While news from Chicago has recently focused on the controversial teachers' strike, there is a far more serious problem tearing inner-city Chicago apart. The city's murder rate is astronomically high, with estimates of as many as 504 by the end of 2012 (as of late July). Gang violence has increased at alarming rates, and the community has struggled to stop the tide of violence and make Chicago a safer place to live.
These are open questions with unclear reasons. ("The Interrupters," a recent documentary by "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James, is an illuminating view into this exact subject.) Nevertheless, many Chicagoans are trying to do their part, including some of the Windy City's most famous natives. With the organization of Isiah Thomas, arguably the most legendary player ever to hail from Chicago, several NBA players held a basketball tournament this weekend to stop gang violence.
Last month, Thomas marched with Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina to raise awareness about gang violence and Chicago's soaring murder rate. This time, Thomas — along with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Quentin Richardson, Zach Randolph, the Chicago Bears' J'Marcus Webb and others — was trying to bridge the gap between rivals with basketball, using the celebrity of the sports stars to deliver messages about, well, communicating.
"It's a historical event where the gangs are coming together and they're going to play a game involving peace, to stop the killing," Thomas said. "Murder has run rampant in Chicago the last couple years, but gangs are calling a truce for this. By getting them to come together and play a sport, they might come to know each other. We believe it's hard to kill someone if you get to know him."
Teams from four parts of the rough Englewood and Gresham neighborhoods were pulled together for two games. The players in some cases never had played with their teammates and, given the divisions between gangs, might never have spent time under the same roof.
"The importance of it is building relationships," Pfleger said. "We come together to play ball, have fun together. Then we can begin to build relationships and say, 'Let's settle problems with each other. And not on the street. Let's do it in conversation.' "
The St. Sabina gym was packed and security was tight. Chicago police patrolled outside and members of the Nation of Islam handled security inside, but NBA referees Danny Crawford and Jim Capers were the authorities on the court.
Aschburner's entire story is worth reading, particularly for the sense that the event's organizers know this tournament was only the first step in solving a very serious problem. As Pfleger notes, the point is to begin building relationships instead of forming them in one night. A few games of basketball won't solve an issue of this magnitude, but prolonged exposure to each other might begin to make things better.
At the NBA level, basketball often serves as a means of stoking inter-city hatred via major rivalries. But the sport has a long history of serving as a peacemaking tool at lower levels, particularly with Midnight Basketball events that keep kids and young adults off the streets and out of trouble on weekend nights. (Internationally, it's also been used to help Israelis and Palestinians create friendships.) And while basketball is only part of these efforts, it's nice to remember that a shared love of the game can be used for good.