MICHIGAN CITY — When Will Walker retired from professional basketball and returned home to Michigan City from Sweden late in 2017, the former Wolves and Bethel star still had a hoops fix to feed.
"I hadn't seen any summer basketball here in a long time," Walker said. "You used to have the midnight league, then there was a community outreach league back when I was like a freshman in college. You're here in the summer time, we're all looking for places to play, it's just hard finding a gym. Guys would call me up to play, but with my work schedule it was hard to make the time."
Interest in the game has never been a problem in M.C. When Walker posted a Facebook message earlier this spring about wanting to start up a league, the buzz was immediate and emphatic with some 160 responses. When Michigan City Athletics Director Craig Shaman opened the doors, figuratively and literally, to the idea, the wheels were in motion.
"Michigan City Area Schools and our athletic department will always do whatever we can to support the community, so letting LTG use Barker for the league was a no brainer," Shaman said. "Will Walker and Jarrod Jones are two shining examples of the best of what Michigan City can produce, both basketball-wise and character-wise. We're happy to help them pay it forward to MC."
Walker contacted Jones, who is finishing up his pro season in France, about getting involved in the league and Jones was all aboard, letting it use his LTG (Love The Game) brand and also purchasing uniforms for the seven teams.
"LTG is the basketball name in the city," said Walker, who runs the league along with Brandon Williams. "Jarrod's worked hard to build LTG up in the city, so it made sense to start a league and bring that energy to the city."
The league features a team from Gary and a couple from La Porte, the rest based in Michigan City. Entry fee was $500 per team without a sponsor, $600 per team with a sponsor, including the sponsor's name on the back of the jerseys, which have the LTG logo on the front. Sponsor companies also have the option to set up promotional tables during games. The league's affiliation with The Temple Total Fitness also enables it to maintain a not-for-profit status.
"A lot of them charge $700, $800. We really wanted to do it for the community, so we broke down the price and charged as little as we could, just to cover the league," Walker said. "Every penny goes back into the community, one way or the other."
Play began last week and word got around quickly as 146 people came to watch on the second night of games. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for students ages 13 to 18 and free for kids 12 and under. Concessions are available and there is security on site. The free-wheeling games feature 20-minute halves with licensed officials and music during the action, 3-pointers and other good plays acknowledged with the blare of a horn.
"It's a great way to give back to the community," said City alum Michael Miller, who just finished up his college career at North Texas. "There's not a lot of stuff going on. They orchestrated it to bring people together, to have something to do, to keep kids off the streets. It's positive vibes, good people. Everybody pretty much knows everybody. I just try to show out for the community and stay in shape."
In addition to playing on a team, Walker and Antonio Hurt help out new City coach Tom Wells with the high school team in the league.
"It's good for them, to get used to the physical play," Walker said. "They're going to be small, so they have to learn how to work around it. Coaching was never something I thought I would get into. I like to play, but I don't really care to watch. I'm more of a student now. If I'm going to be committed to something, I'm going to be all the way in. I want the best. It's a lot more rewarding than I thought it would be."
Wells jumped at the chance to have his players go up against the caliber of skill on the floor.
"It's the oldest institutional fundamental of all time -- you play against better, faster, stronger, you better get better or quit," Wells said. "This is so good for us. The reception has been very good. They enjoy the way we play, so it was an easy sell. They're running against bodies, quickness, some big-time college players, sometimes pro players. My first time in the gym, I could see the level of talent that was here."
Walker has high hopes for the future of the league, looking to expand and potentially add a "slow-paced" league. Teams will play each Tuesday and Thursday through August, an 18-game regular season that will include an all-star game, and be followed by a tournament. Scores, standings and video clips are posted on the LTG Summer League Facebook page, for which Walker also started an app.
"It's running smooth," he said. "It's a void we needed to fill, an opportunity to give back to the city."