Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined more than 200 Nov. 17 to watch and participate in a basketball tournament aimed at ending the gang violence that has plagued the West Side for years.
Held at Austin’s Christ the King Jesuit College Prep, 5088 W. Jackson Blvd., the West Side Peace Tournament, organized by Thomas and the crime-prevention organization CeaseFire, brought gang members and other young men from Austin and surrounding neighborhoods together in the hopes that by meeting each other on the basketball court, they will be less likely to fight one another on the street.
“Through sport we believe that if people get to know each other and people get to be around each other, they develop a relationship and a friendliness and a love for one another, and it’s hard to kill someone you love,” Thomas said.
Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire, a group that works with gangs throughout the city to prevent violence, said the young men who played in the basketball tournament are “involved in conflict” throughout Austin and the West Side. Hardiman’s group was responsible for recruiting players for the tournament.
Austin has had 30 murders so far in 2012, according to data from the Red Eye tracker, and city leaders and the Chicago Police Department have placed much of the blame for that number on gang violence.
The day’s focus on the positive effects of basketball and sports carried a bitter irony for a neighborhood still dealing with the recent closing of Austin’s only YMCA, which had a basketball court, and which many in the neighborhood credited with helping keep kids off the streets.
“The recreational facilities have been taken out of the community, so therefore these kids don’t get a chance to know one another, but if they get a chance to know one another, we believe they’ll stop killing each other,” said Thomas, who grew up in North Lawndale.
But Ervin said the city still has the resources to host more events like the peace tournament.
“It’s providing facilities, providing a venue, providing an infrastructure to make this work. The people have to step up and step in to that, but the city can provide the infrastructure,” Ervin said.
Emanuel said the city was already doing that and is planning to hold more events to keep kids active on the West Side and throughout the city.
“I’ve always said, more cops on the street, kids and drugs off the street,” Emanuel said.
The mayor stressed that he had spent time in the Austin community and said he attended the tournament to “re-enforce the right values” to the youth of Chicago. “These are our kids,” he said.
The tournament was a crowded, raucous event with the basketball games buttressed by outreach efforts and community groups. After Thomas coached his team to victory, he hustled to a smaller room in the school for a chance to talk with the kids about their experience and efforts to stop gang violence on the West Side.
Valen Williams of North Lawndale, who was on Thomas’ winning team, said he thought the program could make a difference in fighting the violence he sees around him every day.
“It helps. It at least keeps some kids off the street. It’s not going to change a whole lot, but it’s a start,” added his teammate Steve Huesca of Little Village.
A start was all the tournament’s organizers were looking for.
“You get kids in the door with something like a basketball tournament and … then you have a chance to work with them,” said Christ the King President the Rev. Christopher Devron. “It’s just a start, but we also have community organizations here that they can use. We want to bring a lot of exposure to the issues of the West Side and then be able to provide positive activity like this basketball tournament.”
Thomas seemed at ease talking with the kids and stressed the importance of ending the cycle of violence that tends to surround families already struggling with poverty.
“Our youth need to stop murdering and stop killing each other. It’s hard enough living in poverty, but when you put drugs and murder on top of poverty that makes it incredibly hard to get out of,” Thomas said.
“Ninety-five percent of the people in these communities are trying to do the right things – they’re trying to go to work, trying to send their kids to school. It’s that 5 percent that is really terrorizing the community, and we want to bring that silent majority out and let them know that they do have a voice and they do have power.”