'YouTube Baby' still has hoop dreams
CHICAGO -- It's a cool, wet spring afternoon on the city's west side, where, deep inside a gymnasium, a man barks instructions over a bouncing basketball. His voice can be heard from outside the gym door, down the stairs and around the corner.
"Get off your heels! Bend your knees! This is not a break! This is no time to relax, boy. You want to be good? You want to be the best? Get off those heels!"
The voice isn't that of any coach. And the kid dribbling the 8-pound medicine ball isn't any ordinary player. The man is Chikosi Walker and the player is his 9-year-old son Marquise, the subject of ESPN.com's Emmy-nominated story, "YouTube Baby."
Seven months after the story first appeared, seven months after this father and son were thrust into the national spotlight, little has changed. Chikosi is still pushing his son to achieve basketball greatness, and the boy has yet to grasp the spotlight and potential pressure his dad has heaped upon him.
The goals are still lofty, the dreams still big. Though he still lives on the west side, Marquise is the starting point guard for an AAU team in Iowa, flying back and forth to Des Moines for the team's games. And the YouTube marketing campaign that once featured NBA stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant has set its sights on a new celebrity: President Obama.
"It would be like the presidential seal of approval," Chikosi said. "It could happen. We're working on it. We're going to write him a letter. And I think, given he's from Chicago and his love for basketball, he'll write us back. It could happen."
Yes, Chikosi still has his sights set on doing whatever he can to help his son play basketball in college and, eventually, the NBA. Only now, the whole world is watching.
"We can't go walk into a gym and not have somebody come up and ask if that's Marquise, if that's the YouTube baby," Chikosi said. "And even when nobody says anything, people stand around and whisper. You just see these pockets of people pointing him out."
It's not only in gyms. Chikosi and Marquise have been recognized in grocery stores, barber shops and at stoplights. Chikosi said he was crossing the street a few weeks ago when a man pulled up in his car, rolled down the window and asked, "How's the superstar doing?"
Marquise, Chikosi believes, has yet to grasp the spotlight that has been placed upon him. He's still just a kid, a kid who'd rather watch John Cena wrestle than Derrick Rose play basketball.
"He doesn't get it yet," Chikosi said. "At some point he will. And I've started to prepare him for that. But for now, he still has no idea. He's just happy to be on the court with his friends."
Said Marquise: "I don't feel any pressure. Why would I feel pressure? It's fun when people know who I am. I'm just playing basketball. I'm just trying to keep getting better."
And so Chikosi and Marquise come to gyms like this one, four days a week, 90 minutes at a time. There are laps to run, push-ups to crank out, stairs to climb. There's the 8-pound medicine ball that Marquise now uses for all of his dribbling drills. There are the spin moves the boy performs at his dad's request, forcing Marquise to dribble and dart between a set of folding chairs. And there are reverse layups to perfect. All along the way, Chikosi pushes the 9-year-old to dig deeper, work harder.
"I understand when my dad gets on me," Marquise said. "That means there's something I need to do better, something I need to work harder on. So I just try to listen."
Last year, Marquise was playing on an AAU team in Washington, D.C., with another pint-sized YouTube sensation, Donovan Toatley. But Chikosi said Marquise struggled to fit in with the team, coached by Toatley's father, so he left. Chikosi called former Iowa State forward Jake Sullivan, a friend of Chikosi's from their days in Ames, and asked about playing on Sullivan's All-Iowa Attack squad. Marquise has godparents who live in Des Moines and help watch the boy when Chikosi is unable to make the trip.
"My biggest worry about him playing in Chicago is that somebody would know who he is and either not let him play or just roll the ball out and watch him," Chikosi said. "And that's not what he needs. With the Attack, he is being coached. Jake and coach [Vance] Mosley push Marquise to be a better player, and they push me to be a better coach. It couldn't have worked out any better."
Marquise is playing on the 10-and-under fourth-grade team and has impressed Mosley.
"I had heard all about Marquise," Mosley said. "But when you actually watch this kid play, he is so immensely talented. It's incredible. He is by far the best third grader I've ever seen. You can just tell he was born to play the game. And I can't wait to see how good he is going to get."
A lot of that will depend on how Marquise reacts when the pressure begins to finally sink in. Chikosi and Mosley are already preparing the boy for that day.
"Just a little dose here or there, nothing big," Chikosi said. "As he gets older, it's going to start to get a little crazy. I realize that. And I want him to remember -- it will always be me and him. Even when all this stuff is over, it will still be me and him."
And that's why the lessons never stop. Even at dinner, it's "Don't talk with your mouth full." "Don't make a mess on your plate." Say "thank you." Say "sir." Say "please." So far, the boy seems to be responding. Beyond Marquise's improvement on the basketball court, Chikosi said he is most proud that his son was the only member of his third-grade class to make the honor roll both semesters this year.
"My goal is to make him not only a great basketball player, but a well-rounded young man," Chikosi said. "I know there are people who are critical of all this. I know there are people out there who thinking I'm going to ruin him. I don't say a word. I just keep to myself and think, 'We'll see, we'll see. Time will tell.'"
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Wayne on Twitter at ESPNWayneDrehs.