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He could have been a basketball star. Now this Kansas City coach is training the next generation

Two people stand across from one another on a basketball court, dribbling three basketballs between them. The gym is painted white with red and blue accents.
Lawrence Brooks
KCUR 89.3
Marcus Walker trains with high school student Isabella Shumpert, whose family drove from Denver, Colorado, for her to work with him.

When a life-threatening medical condition abruptly ended his professional basketball career, Marcus Walker was lost. It wasn’t until someone pushed him to take his skills back to the court that he founded Grindhouse Basketball, where he trains young girls and boys.

On a muggy Sunday evening in a community center gym, Marcus Walker sits alone on the stage, patiently waiting for trainees to arrive.

“You come in here, there’s no air conditioning. You have creaks in the floor. It's just an older building. But the reason why I love it so much is it keeps you humble,” said Walker.

A bead of sweat trickling down his forehead, Walker looks at his phone, quickly editing videos and posting content for his 180,000 Instagram followers.

Without a big marketing budget, it’s one of the only ways he can spread the word about his training program — Grindhouse Basketball — and the young athletes who are part of it.

“A lot of these girls are good already, but what is being good if you don’t have exposure,” said Walker.

A decade ago, Walker was on track to make a successful career playing basketball overseas. But a life-threatening medical issue brought him back home — specifically, to the Milestone Youth Center in Kansas City’s Independence Plaza neighborhood — where he found a new mission: to help train the next generation of ballers.

Now, he trains hundreds of young athletes, many of whom travel across the country to learn from him.

Milestone Youth Center located on 3417 E. 12th Street
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Milestone Youth Center, where walked trains his athletes, is located on 3417 E. 12th Street in the Independence Plaza neighborhood in Kansas City's historic northeast.

A promising basketball career screeches to a halt

Walker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, near 18th Street and Benton Boulevard. He attended Crispus Attucks Elementary and Paseo Middle School.

In middle school, he caught the eye of Todd Magwire, former coach at the now-closed O’Hara High School.

“I actually observed him play in his eighth-grade year,” Magwire said. “And by the time he was a freshman, I said, ‘This kid's going to be a Division I player.’”

Under his leadership, Walker averaged 30.3 points per game his senior year and went on to break the previous record as Kansas City’s all-time leading scorer. He graduated from Colorado State University in 2009. At that point in his career, coming back home wasn't in the picture.

In 2010, he started his professional basketball career overseas, in Reykjavik, Iceland.

“I got to play in a lot of different countries. I lived in Iceland, Ukraine and Italy, but I played in Lithuania, Sweden, Poland,” said Walker.

He was enjoying some success, too. While playing for the Iceland KR during the 2011-2012 season, he won a championship, a playoff MVP and Foreign Player of the Year award.

After a brief stint in Ukraine with BC Goverla, he moved to the Italian Series A2 League, where he signed with Basket Barcelona in the summer of 2012.

But during a routine physical, he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart.

“We did our regular routine, and we got the results. I'm in denial. I'm like, ‘Nah, that can't be me — that's somebody else on the team,’” Walker said.

He returned to America a couple of months later to consult with more doctors, only to hear the same.

"I was supposed to get a defibrillator in my body. I walked around with one for about a year. It shook me," he said. “I wasn't doing anything. I don't want to die having all these thoughts, but I'm not living my life either.”

After battling depression, it was some tough love from his mother who pushed Walker to get back onto the court.

“(She said) ‘You're gonna disrespect God, by not sharing your gifts?’ It hit me like, ‘Whoa,’ that was straight to the gut,” Walker said.

A year later, Grindhouse was born.

From training professionals to fifth grade girls

When Grindhouse began in 2014, Walker’s focus was training professional basketball players.

“We’re talking about Justin Hurtt, Mike Dixon, Dominique Morrison, Leo Lyons … anybody that was somebody from here, I’ve been in the gym with,” said Walker. “Talent-wise they’re further along than any of these kids that I'm dealing with.”

Walker preaching to his trainees on the power of consistency and mental toughness
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Standing on the basketball court inside the Milestone Community Center, Marcus Walker give a speech to his trainees on the power of consistency and mental toughness.

But working with adults quickly got complicated between erratic schedules and over-inflated egos.

Surprisingly, it was a memory from his time overseas in Iceland, where he first expressed interest in coaching, that pushed him to start training young girls. Team officials with Iceland KR connected him with a community center.

“That was my first experience with young ladies. They said, ‘Oh you want to coach some teams?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I go to practice and it's all girls,” Walker said. “That was the highlight of my time over there.”  

Walker now trains both boys and girls, but of the hundreds of players he’s coached, his girls have seen notable success.

This year, Walker’s MO Grind Elite team won the AAU Nationals for 5th grade girls. The team was recognized by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and the city council last month.

Casey Arambola drives her daughter from St. Joseph, Missouri, to train with Walker for his new program named Crossover University.

“It's difficult to make it all the time, but it's definitely worth it,” said Arambola. “Really, it's more about the relationship that she has with Marcus and how he believes in her and gives her confidence.”

Fourteen-year-old Elicia Arambola says the trip is totally worth it.

“My basketball process, my mentality, my dribbling and just the way that I move during the game has improved,” she said. 

Elecia Arambola doing a dribbling and driving drill at Crossover University
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Elecia Arambola does a dribbling and driving drill at one of Walker's training programs, Crossover University.

Latoya Stone has been enrolling her son Demari Wallace and niece Alicia Martin with Grindhouse since 2018. Over the years, she's learned from listening to Walker’s speeches that his leadership is just as vital as his skills training.

“That's helped my son tremendously with his confidence in and out of sports with life in general,” she said. “That's why I try to have him be around Marcus as much as possible because he's just a good role model.”

Walker's wants to keep expanding, grinding out content on social media that is both educational and inspirational.

“I want to put Kansas City on such a huge pedestal that you can line us up against Chicago, New York … all these major cities and say Kansas City, that's where it's at,” he said.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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