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Friday, September 21, 2012
Isiah turns to hoops for peace

By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Isiah Thomas' basketball career as a player, coach and executive has taken him all over the world, but it will always be Chicago he considers home.

Thomas often returns to his roots on the West Side of Chicago. While seeing family and old friends and watching most of the community strive to improve their lives brings that famous smile to his face, there's a part of being home that also makes him sad.

Violence and drugs have always harmed Chicago's streets, and Thomas has never been able to ignore it. Chicago's homicide rate this summer has especially worried Thomas and caught the attention of the national media. In August alone, Chicago recorded 57 homicides -- which was up from 37 in the same month in 2011, according to data from Chicago RedEye, a Chicago Tribune publication.

Thomas This doesn't have to be a constant where violence and poverty go hand in hand. You can live in poverty without it going it hand in hand with guns and drugs and violence.

-- Isiah Thomas

"Ninety to 95 percent of the people who are living in poverty in those situations, they're kids going to schools, their parents are doing the right things," Thomas said. "There's a community of the church, community of aunts and uncles who are about contributing positively to society.

"Now, there is a fraction to be addressed, and we need to address that small minority that is in need and is doing harm to the community. We are all affected by it personally."

Thomas isn't just saying Chicago needs help, he's also trying to provide it. He has teamed up with St. Sabina on the South Side and father Michael Pfleger to create the PEACE basketball tournament, which will unite rival gang members through basketball in hopes of ceasing the violence between them. The tournament will be held at St. Sabina's gymnasium from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

"Father Pfleger does a Friday night peace march, and he invited me out because of the work I've been doing with youth and gang violence starting back in '86, when I had my first 'No Crime Day' in Detroit," Thomas said. "When we went out marching, and he and I were talking to people in the community and ran across some of the gang members and started talking to them and let them know we were there for them.

"I said, 'Would you guys like to play in a basketball game and all of us get together and stop killing one another?' They asked if I was serious, and Father Pfleger took over and said, 'We're serious, and I'll arrange a game.' That's how it started."

Thomas reached out to others celebrities and professional athletes and will be joined Saturday by NBA players Joakim Noah, Bobby Simmons, Quentin Richardson and Zach Randolph, Chicago Bears offensive lineman J'Marcus Webb and others.

Thomas is hopeful the event can make an impact. The one word he plans to spread Saturday is "education."

"The way out of poverty is through the educational system," Thomas said. "You can't incarcerate what these kids are dealing with. The disenfranchisement, the disinvestment of their communities, unemployment, all those things take its toll. While in poverty, you have to resist the urge to steal, resist the urge to kill. Drugs and weapons are easily accessible in the community. The solution is to arm them with knowledge and make the correct decisions, not to arm them with weapons and drug their minds.

"This doesn't have to be a constant where violence and poverty go hand in hand. You can live in poverty without it going it hand in hand with guns and drugs and violence."