Marquise Walker spent the first 17 years of his life under his father’s thumb. Basketball was everything. Chikosi Walker was obsessed with turning his son, who he called “the best kindergarten prospect in the nation” into an NBA player.
Walker was a “YouTube Baby” making videos with LeBron James and Derrick Rose and performing dribbling exhibitions at halftime of Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Sky games. ESPN profiled the father and son duo when Marquise was eight, documenting all of Chikosi’s hype efforts.
He’s now 19, high school basketball is over and almost nothing went according to plan. The NBA seems miles away and there isn’t a college scholarship waiting. Both father and son have deep regrets.
“My dad really stressed only basketball,” Walker said. “My life, my happiness didn’t matter. Don’t abuse your kid for basketball. I accepted being mentally and physically abused because I loved basketball. And I loved the stardom of it, I loved the bright lights. I lived for them.”
Walker will graduate from West Aurora this spring after stints at St. Joseph and Curie. He’s been homeless and deeply depressed for parts of the last two years. His father is in prison. The colleges that came around offering scholarships during freshman and sophomore year are long gone.
“I wanted to live my dreams through Marquise’s accomplishments athletically and it turned into a singular focus of mine,” Chikosi Walker said. “I want to apologize to my son for taking [the] joy out [of] what was once a beautiful game and a beautiful father and son relationship. I need the world to know that I’m sorry.”
They lived in Melrose Park and eventually moved to Kentucky for a year so Marquise could play high school ball in eighth grade to prepare for his eventual stardom in Chicago.
Walker had his pick of high-profile high schools and wound up at St. Joseph, where he helped lead the Chargers to a fourth-place finish in Class 3A. He was just a freshman and starting at point guard. Illinois offered a scholarship.
That turned out to be the high point of Walker’s high school career. He left St. Joseph’s for Curie after sophomore year.
“There was a lot of conflict between me and my teammates,” Walker said. “It just didn’t work out at St. Joseph. [Chargers coach Gene Pingatore] had nothing to do with my transfer. It was really me and my dad thinking about me having to play with those guys again the next year.”
Things didn’t just fall apart at St. Joseph. Chikosi Walker burned bridges with club basketball coaches, media and most of the basketball community after two years.
“My dad messed up a lot of people wanting to be around me,” Marquise Walker said. “He was kind of like LaVar Ball. People get fed up dealing with parents and that is what happened with my dad.”
The father-son relationship also became strained.
“I started realizing what people outside realized,” Walker said. “There was already a bunch of anger built up from when I was younger. I told him he was sick in the mind. I didn’t know myself as a human being and I barely knew my family outside of my dad.”
Chikosi Walker was indicted by a federal grand jury in July of 2010, accused of being part of a nationwide network of black market travel agents. Thirty-eight people were indicted in the multi-million dollar fraud scheme.
“We were under the impression that he was financially unable to pay for St. Joes,” Curie coach Larry Wallace said. “We didn’t know the whole story.”
Marquise didn’t know the whole story either. He had no clue anything was happening until his dad went to prison in 2017. All of a sudden the man that controlled his entire life, his only family, was gone.
“It was a complete mess,” Wallace said. “He was literally homeless. I always said if I had room I would have given him a place to stay. It was that bad of a situation. He didn’t have a cell phone. To not know where you are going to lay your head and not be able to call around is tough. No kid should have to go through that.”
Despite the turmoil, Walker’s season at Curie started strong. He led the Condors to a win against top-ranked Orr and hit a game-winning shot to get the team into the title game at Pontiac.
“I was supposed to be staying with two people my dad set me up with, not my biological family,” Walker said. “I stayed downtown and I stayed in a house on the South Side. I’m not going to say everything that happened in those households but it wasn’t very pleasant.”
Wallace said that Walker never let his situation affect the team, that “no one knew the level of chaos he was going through.” But it became too much for a 17-year-old to handle.
“I was lost outside of basketball, lost in life,” Walker said. “I reached a depression. It was horrible. I did not know anything in my life. I barely knew myself.”
After his junior season ended, in March of 2018, Walker knew something had to change. At first he considered attending a prep school.
“Prep school would have looked so much better,” Walker said. “Everyone said when I left for West Aurora that I was scared of the Public League. I’m not scared of any basketball. I knew if I went to prep school I would still be alone. I won’t know my family. I won’t develop as a human being. There is no way I can develop without having a family. A team is not the same as a family. It is a temporary family. When you play basketball at a school it is a family for a moment.”
Walker had the opportunity to move to Aurora and live with Tasha Danner, an ex-girlfriend of his father who he considers a stepmother.
“It was a big decision and there was no going back after that,” Walker said. “I chose my life over basketball. I knew how the college coaches would react, I knew how the media would react. I knew my name would not ring out how it used to. I chose knowing myself as a person and left. Tasha Danner came and picked me up. I think she saved my life.”
Walker has started talking with his grandmother in Chicago and his aunts and uncles. He learned that his grandmother originally offered to take him in when his father went to prison, something he was not told at the time.
“I wanted to understand myself and love my family,” Walker said. “I wanted to surround myself with people that generally love me, not just because I am good at basketball. I wanted love that reaches beyond just because I’m good at basketball and I have that right now.”
Walker averaged a career-high 15 points this past season and helped lead the Blackhawks to a conference title and the sectional semifinals.
“He walks into a room and everyone knows he’s there, with his personality,” West Aurora coach Brian Johnson said. “The guys did a good job of welcoming him in. It was difficult. He’s a dynamic person. He made some friends and overall for his life it was a good situation. Someone was always checking in on him.”
Walker missed weeks of classes when he transferred from Curie to West Aurora last spring, so he is not an academic qualifier. He’s deciding between several junior colleges.
“[Walker] can still land at a high-major,” Wallace said. “I think he will be a success story. Talent wise he is probably one of the best guards I’ve ever seen, there is no question about that. In the right situation he will be something special.”
Chikosi Walker is scheduled to be released from prison in October of 2020. Marquise says he only talks to his dad occasionally, “to make sure he is fine.”
“He’s not a demon or a devil,” Walker said. He was young, he made a lot of mistakes. When I was younger the abuse was physical. But I’m not here to try and make my dad this bad person. I love my father. Mind you, now I control my recruiting and everything that has to do with basketball.”
Chikosi Walker admits to being physically abusive. He says he’s apologized to Marquise privately but that he also wants to do it publicly.
“I put an enormous amount of pressure into training and when Marquise didn’t perform up to my expectations I took it personally,” Chikosi Walker said. “That led to me being physically abusive…when he was younger over the course of several years. There is no justification for that…My heart is full of sorrow and I’m here to take responsibility for all of my actions. I made this journey that should have been beautiful and fun into a journey that was all about me.”
Walker has watched other young basketball phenoms flame out before and since his rise and fall, and he has some advice to offer.
“There is a lot in life other than basketball, so much that you can do. If you are feeling pressure or you are feeling like you are being abused in it you don’t have to play this game. Young black men don’t have to play football, basketball or rap to be successful. We are a smart group of people. But if you are one of those top prospects keep your foot on the pedal because people are coming every day to take your spot.”