NBA stars taking part in Peace League Basketball Tournament

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By Sam Smith | 09.18.2014 | 9:30 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops 

Isiah Thomas achieved fame and won NBA championships as a Bad Boy. But he’s also a good guy involved in a game that could resonate beyond what he achieved in the NBA.

Instead of avoiding turnovers, the Chicago native and NBA Hall of Famer—along with some prominent Bulls players—is trying to help turn lives around.

“You never know who you’re touching, who that little kid is going to grow up to be,” said Thomas. “When I was growing up on the West Side of Chicago, I didn’t think nor did anyone around me think that I would end up leading the life I’ve led thus far. But people help you along the way. What we are trying to do is put some proper resources in play to make sure these kids get some help.”

Thomas is talking about the Peace League Basketball Tournament created in conjunction with Father Michael Pfleger of Saint Sabina Church, near West 78th Street and South Racine Avenue in the Auburn Gresham area. The third annual community basketball game will be 1 p.m. Saturday at the Ark of Saint Sabina, 7800 South Racine.  Those expected to attend include Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah along with former Bulls guard Jannero Pargo and top NBA rookie Jabari Parker.

This is the third annual tournament, which was the combined proposal by Thomas and Father Pfleger after Thomas participated in Father Pfleger’s regular peace walk three years ago. He proposed to youngsters they met along the way a basketball event that’s developed into a program to help kids with life skills and classes for equivalency diplomas, employment training and internships.

“If you have access to quality education, if you have access to the park districts and recreation, and you have access to a healthy, safe environment you can grow in, you may not be able to be an NBA player,” noted Thomas. “But you definitely can grow up without being in the situation you find yourself in. But you need help.”

The Peace League Basketball Tournament really is one of the great initiatives to help kids in the troubled South Side of Chicago, where the cycles of violence have proven deadly and deadened the hopes of so many young children.

The gang violence and gun culture that has made many areas of Chicago virtual war zones remains the city’s biggest embarrassment and a daily nightmare for residents of these neighborhoods. The violence is silencing the greatest assets in our society, our children and the lives they can lead to produce better cities and a more vibrant nation.

There are no easy solutions, and likely nothing will ever completely eradicate all the violence. Like with various charitable endeavors, you cannot necessarily help everyone. But you can help someone. How much value is one life to save? A dozen? A hundred?

Father Pfleger has been a controversial and committed social activist for more than 30 years in his far South Side parish and throughout Chicago across a wide variety of issues ranging from protests about rap music and  alcohol sales to Howard Stern.

He’s helped make Chicago and the world think and react.

His Peace March attracted Thomas, the Chicago native who went on to win an NCAA title at Indiana University and two with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons of the 1980’s until they were defeated by Michael Jordan’s Bulls in 1991. Thomas has had a varied career as an NBA coach and general manager and now broadcaster as well as interests in various businesses. But to his great credit, he has remained active in Chicago issues and helps support the Peace League through his foundation. Thomas also is involved the Mayor Emanuel’s Windy City Hoops program.

People like Thomas do more than give money, which is important. He has sneakers on the ground with a panel discussion session Thursday, Mary Thomas scholarship award winners Friday and the tournament Saturday.

The tournament grew out of Thomas’ continued commitment to help provide alternatives for Chicago youth, the sort of mentoring through sports he had growing up in an equally treacherous West Side neighborhood. Thomas often talks about meeting through sports mentors like Sonny Parker, Jabari’s father, and veteran NBA referee Danny Crawford, among those who counseled Thomas and helped him begin a climb out of the cave of despair that darkens the hopes of so many South Side and West Side youth.

“Through play, through sport, I got to meet different people, I got to travel outside the four block radius or the three block radius I was confined to in my neighborhood,” Thomas said in an interview earlier this week. “By meeting other people, by experiencing different cultures and seeing other people who have had success you start expanding your dreams; you start expanding the vision of who you can become and what you want to be. Those things constantly change. The things you only saw in that three-block radius, once you start seeing things outside that radius, you start thinking, ‘OK, I’m not limited to this. I can go to college. If I go to college because I’ve gotten a chance to travel on a sports team and go to another city maybe I want to go back to that city.’

“The best example we can use today is the experience the Jackie Robinson West kids had when they left Chicago and went to play baseball in Pennsylvania,” Thomas noted. “They got to meet kids from all over the world, different cultures, different languages, and those kids lives have been changed forever because of that experience. Like Joakim Noah walks into a gym and meets one of those kids, those kids lives will be changed forever just by Joakim Noah shaking their hand and being there on that one day. They’ll remember that day for the rest of their lives.”

It’s an experience, but it’s also a confidence builder. You get away from the cycle of despair that surrounds you and you find people like yourself and it occurs to you they are not so special and if they can do it why not you? That life doesn’t have to be a downward spiral with no escape.

 “Not only do you look at it that way when you are young, but you keep learning the rest of your life,” says Thomas. “Not only do you learn how to compete on the playing field, you start learning how to compete in the classroom. You start learning how to compete for jobs, you start learning how to compete in life, you start learning that when I do go to a job interview there is competition. I may have to dress a certain way, I may have to speak a certain way, I may have to sell myself a certain way. You start learning all those different skills that sport and everything else brings to the table. A lot of our kids have done that.”

Violence and death still resides in those neighborhoods. But incrementally there are changes. The immediate area around St. Sabina has become an unofficial safe zone. And while there may not be huge developments that have changed the crime rates city wide, there has been progress, which produces hope.  

“We found the first time Father Pfleger and I had the game, to give you an example of the power of play, we had to bus all the kids in separately from their neighborhoods because there were certain territorial lines they couldn’t cross,” said Thomas. “The second peace game and the third one we are doing now, you’ve got some of those same kids carpooling together to the games, helping each other get there and working together. That is extremely powerful and has helped some kids and changed some kids’ lives.

“Around the area of St. Sabina, kids see it as a place of safety, a sanctuary,” said Thomas. “We hope we can keep expanding from that and use this as a pilot to take to other cities. I’m also looking at New York and Detroit.”

It’s a credit to these NBA players you see so often giving not only money but personal time in making contributions to the community. Noah and his Noah’s Arc foundation, which is aimed at helping youth develop and prosper, has done terrific things with his own basketball tournament and various programs in which he is involved. Similarly, Rose has often talked about the community issues and worked with Noah and Thomas. Other current and former NBA players are scheduled to be at the game Saturday.

“Close to 50 kids come in and we break them up into teams and they’ll compete against one another for the day,” said Thomas. “At the end of the day, we take them downstairs and talk to them about the importance of being good people, helping get jobs, helping them connect with corporate citizens who have volunteered to employ some of these kids, and trying to get them acclimated back onto the school system.”

It’s also significant they meet people like Noah and Rose and Thomas. Rose was more of a sporting prodigy, though showing you can play your way out. Noah was one of the more unlikely NBA stars, a gangly French kid in a foreign country, though growing to seven feet helped. Maybe Thomas for all he’s achieved in sports, nevertheless, was the most unlikely.

He was small, not your explosive dunker like Rose, looking and acting like thousands of other kids. But sports got him going and traveling and meeting people and with his work and commitment, he became a player. Though with that boost he probably would have achieved in many other ways than professional sports because of what sports provided him through programs like the Peace Tournament.

“We have challenges in our community, socially, economically,” noted Thomas. “Even if you are a smaller player like myself athletically, it doesn’t mean you cannot overcome the obstacles with the right help. We’re trying to be there for some of that.”

They deserve all of our support and all of our thanks.