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Steve Aschburner

Quentin Richardson (center) talks with gang members with Taj Gibson (left) and Yoakim Noah.
Quentin Richardson (center) talks to gang members along with Taj Gibson (left) and Joakim Noah.

NBA players give 'Peace' tournament a chance


Posted Sep 24, 2012 10:54 PM

CHICAGO -- The first time it happened, Quentin Richardson was 12 years old. His older brother Bernard got caught up in a robbery on the city's South Side and was shot to death in 1992. It was one in a series of tragedies for the family: His mother Emma died of breast cancer, a grandmother, Ada, passed away and then there was Bernard, just 23 at the time.

The second time, Quentin was a grown man, 25 years old and heavy into his sixth NBA season when he got the phone call: Another robbery, another gun, another shooting. Another brother. This time it was Lee Jr., 31. He and their father Lee Sr. were outside the family home at midday when a van pulled up. They ordered the Richardsons to lie down but Lee Jr. reportedly fought back. He was shot four times.

Quentin was with the Knicks on an off-day in Seattle when he learned of the nightmarish news. He flew home that night no longer the youngest of Lee Sr.'s and Emma's five children but as the youngest of three. The 12-year veteran guard carries his brothers with him -- Bernard in a tattoo on his back, Lee in one on his right forearm, forever in his heart.

Last weekend, Richardson carried them home again, walking the streets of the South Side, trying to spare other families the horror that his endured. He joined Friar Michael Pfleger, activist pastor of the St. Sabina Parish, in a neighborhood march against violence on Friday night. On Saturday, Richardson joined with NBA legend Isiah Thomas and fellow players such as Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson in the "Peace Tournament."

The event was designed to get rival gang members off the corners, onto a court and shooting at baskets rather than at each other.

"I'm from these neighborhoods. I know these issues," Richardson said minutes before the first of two games at the St. Sabina gym. "My brother [Cedric] attends this church. This is a part of my fabric. That's why I'm here. I definitely know the effect it has on kids and families."

More than 400 people have been murdered in Chicago in 2012 -- Fr. Pfleger notes frequently though not fondly that more Americans have been killed in this city than in Afghanistan -- and more than 2,000 have been shot. In August, there were 15 homicides in one week. In September, 11 people were killed in a span of five days.

Pfleger, who served as foster father to a Chicago teen, Jarvis Franklin, killed by stray gunfire in 1998, was joined in August on a Friday march by Thomas, the Hall of Fame point guard who grew up on the West Side. His mother Mary once fended off gang members on her doorstep with a shotgun, so Thomas is all too familiar with the issues.

"Somebody said, 'What if we played a ball game together?' " Pfleger said Saturday. "The guys said, `Somebody's gonna get hurt, we can't come across the lines.' When Isiah said, 'I'm in,' we kept talking and talking."

Thomas' reputation has taken some hits in his post-playing years, from failed stints as a coach and executive in the NBA, the CBA and most recently at Florida International University. Yet his work for causes such as this one appears heartfelt, and the notion that one day of basketball could chip away at so much street violence seemed legit in the moment.

"By getting them to come together and play a sport," Thomas said, "they might come to know each other. We believe it's hard to kill someone if you get to know him.

"It's about letting them know that they're the solution to the problem. They need to know that they have it inside ... to change their worlds. We believe you can live in poverty and not be wedded to weapons and drugs."

Divisions run deep in the inner city, so precautions were taken. Chicago police patrolled outside the St. Sabina gym, while security inside was provided by members of the Nation of Islam. On the court, NBA referees Danny Crawford and Jim Capers -- who live in Chicago -- donated their authority. Everyone entering was patted down, with no exceptions for hoops heroes like Bulls star Derrick Rose or Simeon High talent Jabari Parker.

Ameena Matthews, a conflict-mediation activist in the Englewood neighborhood in which Rose grew up, was featured in the acclaimed documentary, "The Interrupters." She was hopeful that the "Peace Tournament" could open eyes and change minds.

