K.J. Marshall poses for a photo wearing fraternity letters in a Pitt practice gymnasium.
K.J. Marshall poses for a photo wearing fraternity letters in a Pitt practice gymnasium.
Alex Jurkuta | Staff Photographer

KJ Marshall: An unlikely journey to and from Pitt

Being 5-foot-8 and playing Division I basketball is no easy feat. The average height for DI basketball players is nearly a foot taller. But for graduate student KJ Marshall, playing up to a challenge is nothing he isn’t used to. 

As a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, the yearly celebration of the fraternity’s Founders Day on Jan. 5 is a significant day for Marshall. But just a few hours before the commemoration began, Marshall celebrated a recognition that fulfilled a five-year-long journey of ups and downs. 

The day prior, Marshall received a full scholarship from Pitt men’s basketball. 

“It was big, because I know what I’ve always worked for,” Marshall said. “When you get something that you always wanted, regardless of any other situation that you could have been in — I feel like it was one of the best days I’ve probably ever had.”

Marshall joined Pitt men’s basketball back in 2019. He walked onto the team after he crafted a relationship with assistant coach Jason Capel through their ties to Fayetteville, NC.

Capel was on the recruiting trail in his North Carolina hometown scouting two players on Raymond Felton’s ProSkills AAU team, where he couldn’t help but notice Marshall. 

“I’m recruiting two guys on the team,” Capel said. “But I can’t help but notice the point guard. When I look in the books, I see he’s from Fayetteville, as well. And so that jumped off the page. And I just noticed his energy, how infectious it was, how positive he was and he was a good player.”

Marshall walked onto Pitt’s basketball team as a first-year player in 2019 even though he could have accepted scholarship offers from other schools. But after his first season, a trio of unfortunate events drew him away from the university.

The COVID-19 pandemic, homesickness and his father falling ill drew Marshall away from Pitt. As a walk-on, Marshall was responsible for paying for his education, and these additional factors made it even more difficult to stay at Pitt. 

Marshall transferred to Garden City Community College, one of the best junior colleges for basketball players in the country. During his first game, Marshall collapsed due to heart failure. Though he would return later that season, he wouldn’t return to his initial form.

The next season, Marshall transferred to Mars Hill University in North Carolina, but injuries once again kept him off the court. 

During Marshall’s absence from Pittsburgh, he maintained his relationship with Capel and had the opportunity to return to Pitt in 2022. To Capel, this decision was a no-brainer. 

“When the opportunity presented itself, with his family, for him to be able to come back, it was an absolute — there was an excitement,” Capel said. “And I think as a program, we were all happy to have someone that we knew would be an integral part of our program coming back.”

Once Marshall stepped back on Pitt’s campus, he knew that Pittsburgh was the place for him. 

K.J. Marshall dribbles a basketball in a Pitt practice gymnasium. (Alex Jurkuta | Staff Photographer)

“I came back after two years and I walked into the building and I’m talking to the janitors, I’m talking to the people who work here in compliance, and you know, there’s nothing but straight love,” Marshall said. “And that’s when I realized I really had no business leaving in the first place. I was like, this is the place where I should be connected to forever.”

Capel and Marshall’s relationship runs deeper than the basketball court. Both Capel and Marshall are brothers of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. When Marshall joined Kappa Alpha Psi in spring 2023, Capel looked out for him off of the court.

“I tried to look out for him,” Capel said. “As some of the big brothers during my process did for me, I tried to look out for him. I was just being an outlet, man. You know, the process is one that is challenging mentally, and so I just [wanted to] be an outlet for him.”

Marshall completed the recruitment process and became a full member of the fraternity, which unlocked a new chapter in Marshall’s life. He fully embraced the opportunity and the National Pan-Hellenic Council as a whole. Marshall became NPHC’s parliamentarian, a position similar to his role as a leader on his basketball team.

“It’s just trying to get command of the room,” Marshall said, “and trying to get as many people as I can to participate in topics but engage within the room and get everyone to speak on their prospective topics.”

Junior applied developmental psychology major Yaneana Leadie, the Greek Week representative of the NPHC, applauded Marshall for his ability to control a room as well as make everyone feel involved.

“He helps keep order,” Leadie said. “He helps ensure that we are staying on task, but he does it in a way that’s very friendly. No one feels like they’re being bossed around. Everyone has a chance to be heard and say our piece. So it’s very helpful.”

Marshall’s role as a leader shows on the basketball court, in NPHC meetings and in his other philanthropic efforts as well. 

Every two weeks, Marshall gives food out to homeless people around the downtown area. On Tuesdays and Fridays, Marshall travels to the Hill district, where he participates in community center engagement with kids. 

“I have a platform in the community because I am a part of Kappa Alpha Psi,” Marshall said. “So, things that I don’t like around the city, I can change because I have a fraternity behind me. I know I have NPHC behind me. I have the people around me to help change what I don’t like.”

The day Marshall received the scholarship put to bed a

K.J. Marshall poses for a photo wearing fraternity letters. (Alex Jurkuta | Staff Photographer)

ny questions he had surrounding his journey. 

“That day made me understand what I went through and why I had to go through it,” Marshall said. “If I had to go back and do it all over again, I’d do it all over again the same way.”

For Capel, Jan. 4 was an emotional day for all parties involved. 

“If I’m being honest, I got emotional,” Capel said. “I kind of caught myself just because, look, I know what he’s gone through. To know what his family’s gone through, some of the hardships they’ve had, and how this would help them, how this would help him. I was happy, I was proud.”

To and from Pitt, with family and personal struggles along the way, Marshall’s journey has proven difficult. But Marshall prides himself on providing guidance, leading the youth and building up his community in Pittsburgh. Marshall believes he has an obligation to help those around him.

“I was made for this, you know,” Marshall said. “It’s kind of hard for me to walk into a room and not speak to everybody. It’s kind of hard for me to walk into the building and not try to put a smile on somebody’s face. I feel like if I give somebody else that happiness, I’ve finished my job.”

When asked to describe Marshall in one word, Capel used plenty.

“Now, as his fraternity brother,” Capel said, “knowing what he’s been through, knowing the hardships in life, knowing everything he’s had to overcome — he’s come out and he’s excelled under the pressure, under the uncertainty. He’s a Nupe.”