into her bulging duffle bag. The rest go into...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Help with addiction

Alcoholics Anonymous: In Seattle, 206-587-2838. Web site: alcoholics-anonymous.org

Narcotics Anonymous: In Seattle, 206-790-8888. Web site: na.org

Seattle and King County Public Health: For substance abuse information, call: 206-722-3700 or toll free in state at 1-800-562-1240. Web site: metrokc.gov/health/atodp/treatment.

Highlights as a player

Joyce Walker's career highlights:

High school: Led Garfield to 1980 Class 4A state girls championship, averaging 35.5 points. Still owns seven state-tournament records, including 40 points in a game and 38.0 tournament average. Member of National Hall of Fame and Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Hall of Fame.

College: Two-time All-American at Lousiana State. Led Tigers in scoring four years, 1980-81 through 1983-84, setting SEC career record of 2,906 points (24.8 average). Member of LSU Hall of Fame.

Amateur: Won gold medal at World University Games and was alternate on 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

Pro: Played in Italy and Germany before becoming one of the first women to join the Harlem Globetrotters.

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More sports: Golf | Tennis | Swimming | Cross-country

Gotta look good.

Joyce Walker's short hair is covered with bleach as she stuffs some last-second items into her bulging duffle bag. The rest go into a worn leather carry-on with a broken handle, and how appropriate is that?

One journey leads to another. A battered spirit is in need of repair. It's time to get sober again.

She grabs a paperback, but must leave her well-worn razor behind. No sharp objects allowed. A dainty diamond stud earring comes out of her right nostril, another no-no in rehab. Walker changes jeans twice and asks, "Do these make me look fat?"

A few drags on a cigarette calm her nerves, and there's a final snuggle for Taylor, an 11-year-old Peekapoo who doesn't judge her shortcomings.

"I love you, little man," she says. "Mommy has to go for a while, but I'll be back, better than ever."

A framed Seattle Times page leaning against her apartment wall proclaims Joyce Walker the state's greatest female high-school basketball player of the 20th century. But Walker, who won state championships at Garfield as a player and as a coach, feels anything but legendary. She is filled with shame, remorse and resolve as she readies for the road back that starts with the Recovery Centers of King County (RCKC).

After nearly 17 years of sobriety, one of Washington's best-known athletes had relapsed. It led to a journey the past year filled with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and crack that emptied her bank account of at least $50,000 and left a trail of deception.

Now Walker has resurfaced after 26 days in rehab, recommitted to her recovery and dreaming of coaching the Garfield girls again. Some days, she feels back on top of the world. Other days, it's a struggle to get out of bed. Every day, the addiction gnaws at her.

"It's not like I don't think about it every day," she said of the temptation to use.

"I'd like to come home"

Starting over is nothing new for Walker. The 1980 Garfield grad and two-time All-American at Louisiana State played with a flamboyant style befitting one of the first female Harlem Globetrotters.

But the party lifestyle that accompanied her fame opened the door to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and crack addictions that wiped out a six-figure income and sent her back home to Seattle.

"There's something about this damn town," Walker said, reflecting on now and then. "It's both a blessing and a curse."

Walker, who first smoked marijuana in high school, got clean and sober through Alcoholics Anonymous in April 1990 and became a drug and alcohol counselor who toured the country as an inspirational speaker. Her raw stories made fellow addicts laugh and cry.

She longed to give back to the game she loved and began training young basketball players. Coaching seemed the next logical step. Walker spent one-year stints as assistant girls coach at Ballard and Garfield, then took the head girls job at Rainier Beach for two seasons, 1994-96.

Eventually, she was drawn back to her old high school. The Garfield girls program she led to a state championship as a player was in disarray, and she cried as she sat in the bleachers watching one lopsided loss.

"If the job's open, I'd like to come home," Walker told Garfield administrators.

She was hired in 2000 and took the Bulldogs back to the top, winning a state title in 2005.

A year later, though, the unraveling began. Walker lost her father to prostate cancer, received a promotion to treatment director of the Milam Recovery Center in Renton that added to on-the-job pressure and opened her South Seattle home to two relatives.

One of them brought along crack cocaine.

"I hadn't had dope in my house for a long time," Walker said. "It opened up the craving for me."

She fought the urge, and focused on her basketball team and a growing desire to raise a child, her biological clock ticking at age 44. As last season's basketball season neared, she discussed options with her family doctor.

A routine physical ended with a sucker punch that Walker said ultimately sent her over the edge. Lung X-rays showed several spots, including one that her doctor said appeared suspicious, according to Walker. Three words echoed in her mind: I have cancer.

Trying to save face

The spots on her lung turned out to be benign, but Walker said the scare stirred her addiction.

"Everything toppled from that," she said. "It was just what I needed to justify."

Some in the Garfield community believed she made up the cancer story to at first cover up her relapse and later to excuse it.

When someone dropped a piece of crack on her living-room floor one day before Christmas 2006, Walker's foot instinctively slid to conceal it. Weeks later, she smoked it.

