Almost three years ago, I joined Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church on his weekly community walk on the South Side of Chicago. Father Pfleger is a long-time family friend and activist in the Chicago community. He and my mother bonded years earlier in their fight for the poor and the disenfranchised in society. When I joined the walk that hot summer evening, Chicago was being projected as the murder capital of America. As we walked the streets, young men and women were coming from everywhere to greet us. Some joined us on the walk and others just watched and waved. As we continued to talk to the young men and some of the community leaders, I posed this question: If Father Pfleger and I brought you together for a game of basketball promoting peace would you show up? The immediate response was yes.
The question was the seedling of an idea. Our goal was ambitious. We wanted to give the young men a chance to get to know each other on and off the court. If we could bring them together, along with the community, around a game of basketball, we could break down some of the territorial barriers that have been created by simply not knowing your neighbor.
Shortly thereafter, the PEACE game/league was developed. Father Pfleger and St. Sabina Church on Chicago's South Side hosted the tournament. It gave us an opportunity to bring young people together in a safe environment for play and sharing knowledge. From my personal experience and belief, it is very difficult to hurt someone you play with daily. When we played together we were able to free ourselves from the historical weight and heaviness of the labels that had been ascribed to us because we were poor. Now with eyes our wide open we were able to see each other as brothers, neighbors and friends. We saw a person to play with, not run from.
At the first PEACE game, Chicago Bulls stars Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson coached the teams. NBA officials and Chicago natives Danny Crawford, James Capers Jr. and Marc Davis officiated the games. NBA current and former players Sonny Parker and his son Jabari Parker, Bobby Simmons, Quentin Richardson, Will Bynum and Jannero Pargo attended, as well as J'Marcus Webb of the Bears. Noah's foundation, Noah's Arc, along with companies like Connor Sports saw the potential and promise of bringing communities together and have remained partners in this endeavor. They have shown an impressive commitment through the work they continue to do with this game/league and with communities around the country. Joakim's foundation has become a steady pillar in the community. He continues to work with the youth in Chicago year round.
His foundation is focused in two areas: arts and sports. Through the programs they offer they help kids recognize their full and positive potential in life. The commitment and love he continues to show to our kids should be applauded. Connors Sports has and continues to be a good corporate citizen. They have taken a lead role in helping Father Pfleger organize the yearly PEACE tournaments. Through their participation and steadfastness, other corporate partners have begun to participate.
On September 20, we will host the third Annual PEACE Game at St. Sabina Church. The game/league has expanded throughout the past three years and, in addition to basketball, Father Pfleger and St. Sabina Church now offer life skills classes, mentoring, GED classes, employment training, and internship opportunities with corporations. The success stories are immeasurable. Many are working, some are getting their GEDs and others are getting the training and life skills they need to secure good jobs. Most importantly, the crime rate has gone down in this area. These young people now know they have a place to go to develop life skills and life lessons.
Seeing the young men from the PEACE game/league and the kids that I work with through the Windy City Hoops program with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I remain inspired and encouraged by their resilience. I remember walking the same sidewalks when I was young, just like the young men we see today. I remember nothing came easy.
I remember my mother's zeal to protect us and all the children in the neighborhood. In an era where blame is abundant, and solutions are rare, I am reminded of the many mentors and community leaders who provided a refuge for me and my brothers and sisters.
I am grateful that I had mentors like Sonny Parker and Danny Crawford. I met both of them when I was 12 years old. None of us knew at that time we would all make it to the NBA. Danny Crawford and Sonny Parker were older, but they always took the time to share their wisdom and knowledge about life. They were never too busy to check on me. They always wanted to know how I was doing and they never failed to ask about my mom.
When Sonny made it to the NBA we were all so proud of him. I remember when he came home for the summer, he played in the annual summer league held at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys and Girls Club on Chicago's west side. We were so excited to see "P Funk," which was Sonny's nickname in the neighborhood. After he scored 46 points and lit up the opponent I was waiting for him outside to get a autograph. P Funk not only gave me a autograph, he gave me his gym shoes, too. Then he asked about my mom. Now I have come full circle. When I see Sonny's son Jabari, the newest NBA sensation drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks from Chicago, I ask the same question, his dad asked me: "Jabari, how are you doing ... Are your mom and dad OK?"
I have experienced and seen the impact of sports and the healing power of play. Both can positively affect the energy and interests of young men and women. However, sports alone should not be the answer. We must provide our youth with a holistic educational and recreational experience. Growing up, my mother and father reinforced the role of education in our lives. They believed education was the pathway to success.
Chicago makes headlines these days because of the violence infecting our city. Still, beyond the headlines, the majority of communities throughout the country are filled with loving and caring families of young men and women who have dreams of becoming president or CEOs of their own start-up business. They dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses or policemen who actually serve and protect.
Things will not get fixed overnight in Chicago. But it is heartening to see the impact that athletes can have working with community leaders. It is even more moving to see young men and women take a stand against the violence in their communities and work toward a better future.
Ultimately, it is our responsibility and duty to insure that our youth are healthy, safe and educated. So become a mentor, get involved in your community. Join us in Chicago on Saturday, September 20 at St. Sabina Church for the 3rd annual Peace game/league. I am excited about the season and even more excited about the future of our kids.
This was originally posted here on NBA.com on September 8, 2014 with an introduction from David Aldridge.