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The journey: Wali Hepburn

By Alex Sklar
February 16, 2017

Wali Hepburn is a 2015 Lock Haven graduate who starred on the Lock Haven University men’s basketball team. Hepburn recently signed a professional contract to play basketball for Canarios de Once Municipal in El Salvador.

Hepburn’s journey to being the fourth highest scorer ever in Lock Haven history, at 1,609 points, or becoming a professional basketball player might not be as clear as you would think.

Hepburn began in high school playing for one of the best basketball schools in the country, Philadelphia’s Neumann-Goretti.

On Hepburn’s high school team, he played with two players who would go on to be stars playing at Syracuse University: Scoop Jardine and Rick Jackson. Hepburn didn’t get a ton of minutes in high school, but he worked. He worked to get better in practice everyday, while playing against some of the best competition in all of the country.

However, he was not attracting the same kind of attention as his high school teammates. The college offers weren’t piling up. Hepburn ended up going to Shippensburg University and walking onto their basketball team, where, at the time, Lock Haven’s current head coach Mike Nestor was an assistant coach.

At Shippensburg, Hepburn had another bump in his journey. He was dismissed for academic issues. Hepburn then left Shippensburg and returned home to Philadelphia. After spending two years out of school, Hepburn’s life took another turn — this time for the better.

“Coach Nestor saved my life, honestly,” said Hepburn. “When he received the job at Lock Haven, he reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to go back to school.

I had been back in Philly and I was on the verge of going down the wrong path. He knew where I came from and just wanted to help me get away from it. He just wanted me to get back into school, he didn’t really care if I played basketball.”

Hepburn came to Lock Haven with a new approach and a school first mentality.

“I think he grew up a lot and matured,” Nestor recalled of Hepburn.  “So when he came to us here at Lock Haven, I just think he was a lot more mature as a person and he was ready to accept his role at the university, not just academically, but also athletically.”

Hepburn’s change was evident.

“He asked me to be a mentor to all the new young guys he was bringing in and wanted me to eventually become a team captain,” Hepburn remarked.  “I was a quiet laid-back kid, but he knew that I could tell my story to the freshmen and help them stay on track and not go through the same things I went through.”

Hepburn in his first season with the Bald Eagles led the team in points per game (21.3), minutes (37.7), assists (4.0), free throw percentage (81.5) and was second in rebounds per game (6.1) and steals (1.4).

He continued to be an all-around player.  In the following season, Hepburn led Lock Haven to their first home playoff game since 2003.

Hepburn led the PSAC and his team in scoring (21.9 points per game) he was named PSAC East Division Player of The Year and was also named a Division II All-American. Also, in that season, he became a 1,000 point scorer.

Hepburn played his senior season leading the team again in scoring and several other categories.

“You know he’s just one of those guys you’d see at every other event. He would be at a field hockey match, he’d be at a volleyball game, he’d be at a swimming meet,” said Nestor, who talked about Hepburn becoming a fixture on the Lock Haven scene.

“He really just made sure he completely surrounded himself within the community and the campus of Lock Haven.”

After Hepburn’s senior year and graduation, he looked to continue his basketball career. He thought the hard part was over. It was just beginning.

“After I graduated, I expected everything to be laid out for me and it to go smooth but it was the complete opposite,” Hepburn noted.  “There were a lot of agents and people giving me advice on what I should do and I didn’t know who to believe and I ended up listening to the wrong people.”

“People in my family and inner circle that I thought I could trust ended up being the ones who held me back. I missed out on a couple good opportunities trusting in the wrong people. I went from having so many options in the basketball world to having none at a point.”

Hepburn did overcome his struggles throughout this journey and is excited for what his future holds. “I’m very excited to play for Canarios. It is a team from the top league In El Salvador and they have a big name here and a really big fan base. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”

If Hepburn continues to be an all-around player like he was at Lock Haven, then there isn’t an answer to where he could be next. Hepburn has the talent and skills to compete.

When asked about which aspect of Hepburn’s game would help him succeed at the next level, Nestor only had one thing to say.

“He can score the ball,” Nestor said, “He can score the ball.”

“That’s the biggest thing when you’re an American playing overseas.  Usually, the maximum amount allowed is only two Americans on a team.  So, for him to be able to put up big numbers is just what they are looking for.”

Nestor went onto say how teams overseas don’t bring in Americans to play defense or just to pass the ball, he rather stressed the importance of scoring the basketball overseas.

Hepburn’s journey didn’t stop when he didn’t play much in high school, it didn’t stop when he played minimal minutes at Shippensburg and it did not stop when he faced adversity.

The journey didn’t stop when he thought the next step would be the easiest and it wasn’t.

The journey ends when Hepburn meets the aspirations that drove him through the tough times and the struggles he has faced. He’s reaching new heights, but he has higher goals.

When Hepburn gets to the top, he can look back at some of his experiences from Lock Haven and life. Hepburn talked about how Lock Haven prepared him for this moment on a basketball level.

“My experience at Lock Haven was pivotal in getting to this point,” said Hepburn.  “I didn’t play much in high school or my first year in college, so Lock Haven was the first place to actually give me a real opportunity to play.

“In my three seasons we had a bad season, a really good season and a mediocre season. so I learned all the ways a season could go. All of those experiences helped me develop into a much better player and if It weren’t for my time at Lock Haven, I would have never known how to deal with certain aspects of the game.”

While Hepburn did sign a professional contract, he spoke about how different the lifestyle is in El Salvador versus the United States.  There is no hot water, and on some days the entire country doesn’t have water.

So, for those days, Hepburn has to plug in a water tank in his backyard so he can have water when the rest of the country doesn’t.

Nestor alluded to Hepburn’s qualities that make him successful.  He is likeable.  He is approachable.  And most importantly, according to Nestor, he’s been that way for his entire life.

“My career aspirations are to make it to the top level possible, whether that is the NBA or one of the top countries overseas,” said Hepburn.

“I just want to go as far as I can go.”

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