Back in June I stumbled across the story of Marvin Clark and I was instantly captivated by the documentary I watched.
Within minutes of finishing the documentary, I emailed Matt Suther about MOKAN and his role in starting the company and getting more details of the work he’s doing with young basketball players on the court as well as off the court in regards to helping out with financial and educational needs.
The more I learned about MOKAN, the more impressed I became with Suther and the work he and his team are doing in Kansas City with underprivileged youth.
Below is a transcript of a Q&A that Suther was gracious enough to grant me.
Ryan McNeill: What was the reason for starting MOKAN?
Matt Suther: I began following the basketball scene in KC pretty closely after I got done playing at UMKC. I noticed a pattern of local kids leaving with great opportunities only to return a year or two later. I believe many kids aren’t prepared for what they face when they get to college. I was fortunate to have coaches/teachers who prepared me for what I faced when I got to college. I thought we could pass along those same lessons to a group of kids by creating an atmosphere similar to what they would see when they got to college. Our goal is to hold them accountable in the same way that college coaches would. Academically, Socially (public behavior, speech, and also on social media) as well as on the basketball court.
McNeill: Why give up a successful business career to start MOKAN?
Suther: I actually have always done MOKAN in addition to my professional career. I’ve been fortunate to have a understanding wife who enjoys what we do and really supports it. It’s a lot of night and weekend work but it’s been very rewarding.
McNeill: What are some of the success stories you have?
Suther: We have had some kids come from pretty dire circumstances like Marvin Clark and Nino Williams who were both practically homeless. We were able to help them find stable home situations that helped them really develop academically, socially and athletically. We’ve also had kids like Alec Burks who was under-recruited out of high school and was a lottery pick in the NBA after two years at Colorado. We really try not to define our success in scholarships or tournaments won. Our ultimate goal is to impact the lives of the young men in our program by exposing them to the things that it will take to be successful in life. That’s what we would define as a success.
Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn’s Story (2014 MOKAN alum – future Michigan State Spartan)
Nino Williams (2010 MOKAN alum – recent Kansas State graduate with one year of eligibility left)
McNeill: What are some rewarding aspects of running MOKAN? What are some challenges?
Suther: It’s been so fun to see these kids go off to different places and have success. We have kids all over the country from Cal-Berkley to Duke and Kentucky. It’s fun to sit at home and see them on TV having both individual and team success. We’ve intentionally created a family like atmosphere where our alums come back and hang out with our current student-athletes. Our high school student-athletes also do a good job of being role models to our middle school kids. It’s always neat to see the older alums interact with the younger generation and create that bond.
The challenging part is the coordination and fundraising. We have one full-time staffer and everyone else volunteers. All our coaches/mentors/spouses etc. have to pitch in and wear a lot of hats. We all help with the fundraising, running events, hosting kids on weekends throughout the spring/summer, tutoring, mentoring, etc. There are so many moving parts to the program that it requires constant attention and organization.
McNeill: How has it grown from you to the large staff you currently have?
Suther: We’ve been intentional about finding the right people. We obviously look for coaches/mentors that have basketball experience but there’s another piece that is even more important. We want to surround ourselves with people who have perspective and understand that the game is not the most important thing. Yes, we are highly competitive. Yes, we want to win. But that’s not why we do this. We’ve been fortunate to find former and current college coaches who share that perspective and when you have talented, high character people you tend to attract others.
McNeill: What do you say to critics who claim you’re trying to get these kids young and make money when they go pro?
Suther: If our goal was to turn kids into pros, we’d have stopped a long time ago. We have two in the NBA, one in the NFL and about 8 playing overseas. The reality is that such a small percentage of kids actually make it to that level. We choose to focus on things that transfer into all aspects of life. Accountability, communication, preparation, commitment, teamwork – those are all things that transfer to academics, business, marriages, etc. If we have some that are fortunate enough to make it professionally, we’re excited for them but that’s not why we do this.
McNeill: After watching Marvin Clark’s documentary, I’m curious how your raise the funds to do what you do. Donations? Corporate sponsors?
Suther: We’ve worked really hard to identify individuals and companies who share our mission and purpose. They believe that sport can be a great platform for young men and women to get a college education that they otherwise might not have had access to. We’ve been blessed with support from different groups who really deserve much of the credit for the opportunities we’ve been able to provide. It’s a 365 day task and we are always trying to identify new partners who are looking to team up with us to change lives.
McNeill: What kinds of things does MOKAN do to help develop and support young athletes?
Suther: We really consider ourselves a youth development organization as opposed to just a basketball program. For our high school student-athletes, we have transcript evaluation to ensure eligibility with the NCAA. The NCAA recently updated their requirements making this even more important for our younger (8th-10th) graders. We also provide tutoring and online ACT prep assistance for those who may need some extra help in certain areas. All our coaches go through leadership and character based curriculum prior to every on-court interaction. We also provide community service based outings. We’ve partnered with The Special Olympics, Ronald McDonald House, Harvesters, The Salvation Army, Guardian Angels Parish Food Pantry and the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge. It’s important to us that we develop young men who have a sense of appreciation for what they have and a willingness to help others that are less fortunate or could just use a little help. Our youth participants are required to turn in report cards for academic accountability and exposed to goal setting curriculum that we designed to improve academic and athletic performance. We also have a weekly character program that covers such topics as gratitude, cooperation, self-control ,etc. Our coaches/mentors discuss the meaning of the word as well as how it can be applied to their lives in the classroom, at home and on the court.