COVINGTON, GA -- At his basketball camp hosted at Eastside High, it's ironic to watch Marquis Gilstrap work, considering he was once one of the Covington kids he now shouts friendly taunts at and gives effective instruction to.
Being from the Covington area, the parents of the kids attending Gilstrap’s camp went to school with his parents and watched him grow into the player and mentor he is today.
The parents who knew him "back when" marvel both at Gilstrap's substantial physical growth since those high school days -- although Gilstrap’s imposing 6-foot-10 frame belies his welcoming personality -- and the way he and the kids have a distinct level of mutual adoration for one another. A talented baseball player before he found basketball, Gilstrap has become somewhat of a community legend.
For the Eastside alum, and former Iowa State standout, being able to host the fourth year of his basketball camp dubbed "The Gilstrap Way" in the city where he grew up seems predestined. Even as a youth, Gilstrap felt his love for basketball would lead him to this point.
But it also reminds him just how much time has passed.
“It feels good," Gilstrap said. “This is what I envisioned. I talk to a lot of my guys about that a lot. With this camp, in particular, I told them, I really feel like I’m getting older now because Kenny, Kevin and Jake Motley who’s helping me run the camp this year, they used to participate in this camp. I’ve had them since they were like eight years old, so now they're about to be seniors in high school.”
During the summer months when school is out, and kids are looking to cozy up to the television, Gilstrap’s camp comes as a godsend for the parents.
A diverse group of kids includes participants from all grades, genders and skill levels. In all, this year's camp hosted more than 40 eager ballplayers.
For Gilstrap himself, having his young son participate – already a noted gym-rat – allows him to share his passion for basketball and watch it reach into the next generation. The former Iowa State standout has a passion for the summer and the basketball work for which it allows.
In one summer of workouts, Gilstrap says he saw an increase in his son's hunger for the game. Now in the summers, he has him training with former ISU teammate, mentor and fellow Newton County product Kantrail Horton, a former Newton High star.
Gilstrap’s AAU team, Team Strap, which recruits all Newton County ballers, had some Eastside varsity players on hand Friday, assisting with the camp on its last day.
“I love the summer; I love the summer, Gilstrap said. “I feel like that’s where the kids get better at, especially through my program and everything that I have going on. Because of all of the college kids who come home every summer and train with me – my AAU team is in the gym.”
When watching the camp’s action from a distance, it may seem like Gilstrap’s laissez-faire approach lacks structure and intensity.
But look closely, and you can see the competitive nature start to bubble to the surface as the play goes.
The first couple of days of the camp, Gilstrap focuses on skill work like dribbling and playing in space. But on Friday, the competitive juices were flowing, especially from the 8-10-year old age group, in what Gilstrap calls controlled chaos was on full display.
“I don’t try to stop them and [instruct] them. I let them play through their mistakes and let them learn the game on their own at an early age," Gilstrap said. “And now I look at it for – by the time they get to high school and middle school, they’ve learned how to play in space and when the coaches give them structure and run these plays, they’ll know what to do to use their skills in the coach’s system.”
Gilstrap knows he won’t coach the kids in his program forever, so he plans to let them build their connections with each other through his camp.
The returning players have already formed a familiarity with each other and with Gilstrap, and he hopes that will help them later in life whether they continue a journey in basketball or another field.
Gilstrap’s program is designed to help the players get better at basketball and learn life skills, but the camp has become a sort of cathartic release for the former professional basketball player.
“I tell them all that basketball is gonna stop one day, Gilstrap said. “Everybody’s not going to play professional basketball; everybody might not even play college basketball. But that doesn’t mean that you have to forget about one another when that ball stops. Everything we’re trying to build is more so trying to give these kids [a message] of trying to live the right way.
Despite Gilstrap's basketball background which includes professional stops in Turkey, Europe, Slovakia and the NBA's D-League and Summer League, Gilstrap purposefully stays away from trying to enamor the kids he tutors with all the trappings of being a pro baller.
"I really don’t get into that materialistic stuff or anything like that with them," he said. "It’s more so about just trying to live the right way and doing things that are going to make you happy."
And for Gilstrap, a player who saw an injury stunt his promising growth a bit as a player, that personal satisfaction is currently at its highest level.
"Right now, what I’m doing is making me happy," he said. "Like, this is my happiness. I miss playing basketball at times. But having them and being in the gym with them, it helps alleviate that pain that I used to have from playing basketball. I was hurt at first when I couldn’t play professional basketball anymore. But this has taken all that away, just being here with these kids every year. And throughout the (basketball season) I get to go see them play now, so this is fun for me.”