DECATUR — Rodney Walker and Kiwane Garris still remember how they nearly teamed up on the University of Illinois men's basketball team.
Things changed, Walker went to New Mexico State and Garris ended up in Champaign where he played from 1993-97 and is the second in career points scored at Illinois — two divergent paths.
Though they never did share that NCAA backcourt, the two remained friends and never let the bond that they formed in Chicago gymnasiums as teenagers break.
Finally, though, the two got a chance to team up.
Garris and Walker, boys basketball head coach at Eisenhower, partnered to host youth basketball camps at the SkyWalker Sports Complex — four camps over two weeks, wrapping up Sunday. Garris, who now lives in Atlanta, had made several stops in central Illinois to promote his Future Superstars foundation, but never to Decatur.
“Decatur is one of the up-and-coming towns," Garris said. "I think there's a lot of potential here to have a lot of stuff going on. Rodney is doing what he's doing and I'm sure there are a couple of other people down here who are starting to get stuff going. It's great for Decatur."
The goal for the organization is to help inner-city kids use basketball as a vehicle to stay out of trouble.
But that's not the only way Garris wanted to give back to the Decatur community.
His son has autism, so his plan when he organized the camp and fundraiser — held at Infusion Bar and Banquet Center on Saturdaynight, was to find an organization that could benefit from some of the proceeds.
He found Not Forgotten, an organization that brings families and educators together to create supportive resources for individuals living with exceptional needs, according to its Facebook page.
Rebekah Harrelson, a Millikin graduate, is the founder of the organization. She also has a son who has autism.
“It was definitely an honor to be asked to be a part of it and be able to participate, even if it was just through being able to just be present or to volunteer," Harrelson said. "Then, being willing to give a certain percent back to us helps our community, which is very kind.”
It was the first time Garris had partnered with another organization, and it was the first time Not Forgotten, which is two years old, has partnered with an organization.
Garris said he planned to keep finding similar organizations to work with.
“That was one of my goals and that's a goal that I'm going to continue to work towards and being able to work with organizations as far as autism or kids with disabilities because those kids are often forgotten," Garris said.
Growing up in Chicago without the influence of a mother or father, Garris said he knows the importance of being a role model and offering structure to kids who need it.
Some summers he stayed with his grandmother to avoid wandering down a bad path in his neighborhood. He played baseball, but didn't play organized basketball until he was 13 years old.
“Growing up where I was at, there was a whole bunch of stuff and negative influences that I could have gotten into at that time. I just chose another route," Garris said.
Walker has the same vision for Decatur kids. Through SkyWalker, he tries to promote a positive influence on city kids.
His goal was for kids to see the success he and and Garris have each achieved — both enjoyed a career playing basketball overseas and Garris dabbled in the NBA.
“That's what's good. Everybody has had a different walk to their success," Walker said. "It wasn't always easy for either of us. Some come out of the projects, you know, it's just not easy for everybody. Some of these kids around here, especially inner city kids can say, 'Hey, if they can make it, we can make it.' You've got to give them hope. They can see the success that we've had, but it comes with a price and the price is putting in that hard work. The price is going to different camps like this and learning from different people and putting that to use in your everyday life and not just on the court."
The camps not only acted as a vehicle to help kids, but also as a way to hone basketball skills.
Walker said bringing more people who have had success in basketball and want to give back to the community is beneficial to Decatur.
“It's always good to hear from somebody else," Walker said. "Everybody teaches different. Fundamentally, things are pretty much the same across the board, but sometimes the way somebody else teaches it, it may catch the kid and a kid may understand it better. Knowledge is power in this game, you can learn from everybody."
Arthur Agee, from the famed documentary Hoop Dreams, also helped run the camp. Walker hoped his presence would click with students of the game who were born long after the documentary debuted in 1994.
“It's good to have another Illini around for the kids," Walker said of Garris. "Also, Arthur Agee, these kids probably didn't know him because that was way back in 1994 when Hoop Dreams came out. Now, the kids want to go rent the movie Hoop Dreams to see what the documentary was all about.”