When Gophers’ center Mo Walker comes across a mirror these days, he’s inclined to take a second look.
Who could blame him?
The ever-slimming image reflected before him is a composition he barely recognizes – one he hasn’t seen since “probably my eighth grade year or something,” but one that’s rejuvenating him both physically and mentally in his junior season.
“The first few weeks, people were telling me I looked pretty good and I didn’t really see it,” Walker said. “But after maybe like the fourth or fifth week I started seeing the results and yeah, I started looking at myself a little more in the mirror.”
Since Richard Pitino was hired to coach Minnesota, Walker has dropped more than 45 pounds, a stunning transformation for the big man, who has long dealt with weight issues.
“I feel a lot better going up and down the court,” he said. “My jumper is a little better. And I feel like that just affects my overall game like rebounding, pick-and-roll defense, all the things that coach Pitino tries to do.”
As a freshman, Walker weighed 340, and his body mass quickly became a perpetual topic of conversation. When injuries kept him off the court for the second half of his freshman season and all of 2011-12, his weight was presumed to play a role. When former coach Tubby Smith played the Canada native sparingly as last season wore on, his density was a major factor.
Smith had long and loudly stated that Walker needed to shed pounds – mostly to no avail.
Then Pitino showed up.
“I just said if you don’t lose the weight you’re not going to play,” the coach said on Tuesday. “It’s just that simple.”
Incredibly, it was. Walker, who said he never thought of transferring after Pitino was hired – getting excited, instead, by the prospect of an up-tempo game – suddenly found himself staring at an ultimatum. Finally, there was no more room for excuses.
The 6-10 Walker said he’d always figured he could still contribute by sheer presence in Smith’s often slow-it-down offense. The impetus was dulled. But in Pitino’s world, Walker knew it wasn’t an option.
“It was more of a wakeup call to me,” he said. “I knew I was overweight and stuff but I kind of just lived with it and played with it -- comfortably. But ever since I’ve been changing my body, it’s been a big benefit to me.”
Walker almost completely cut out carbs, and drastically cut back on snacks and sodas. Paired with tons of cardio, the results have shown impressively. Before guard Andre Hollins studied abroad in Italy over the summer, he caught a glimpse of Walker, minus 15 pounds. He was struck by the progress then. But when Hollins returned from overseas, the reaction turned to shock.
“Before I left for Italy, I saw him and said ‘How much weight have you lost’ and he was like ‘15 pounds,’” Andre Hollins said. “You could tell in his face. But when I got back, I was like ‘Oh my God.’ I was like, ‘What have you been doing?’ And he had lost like 50 pounds. That’s unbelievable, that’s a testament to just how hard he’s been working.”
To be blunt, it’s still not enough. Walker, who weighs about 265 currently, has the personal goal of 250 to start the season. Pitino talks mostly about turning the remaining fat into muscle. Then, there’s the matter of getting conditioned.
“He’s still not quick enough, he’s still not in great enough shape,” Pitino said. “But step one, that’s pretty impressive for him to be able to do that.”
A few other thoughts from Walker:
On his role on the current team: “We play a lot of pick-and-roll offense. So I see myself setting a lot of screens and rolling, getting a few touches inside, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, making good passes to my teammates when they’re open.”
On Pitino’s system and it’s challenges for a player like himself: “It’s fun, I’m fine with it. There’s a lot more touches, a lot more shots going up, a lot more opportunities to rebound and do what I’m good at.”
On dealing with the constant subject of his weight, which has been the center of almost every conversation we’ve had with him in the last two years. Has it bothered him? “Not really. I mean, it’s a personal thing for me. No matter what people tell me or what people might ask me, it’s all inside me. This is my goal and this is what I want to do.”
Pitino on whether Walker could surprise him come fall by proving to be more athletic than he thinks: “I don’t think that’s Mo Walker’s game. I don’t think he’ll ever be an above the rim guy. What surprised me about him is that he’s a great passer, probably the best passer on the team. I really believe it. He’s a phenomenal passer. That surprised me.”