Hats off to a crew that includes Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Ed Pinckney, Quentin Richardson, Isiah Thomas and many others for putting a lot of heart into a multi-faceted effort to address gang violence in Chicago.
The NBA and its players are into any number of great charities. But while both real and pressing, and an area where NBA figures have the potential to make a big difference, gang violence is beyond politically radioactive. Many in and around the NBA stay simply because it's too hot. There's a reason gang violence takes a back seat to, for instance, reading, in how NBA charitable efforts are presented on television, for example.
But the gang violence opportunity persists. NBA stars willing to wade into such a charged issue can touch a lot of young people in incredibly important ways. And they're doing it -- on Saturday they staged a Peace Basketball Tournament at a church gym in Chicago. (In the spirit of peace, despite the Christian facility, security was provided by the Nation of Islam.)
Writing about the experience for the website of the Chicago Sun-Times, Joakim Noah says it all went well.
Even though there were many doubters who thought something like this would never work, I felt really positive about the tournament and expected all of the players to cooperate. However, what I came away with at the end of the day was far greater than I could have ever imagined.
Going into the event on Saturday, I didn’t know who was fighting whom, or which guy was representing which gang. All I knew was that kids were killing kids at an unimaginable rate. My only goal that day was to listen to what they had to say and try to offer them some hope.
Upon arrival at St. Sabina’s, a group of us -- including Williams and Pfleger, my Bulls teammate Taj Gibson, assistant coach Ed Pinckney, the Orlando Magic’s Quentin Richardson, retired NBA star Isiah Thomas, promoter Asa Powell and Rev. Ishmael Muhammad of the Nation of Islam -- had a discussion with the participating players. The kids spoke about the various issues affecting their communities and schools, but also voiced their excitement about what was about to take place.
When we walked into the gym with the kids, the love from the community gave me the same butterflies I get when I suit up for the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. The kids felt the energy, too, and put on a great show for the crowd. Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Quentin Richardson and I each coached one of the teams. In the end, Quentin’s Red Team beat Taj’s White Team in the “championship” game. Overall, the whole day went smoothly.
After the game, all of the participants gathered in a room to discuss what we had done. What was expected to be a brief final recap of the day turned into an open forum among the tournament’s players. One after another, they shared messages about “waking up” and getting on the right path, understanding the importance of brotherhood, and finding legitimate jobs to get off the streets. These guys were speaking from the heart, and it was not easy to fight back tears while listening to them.