The decision Marcus Walker made 15 years ago to participate in the Mayor’s Night Hoops program is paying off today in more ways than he imagined back then.
Taking part in the summer recreational program, which tipped off its 20th season on Saturday, taught Walker the value of teamwork, respect and sportsmanship.
It also enabled him to improve his game and obtain a college scholarship and degree.
Today, Walker, 25, is scoring leader for a professional basketball team in the Ukraine. He said while this year’s corps of Night Hoops players may not turn pro, they would learn the same values and life skills he did.
“This will give them the skills and develop friendships for life,” he said.
The event Saturday at the Southeast Community Center was a preview for the educational, recreational and athletic program for youths ages 10 to 25 and runs from Wednesday to Aug. 12. The program’s four sites are the Hillcrest Community Center, Central High School, Gregg/Klice Community Center and the Southeast Community Center. The hours vary from each site.
Registration fees are $10 to $25 per player, depending on age.
The Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, which sponsors the program, estimates more than 800 youth will take part in this year’s activities.
Aside from basketball games, all participants must attend educational clinics that focus on job readiness, money management, conflict resolution, self-esteem and other skills.
“This gives kids a place to go that is safe, where there is adult supervision and where they learn how to play the game but also learn how to play the game of life,” Mayor Sly James said. “It brings us back to a village raising a child concept, well this is our village.”
Night Hoops was launched in 1992 when Mayor Emanuel Cleaver urged parks officials to devise a way to provide teens with something constructive to do on weekend nights.
Montel Ford, a 13-year-old small forward for the Heaven Sent Hawks, said he hoped the basketball league would help improve his skills and allow him to have fun with his friends.
Mark Bowland, community services manager for the parks and recreation department, said nearly 120,000 youth have participated in the program during the past 20 years. Over the years, adults and police have developed and maintained positive relationships with the teens, Bowland said.
“Basketball is secondary to what we are trying to accomplish,” he said. “Basketball is the hook to getting young people engaged but then we try to make sure those things that we value (as adults) are shared during the educational sessions.”