“At the end of the day, education is important whether you are playing sports or not,” said Randy Brown. “It should be a stepping stone for all the kids because it’s one thing that can never be taken away from you. For basketball players, the ball will stop bouncing one day, but you can always fall back on your education.”
Chicago Bulls

Bulls congratulate Mercy Home residents on their own draft night

Members of the Bulls organization were on hand as Chicago’s Mercy Home tipped off its 24th annual “Hoops for Homework” program

By Adam Fluck | 01.23.2015

With the 31st pick in the 1991 NBA Draft...

It’s a moment Chicago native Randy Brown will never forget, hearing his name called that night.

For Brown, who prepped at Collins on the city’s West Side and played collegiately at Houston and New Mexico State, it was an indication that all of his efforts had paid off. At the same time, it inspired him to work even harder as he eyed the future.

Those same themes were on display on Wednesday night as Brown, along with Nikola Mirotic, E'Twaun Moore and Cameron Bairstow, attended the 24th annual “Hoops to Homework” draft at Chicago’s Mercy Home for Boys & Girls.

Mercy Home, which has been in existence for 127 years, embraces youth who have experienced a significant amount of abuse or neglect. The residence on Jackson Boulevard about a mile east of the United Center is home to 110 boys between the ages of 11 and 18.

Mimi LeClair, vice president of advancement at Mercy Home, estimates that upon arrival, kids have roughly a 20 percent chance of graduating high school. She’s proud to report Mercy Home residents boast a 100 percent graduation rate.

Part of that success is due to their Hoops for Homework program.

“Basketball really incentivizes these kids and that’s a language that they understand. So in order for them to do their homework every night, we created Hoops to Homework,” explained LeClair. “If you do your homework and work hard in school, you can earn the right to be on one of the teams.”

On the night LeClair calls the “pinnacle of the program”, approximately 60 of the residents participated in an NBA-style draft and were placed on teams—either the Bulls, Cavaliers, Clippers or Spurs— for a series of tournament-style games that take place throughout February and March.

“There’s a lot of suspense because they don’t know what team they’ll be on,” said LeClair. “It’s about teamwork, competition and having fun. And it’s not only the kids who play, it’s also the volunteers and tutors who they work with during the week. It’s been a perfect formula.”

As the youth heard their names called this week, there was Brown, Mirotic, Moore and Bairstow next to the podium to high five and congratulate them.

“My emotions and my reaction on draft night were a lot like the ones the kids experienced tonight,” said Brown, who serves as assistant general manager for the Bulls and won three NBA championships as a player with the team from 1996-98. “I remember sitting with my family and enjoying the moment. To see these kids’ eyes and faces light up, it was a special moment for them and I’m glad I got to experience it.”

Prior to the draft, Brown spoke to the residents and delivered a powerful message. As someone who faced his own challenges growing up not far from the residence, Brown knows it can be tough to make it out of a bad neighborhood. But he stressed, no one should tell you it can’t be done. And the way it can be done, Brown explained, is through education.

Brown believes strongly he wouldn’t have had a basketball career without education; it is what helped make his dreams a reality.

“It’s an easy message for me to deliver because that’s the life I lived growing up on the West Side of Chicago,” Brown said. “The only way for me to make it out was through education. The message is clear and 100 percent true. There were a lot of kids here tonight who reminded me of myself. They needed hope and a second chance. They can get those things here through education.”

Like Brown, Moore is a local product having grown up in East Chicago and later attending Purdue. Selected 55th overall in 2011, he selected that as his jersey number for motivation, believing he could have or should have gone higher.

Mirotic, taken 23rd overall in 2011, wasn’t able to watch the draft on TV as he was in Bilbao, Spain, playing in the 2011 FIBA Europe Under-20 Championship. But the phone calls from the Bulls came in and it was a dream realized.

Bairstow was taken with the 49th overall selection in 2014 and he summed it up as well as anyone: “It’s something you dream about your whole life and I think we saw tonight with these kids how much it can mean. It’s a special experience and I like how they replicated it. It’s something the kids obviously enjoyed.”

While their own draft memories will last a lifetime, Mirotic, Moore and Bairstow all agree—it would not have been possible without education along the way. That’s why Brown’s message not only resonated with the players, but with the residents on hand as well.

“For these kids, it’s a very important day,” said Mirotic. “It’s a big step for them and I hope they enjoyed it. Now they can go to work but of course they need to study along the way. Like Randy said, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. It was a very good message to share with the kids here.”

“A lot of these kids, I was in their shoes and I experienced some tough situations,” Moore explained. “It wasn’t always easy but I know how great it is to have people around who support you and can help you grow as a person, whether that is in or outside of the classroom. For the basketball players, this program gives them a little more reason to do well and hopefully it inspires them.”

“Being at an event like this is something I enjoy because you see the happiness on everyone’s faces and get the opportunity to do something that is so important to them,” Bairstow said. “For them to be so motivated and excited to play one game a week is an awesome thing.”