NBA players fight violence with “balling for peace” game

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The colors of their T-shirts could have mirrored a rainbow, but the strategy of having four rival street organizations compete in St. Sabina’s historic basketball tournament Saturday was to erase lines of segregation, eliminate negative labels and images of violent youth – and prove to the world that by planting seeds of love there can be a harvest of peace in the community.

The Sept. 22 event, put on by the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church and NBA Hall of Fame member Isiah Thomas, was meant to help rival gang members from the Auburn-Gresham and Englewood neighborhoods build relationships on the court to stop shooting back at home.

The idea is one that the violence-fighting group CeaseFire hopes to bring to the West Side, though it’s not clear when.

“We have a lot of work to do. A lot of guys have grown up in a culture of violence, and some people feel that violence is the norm. We have to change that,” said Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois.

“That is why it is so good to see NBA players involved because so many people say ‘when are the athletes going to step up?’ Well, Father Pfleger got the athletes to step up,” he said.

Interviewed on the court, Hardiman said he wants to ask Pfleger to let him take this model to Chicago’s West Side.

Hardiman said because playing basketball is a team sport, it will teach players “the team ethics.”

“They will learn that they can play with their perceived enemy and hopefully, after the end of the tournament, we can get these brothers to embrace one another and begin to look at each other eye-to-eye and say, ‘Look, you’re my brother. We’re not enemies anymore,’” he said.

Pfleger said the idea for the game grew from his pain caused by the violence that has wreaked havoc in the Auburn-Gresham community.

Pfleger began holding weekly Friday night marches reaching out to the youth who initially ran when they saw him coming.

But that didn’t stop Pfleger and his supporters who started offering them free social programs, GED assistance and opportunities to use his new music studio. And the youth began to sign up – 60, 70 and more.

Pfleger said he hugged them and unashamedly said he loved them, and one night when accompanied by the NBA legend Thomas, he challenged them to accept a one-day peace basketball tournament.

Saturday’s game was the crop from those seeds when 28 players wearing white, black, red and blue peace T-shirts stunned hundreds of guests as they watched the youth “balling for peace” on Saint Sabina’s ARK court, 7800 S. Racine Ave.

“Today we proved that when we come together and show love and let our young brothers know we care, we can see miracles happen right before our eyes,” Pfleger said. “Thanks to all the NBA players who believed in our kids and showed up and showed love.”

The Chicago Sun-Times and NBC Chicago also covered the event. Click the links to read their stories.

Post photo: The youth in red hold up their trophy after winning Saturday’s game. Afterward all players enjoyed a meal with Pfleger and several pro-basketball players and businessman. Pfleger also secured jobs for some youth. Pfleger said this was “not a one time thing” and promised even more outreach to the youth in hope of ending the violence.



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