She says her cocaine use didn't escalate until after the basketball season. With crack in her home, she knew it was only a matter of time before the addiction roared back to life.

"I never dreamed I'd get loaded again," she said.

Walker also had started drinking again, and it began taking a toll. She missed practices and lost weight. Lies multiplied. Players noticed she lacked her normal fire.

"Her behavior during the season was pretty erratic, and we knew something was wrong for a long time," said Lily Ramseyer, now a senior.

Walker told the team in late January she had cancer. Rumors swirled in the community, but Walker publicly dodged questions about her health until talking to The Seattle Times in mid-February 2007.

Walker told The Times that three spots on her lungs were malignant. Her explanation now is that she used the wrong word and meant benign.

But Walker admits she was juggling her stories at the time.

"There was another factor going on," she said, referring to her addiction. "You can't save your face and your ass at the same time. You have to decide. At the time, I was trying to save my face."

Ramseyer said she never saw her coach drunk or high at practice or games. Walker insisted that's a line she would not allow herself to cross.

"There were some rules, some principles," Walker said, adding her conscience forced her to take a leave of absence from Milam in February. "I didn't come to practice high, but I was scattered at times."

"I wasn't done using"

Sometime in April, Walker said she went through an MRI exam that confirmed she did not have cancer. But her descent into drugs and alcohol was well under way.

"I had already opened Pandora's box again," Walker said, adding she knew she was in trouble when she quit talking about her addiction. "It's almost like I was running, I was running from myself."

Tricia Ross, Walker's partner and best friend, had been sober for nine years. She also started using again and joined Walker's downward spiral.

"It was a dangerous time," said Ross, who left her job as a pharmacy technician and still is trying to rebuild her life.

Walker called Garfield principal Ted Howard in early May to take a leave of absence from coaching. Players were told she needed time to get healthy. By then, though, they suspected Walker's issues were drug-related.

"Nobody really talked about it, but we all knew," Ramseyer said.

When Walker isolated herself from sober family and friends, her younger sister Shirley Wroten worried.

"I knew something was wrong when she stopped coming around," Wroten said. "We're a very close, tight family and she was just kind of distancing herself."

Wroten, a former track star at Garfield, demanded answers as rumors of a relapse swirled at the end of the basketball season.

"I went to her house and confronted her, but she denied it," she said.

Walker's appearance said what her words wouldn't: She was using. Sixty pounds had melted from Walker's 5-foot-9 frame. Even Walker didn't like the image in the mirror. Not just the tired eyes, but the emptiness inside.

Wroten spoke with Walker's AA sponsor, who said: "There's nothing you can do until she's ready to get help."

Walker wasn't ready. Mike Tretton, a longtime friend and her former assistant coach at Garfield, took her to two treatment centers in March and April. She walked away both times. Wroten coaxed her into detox July 4. Again, Walker fled.

"I wasn't done using," Walker explained. "It still had a hold on me. I wanted some more."

"A hazy time"

Walker sometimes spent $200 to $500 a day on her habit. Bills piled up. She sold her house in August. The cash helped feed her addiction.

"That has a hazy time," Walker said.

She took a road trip to Las Vegas in early November after blowing $24,000 on a new Chevy HHR. Walker totaled it in Eastern Oregon and later found out her insurance had lapsed.

Walker, with Ross and another friend as passengers, was driving eastbound on Interstate 84 near Ontario, Ore., in the early afternoon of Nov. 5 when she lost control. The SUV rolled three times, flipped over the median and landed in oncoming traffic.

Walker said she swerved to avoid a merging semi. No citations were issued, according to police, and, amazingly, injuries were minor.

"Obviously, God wasn't done with me," Walker said. "I paid this price for this journey, and I know that. Sometimes, a lot of things had to go so I could just stand alone in the presence of a power greater than myself."

That experience didn't stop her out-of-control downward spiral. She rented a car and continued to Las Vegas. A weeklong vacation turned into a month, as Walker hit the blackjack tables and slots, drinking and getting high.

Anything to escape. Anything to run away.

"I don't think it was about the gambling or getting high," Walker said. "It felt so excruciating, I didn't want to face any of it."

Walker spent a night in jail there. She was arrested for auto theft because the rental-car company claimed she hadn't returned the vehicle in time. Details are fuzzy, like many of the events in her life. But she didn't need a jail cell to make her feel trapped.

"I was in my own prison for about six months," she said. "I always knew I had the key, but I couldn't get it in the lock. Maybe I wasn't supposed to."

Walker's inner demons run deep, perhaps back to her childhood. The seventh of 10 children, she was born with spinal meningitis and needed more care than her mother and alcoholic father could provide. As a baby she was sent to live with her great aunt in Los Angeles. Walker was 7 years old when she returned to Seattle, but never outgrew the feeling she hadn't been good enough to live with the rest of her family.

As her recent crisis deepened, she felt drawn back to L.A., back to the now-ailing great aunt who raised her. It was time for some tough love.

"This is not you," her great aunt told her. "I know you're hurting, but you need to get back to your life."