"What my dream is from this interaction is that some of the guys who are 'known shooters' walk through that door and get an opportunity to connect with a couple of NBA guys," Matthews said about an hour before the first tipoff. "That they say, 'Yeah, that can be me.' That they get away from looking at resources and saying, 'I don't have as much as some other person.' That they drop that 'I don't give a [expletive] attitude.' "

Before -- and probably just as important as -- the basketball, Richardson, Noah, Gibson and Thomas, along with Pfleger, Minister Ishmael Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and a few others gathered with the players in the basement of the rectory not far from the gym. There, they hashed out some of the problems and behavior that inspired this event, some using strong words with rivals who might never have been in the same room before.

Said Pfleger: "If we can create a relationship before it boils over into shooting each other on the street, and we can say, 'All right, a beef came up here, an incident there, let's talk it out and solve it at a table and not through gunfire,' it ... sends a message to everybody that you don't have to shoot. We've got minds, we've got mouths, let's work it out."

Or in this case play it out. By 1 p.m., the bleachers and the balcony were packed and the players were buzzing in anticipation of their games. There were no fights, no flagrant fouls. It was like the old Jimmy Cagney movie "Angels With Dirty Faces" where Rocky Sullivan goes back to the reform school and teaches the Bowery Boys how to play basketball clean -- only this was 75 years later and for real.

"These guys wouldn't normally talk at all. But they're so geeked up today, they look like it's Christmas Eve," said Tio Hardiman, director of the Cease Fire program in Illinois. "Basketball is a team sport. They're gonna learn that they can play with their perceived enemy. Hopefully after this tournament, we can get brothers to embrace, look at each other eye-to-eye and say, 'You're my brother. We're not enemies anymore.' "

Terrance Henderson, one of the Red team coaches, was one of those kids a decade ago. Now he works as a chef in the south suburb of Matteson, while staying rooted to his home in nearby Foster Park. "It's so easy to spread violence," Henderson said. "And it's so easy to spread drug-dealin' and gang-bang killin'. But to see the greatness in what these [NBA] players have become, that's definitely a beautiful thing."

Obviously, most gang members can't simply decide to become pro athletes. That was part of the message delivered Saturday too. It's OK to be a chef, a teacher, a firefighter. Then again, the manager of an Office Depot or a Geico salesman wouldn't have been able to sit in the front of the room, drawing them all together like that.

"The CEO from Walgreen's probably didn't grow up in this environment," Henderson said. "To see people from here that made it, it's easier to relate to them. 'I see they made it, I can do it too.' You can relate a little more to people who you feel walked in your shoes."

Said Pfleger: "A lot of times, I think the NBA guys haven't gotten involved because they didn't know what to do. Here's something to do. This should happen in every city in America."

Carryover is key, certainly. One day of basketball won't mean much if old habits live while gangsters and bystanders die.

"It's not just talking to each other," the priest said. "We're giving tickets to the [Chicago Classic] football game next week. Joakim promised to bring some of these brothers up to a Bulls game. J'Marcus [Webb of the Chicago Bears] promised to bring some up to a Bears game. This is an ongoing thing.

"We say, 'We want to see how down the line we can help you.' GED classes. Get kids back in school. Get them jobs. What I would say, 'Brush off the dreams. Whatever you want to be, let's go after that.'

A lot of these brothers just had nobody give them another alternative. So the street becomes your only option."

Richardson knows all about that, his brothers paying the price 13 years apart.

"Our neighborhood is being promoted as so tough and crazy and everything," he said. "And we're putting peace in this room. There's a community out here. It's families, it's kids, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, all of that.

"We wanted to be here to let 'em know we're here. And also continue to work to put programs in place for after school. Put positives where they don't have to turn to the negatives."

On Sunday night, a man was shot in the West Side Austin neighborhood in a confrontation with a violence-initiative police patrol. On Saturday, just hours after the "Peace Tournament, 29 miles to the north in Evanston, a 14-year-old basketball player named Dajae Coleman was gunned down while walking home from a party.

It's a moving target, this effort to end the violence. They're all moving targets.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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