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Basketball as a tool for peace

By James G. Muhammad Contributing Editor | Last updated: Oct 10, 2012 - 12:19:50 PM

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Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of the Faith Comunity of St. Sabina speaks to the crowd.
CHICAGO (FinalCall.com) - It was a start. That’s how most observers described a Peace Basketball Tournament at a South Side Catholic church—a start at bringing peace to the streets.

The game brought together members of four South Side gangs for an afternoon of hoops coupled with group discussions about conflict resolution and a chance for teens to talk about their life situations.

Current NBA stars Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Bobby Simmons and others participated, some serving as coaches of the four teams and helping to facilitate the Sept. 22 discussions that occurred before and after the games.

The event was the brainchild of St. Sabina pastor Michael Pfleger. On a Friday evening while conducting one of his regular peace marches and accompanied by NBA Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas, Father Pfleger asked a group of teen gang members if they would participate if he organized a basketball tournament.

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2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, member of the Chicago Bulls, and a Chicago native participated in the ‘Peace Basketball Tournament.’
Hesitant, the teens said it might result in violence. When Mr. Thomas stepped up to say he’d participate, Father Pfleger reached out to CeaseFire, a gang conflict resolution group, to ask their assistance in helping to attract other gang members. He also asked the Nation of Islam, which has been on an intense campaign to lessen tension and promote street peace, to participate.

Buses were used to transport the players to the gym so they wouldn’t have to cross neighborhoods where they might be confronted. The only confrontations were on the court as teams faced off for first place trophies.

Choking with emotion, Father Pfleger said, “Today there’s just love for each other. You have to love them and care about them and let them know we want to help them. That’s what it’s all about. You see kids that used to shoot each other playing ball with each other. … I’m in heaven right now.”

Frank Hawkins, who at 35 was affiliated with a gang and was one of the older players, said young men need more resources and places to release their energy.

“This is a start,” he said. “If they (Father Pfleger) can see the benefit of doing something like this, then maybe the mayor can do it at the park districts.

“Park districts kick these kids out. When they see five or six kids in the park hanging out, it’s viewed as a mob action. They make it so kids don’t want to go to the park. On the other side of that you can get shot because there’s so many of you hanging together,” he added.

Oronde Jelks, 31, volunteered to help at the game. Pointing to a bullet wound in his neck, Mr. Jelks said he could see himself in the teens on the court.

“You have to get sick and tired of the dumb stuff and realize that it gets you only two things—death or incarceration,” he said. “My gunshot wound slowed me down, but what changed me was having kids and realizing I had to be here for my kids and show them a good example. The streets raised me, but I’m going to raise my kids.”

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NBA Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas, a Chicago native, was also on hand for the ‘Peace Basketball Tournament.’
Improving his life skills also inspired him. “I started going to job training programs and gaining employment,” he said. “I started feeling real good about myself, earning a paycheck, you know.”

Chicago native Bobby Simmons who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers said the NBA players came to show young men that it’s possible to be successful if you keep yourself out of harm’s way. Bulls player Taj Gibson, who grew up in Brooklyn, said it seems harder for Chicago youth because “they don’t seem to have many community centers. A lot of kids are on the streets and at 12 or 13 they are the man of the house. We’re here to ask these kids what do they think they need?”

Father Pfleger said each team would receive trophies and the church would provide seven jobs to each organization. Each group would choose their seven members, the requirement being the people selected must be actively enrolled in school or a GED program. The church will also assist in getting any member into a GED program.

Jonathan Williams, a member of the winning team summed the day up. “It’s about all the guys coming together from different hoods under one gym and having a peaceful basketball tournament and guys like (Joakim) Noah, Rose and Q (Quenton Richardson) showing love for us street guys to give us a chance to see something positive,” he said.

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