Rock bottom came when Walker, longing for a high, nearly took the woman's life savings. She forced herself to put back all but $100.

The next day, four days before Christmas 2007, Walker flew home. It was time to get clean and sober.

"I was done before I got back here," Walker said, "and I was lucky. Most people don't get back here."

She still had a place to stay, an apartment in the Renton Highlands, but little else. Friends and family refused to lend more money, beyond a few dollars for cigarettes and food. Call when you get to treatment, they'd say, skeptical that day would come.

New clothes were returned for cash, some of which went for crack. She got high the night before going to rehab.

"Walking the sewer"

On Jan. 9, Walker learned a bed was available at the RCKC detox center. She called for a ride and hurriedly finished packing. A few quarters for the pay phone would be her only connection to the outside world.

"I know this is the only way," Walker said. "I want to rest. I want to get healthy again."

Her sponsors strongly advised against her publicizing her story so early in her recovery. But Walker decided to tell it anyway.

"It's hurtful to walk the way I just walked in broad daylight," she said. "Not everyone can do it. I didn't know if I could do it. But I felt it was the road to freedom. I know what society could say, but I know I had to walk it. When I found that inner freedom, it was the freedom of knowing there was something greater for me.

"But it was ugly at times."

Walker spent four days in detox before entering the treatment program at RCKC. The shakes from alcohol withdrawal were manageable compared to restless nights, when she dreamed of chasing drugs and woke up with the sweats. Her legs cramped, her arms went numb. Mood swings left her yelling one minute and crying the next.

"I went back to walking the sewer most people wouldn't walk through," she said a week into her recovery, "but I knew I wasn't staying. I stayed a couple of months longer than I wanted to, but I'm back and I'd pay any price to do it."

"A legend in the house"

Walker was released and awarded her certificate for completing treatment on Feb. 4, a week early. She slipped and injured her back, requiring treatment at Harborview.

Her thoughts immediately turned to Garfield. The next day she called Howard, the principal and her longtime ally, for a pass to that night's boys game at Eastlake in Sammamish. She couldn't wait to see her nephews, Tony Wroten and DeAndre Taylor, play for Garfield.

She headed for the gym at old Lincoln High School, where Garfield students are attending school until Garfield's renovation project is completed next fall.

"Get ready to get mobbed," Howard told her.

Lily Ramseyer is the first to see her, and her screams echo down the hall. Others follow.

"I love purple and white," Walker says, scanning the championship pictures on the window of an office that used to be hers. "I don't know anything else."

Walker shoots jumpers and shows off one of her Globetrotter tricks, spinning a ball on her index finger, then punching it up and through the net.

She scores a pair of purple and white sneakers and two practice jerseys bearing her number, 21, the one she has tattooed on her right biceps along with the words "Top Dog."

More confirmation and hugs come the next day, when the Garfield girls play at Eastlake. Walker knows she let players and parents down. She understands they all won't be forgiving.

"I've been mad at Joyce," says Judy Ramseyer, Lily's mother. "She made some bad decisions. But I love her, and I'm glad to see her back ... She was fighting her own demons."

But Lily has reservations.

"I guess I can forgive her, but I can't really forget it," she says.

"Shame is good for me"

Howard, wearing a Garfield jacket, is thrilled to see Walker in the crowd. He continues to be one of Walker's strongest advocates, as he has been since the day she schooled him on the basketball court when he was a Garfield freshman.

"Joyce means more to us than just a basketball player," the principal says. "She's part of the culture here. She's part of the kids, she's part of us. Every time the kids take the court, they're either dribbling like her or shooting like her. Her legend continues to live on."

Could she be back as Garfield coach? Howard won't say, but plans to talk with both her and Craig Jackson, the interim coach.

Walker believes she has a gift to give on the basketball court and already is back in the gym. Some days she has only enough energy to attend an AA meeting or study group. Ninety meetings in the first ninety days, that's the recommended regimen following treatment, and Walker says she attends one most days. She started an aftercare program Friday that includes weekly counseling.

The mood swings continue. One day, Walker is upbeat and excited about her future. Another, she feels sorry for herself. Depression lingers and humility is around every corner. She has no car, no job and, at the end of this month, no place to live. She hopes a school will take a chance on her again.

Walker tries not to worry about what people think.

"I'm not ashamed to let people see me go through difficult times," she says. "Shame is good for me. I messed up and did things wrong."

Step 9 in AA's 12-step program is making amends, face to face. Step 8 is making a list of those you have wronged.

"Hers is probably pretty long," Tretton says.

Some will never understand. Others will never forgive.

"There are those who don't understand it's a disease," says Tretton, who celebrated his 28th year of recovery Tuesday. "But once you know you have the disease, it is your responsibility to take care of it. From that standpoint, she has a responsibility. But once you start using again, you don't have a choice."

Walker knows her road back is only beginning.

"For some, there's no explanation necessary," she says. "For others, there's no explanation possible."

Joyce Walker makes no promises. Her addiction doesn't allow it. If she stays sober today, it's a good day.

Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or sringer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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