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Originally published June 12, 2013 at 7:42 PM | Page modified June 12, 2013 at 9:07 PM

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Joyce Walker returning to coach at Garfield High

The legendary former Bulldogs player and coach, who endured a relapse into drug and alcohol abuse six years ago, will take over the girls basketball program.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Joyce Walker has been re-hired as Garfield High School’s girls basketball coach, a little more than six years after walking away from the program following a stunning relapse into drug and alcohol abuse after nearly 17 years of sobriety.

Garfield principal Ted Howard confirmed the hiring Tuesday and said he believes the decision is in players’ best interests and that he isn’t taking a gamble.

“She loves Garfield more than I love Garfield,” he said of Walker. “I’m not gambling. I’m not betting. I feel she’s proven she’ll get our kids where they need to go.”

Added Howard: “I’m thrilled.”

Walker, who led the Bulldogs to a state championship as a player in 1980 and as a coach in 2005, shares that sentiment.

“I believe I was born to teach on some level and basketball is in every fiber of my being, and what better than to do it in the place that you first started dreaming,” said Walker, who was in and out of treatment centers before she said she got clean and sober again in May 2008. “I don’t take this opportunity for granted. To come back to Garfield is really a dream.”

A dream she wasn’t certain she wanted to pursue again until the end of the 2012-13 season, after watching the Bulldogs flounder through a 2-18 campaign under interim coach Antwon Jones. Jones had been a last-minute substitute when an Italian coach who was hired couldn’t get his U.S. paperwork in order, according to Howard.

“I saw the struggle for the girls … and at the end of the season I started to get that yearning,” said Walker, whose first stint as Garfield coach began in 2000-01. “I said, I think I’m ready and it would be an honor to come back and work with the girls again.”

Walker, who turns 51 next month, is considered by many the best female basketball player in state prep history. She became a two-time All-American at Louisiana State, was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team and played professionally overseas before being one of the first women to join the Harlem Globetrotters.

Walker continued to volunteer time with girls and boys players at Garfield and coached the Garfield boys in the fall league the past three years. Howard, in his ninth year as Garfield principal, wasn’t sure how committed she was about returning for next season until she applied.

“Honestly, there’s no one better than Joyce,” Howard said. “Who wouldn’t want to be coached by Joyce, boys or girls?”

But Howard knew Walker’s relapse, and how she walked away from the program after the 2006-07 season, citing a cancer scare, would be questioned by some.

“She told me she’s an open book and said, ‘I’ll answer any question,’ ” Howard said. “I’ve asked her if she’s ready to actually stand up and be accountable for how she left … She left under a cloud and the girls were let down. We were let down.”

Howard said he isn’t worried about how her return will reflect on him.

“I’ve heard the innuendoes — ‘This is really going to look bad on you as a principal if you pick somebody that has done what she has done and she relapses,’ ” he said.

“I’ve said there’s no pressure on me. The pressure’s on Joyce. She knows what she can and can’t handle.

“To actually have this disease (addiction), as she’s said, and be clean for 15-16 years and have a relapse, then come back from it, my money’s on Joyce.”

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

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