RICHMOND — In last weekend's Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, Corey Walden lit up Nashville like it was the Las Vegas strip.
In leading EKU to its third men's basketball NCAA Tournament berth since 2005, Walden averaged 23.3 points in three games. The OVC tourney MVP hit 23 of 35 shots and made cold-blooded plays under pressure in both the semifinals and finals, finishing with 24 points against Murray State in the semis and a career-high 29 as the Colonels surprised favored Belmont in the title game.
"Corey played the weekend of his life," Eastern Coach Jeff Neubauer said Thursday.
What made the performance of Walden, a 6-foot-2 junior from Ormond Beach, Fla,, even more noteworthy is that, just two years ago, he was uncertain if he would even be able to play basketball.
It's hard to plan a hoops future when your bones won't stop breaking.
An uphill climb
Walden, 21, shakes his head side-to-side and smiles when asked about the first time he played pickup basketball two years ago with current EKU teammates Glenn Cosey, Tarius Johnson and Marcus Lewis.
"I definitely remember," Walden said. "It seemed like (Cosey) hit everything. Everyone was just moving fast, Marcus, Tarius, everyone who came (to play) was moving so fast."
There was one exception.
Breaking your left foot twice in a year — and then having to fight off a nasty bout with infection — does not lead to one being in prime basketball condition. Wanting to make a strong first impression on his new teammates, Walden said he instead "realized 'Wow, I'm really out of it, out of shape, rusty, heavy (physically). I was like 'Geez, I'm really behind now.'"
At Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Walden graduated in 2010 as the school's all-time leading scorer (1,647 points). That was accomplished in between a series of broken bones. "He broke his wrist, his (right) foot, a hand, all basketball injuries," said Lawana Walden, Corey's mother.
Pepper Johnson, now the boys' basketball coach at Seabreeze, has been working with Corey since the player was 8 years old. He said Walden's injury history kept him from being more highly recruited. "There's no question in my mind, those injuries scared schools off," Johnson said.
Walden spurned offers from North Florida and Jacksonville to cast his lot with Stetson, a private university in DeLand, Fla., with an undergraduate enrollment of some 2,500 that competes in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
As a Stetson Hatter, Walden had a banner freshman season, starting 24 games and averaging 12 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals. His year ended abruptly, however, when Walden broke his left foot.
"As soon as it happened, I felt a pop and it started hurting," Walden said. "I knew something wasn't right in it right away."
Off the court, Walden said he did not handle the transition to college academics well at Stetson. "Just being young, I made some bad decisions in the classroom," he said. "I learned from it. It was a learning experience."
He transferred to Brevard Community College in Florida before his sophomore year. That summer, Richie Riley, then an EKU assistant (now at UAB) began to recruit Walden.
"Richie does a great job of recruiting junior college guys," Neubauer said. "... We were aware Corey had left Stetson to go to junior college for one year. I got to see him in the summer before he went to junior college, which was a good thing."
Walden broke his left foot again in a pickup game before he ever got to play in a game at Brevard.
"The second time, it was a really freak accident," Walden said. "I came off a screen and just went to the basket and I guess I put too much pressure on it. It caused it to break."
Walden said doctors told him the way he walks may have led to weakening the bone in his left foot. Lawana Walden says "Corey was a heavy little baby, and when he started walking he looked like he had a barrel between his legs, they bowed out so much."
Says Corey: "Growing up, I had some really funky-looking legs and feet. I was kind of bow-legged. They said the way I walk, I put more pressure on that spot in my foot."
If the frustration of breaking the same bone in the same foot twice in such a short period of time was not enough, Walden soon had to deal with worse. His broken foot became infected. "It was swollen, it was warm. It just wasn't right," Walden said.
The combination of the second break and the infection meant Walden essentially used a redshirt year at Brevard. "I took antibiotics three times a day for about six months," he said. "It was a long, long process. The infection finally went away. I had a screw in there. They took the screw out and just let (the broken foot) heal by itself."
For some eight months, Walden wore a therapeutic boot on his left foot. He figures he gained some 20 pounds while unable to run. In his darker moments, he wondered if his basketball career was over.
"After breaking it the second time, the doctor told me 'There's always a chance you can easily break it again,'" Walden said. "... For a while, I thought maybe I won't get back to playing at all, or (to) playing well."
Amid the foot maladies that sidelined him, Walden said three schools kept recruiting him — Morehead State, Ball State and EKU. Because of the relationship Riley built with him, Walden chose Eastern. It was a school he had never heard of until the Colonels started recruiting him.
After that first shaky pickup game in Richmond, Walden slowly began to round back into form. Last season, when EKU visited Illinois of the Big Ten, Walden sliced and diced the Fighting Illini for 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
"I wouldn't say that was the game where I really found myself," Walden said, "but it was a big jump, a big kick-start to the process of me just finding my rhythm, finding my trust in myself that I could actually play at this level again."
A big part of regaining his game, Walden says, was finding mental peace with the knowledge that he could break his foot again. "For me to fully trust it, it was a good bit into last season until I was like 'All right, if it breaks, it breaks.' You have to play. You can't think about it,'" he said.
The best testament to how well Walden — this season's OVC Defensive Player of the Year — has played at Eastern is that no one around the Colonels program was surprised by his stellar effort in the OVC Tournament. As Illinois found out last year, Walden has a knack for coming up big under the brightest lights.
This season, Walden had 19 points, eight rebounds and three steals in EKU's overtime loss at VCU. He hit traditional OVC titan Murray State with 24 points in a regular-season Colonels defeat.
"It doesn't surprise me that Corey played great in the big (OVC tourney) games," Neubauer said, "because he's done that for us here for a couple of years."
Just two years ago, Corey Walden feared that chronic foot injuries had sabotaged his career. Now, he is a primary reason EKU is wearing (big) dancing shoes.