A midday basketball game on Chicago's South Side brought together an unlikely group of people Saturday. Churchgoers, NBA stars, community leaders and gang members all gathered for the third annual Chicago Peace League Basketball Tournament.
"At first nobody wanted to work with us. Everyone thought it was going to be a disaster," the tournament's organizer, Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina church, told The Huffington Post. The tournament is the culminating event for St. Sabina's Peace Basketball League, which brings in members from factions of The Black Disciples, Killa Ward, The Black P. Stones, The Gangster Disciples and other local gangs. Members play alongside one another as teammates, working toward a common goal of peace.
Pfleger and his congregation are among Chicago's most active anti-violence activists, with St. Sabina holding weekly peace walks and vigils for victims of gun violence. During one of the weekly Friday night vigils in 2012, Pfleger decided to bring a peace-oriented basketball league to the neighborhood.
"One particular night we were out walking with our church folk, and Isiah Thomas happened to be out with us," Pfleger said. The NBA Hall of Famer and Chicago native told Pfleger, "Hey, I'm in," and the Chicago Peace Basketball league was born.
Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah also participates in the tournament, Pfleger said. Noah volunteered as a coach for Saturday's game and has done outreach over the years with members of the league. Other NBA players also showed up Saturday to help coach or support the players; Noah's Bulls teammates Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, as well as Chicago natives Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks and Will Bynum of the Detroit Pistons, were among them. NBA referees also volunteered for the games.
“The NBA players talk about how [the men] can build peace in the community,” Pfleger said. "Basketball has tremendous power because it helps build relationships, and the ball became the driving force, not gang divisions."
Despite a crowded facility packed with rival gang members (or those at risk of being recruited into gangs), Pleger said there's never been an incident in three years of hosting the league or the high-profile tournament. In fact, Plfeger said the surrounding community in St. Sabina's Auburn-Gresham neighborhood has seen a "drastic" drop in violence since the league began.
"We’ve seen the relationships improve," he said.
“Around the area of St. Sabina, kids see it as a place of safety, a sanctuary,” Thomas told NBA.com.
For each game during the two 12-week league sessions, Pfleger says there are speakers who talk to the young men about everything from conflict resolution to money management to self-esteem, and that players also share meals together.
"In the past three years, hundreds [of participants] have gone through and got GEDs, about six are off to college. Others are going to city colleges," Pfleger said. "A guy who got shot last year this fall went off to Alabama State."
Pfleger also said St. Sabina has even hired some of the players and has helped others find jobs. Members from the church find out what the young men need, be it jobs, social services or education.
“My consistent belief is 95 percent of these men just want an option," Pfleger said. "Five percent may just want to be shooters, want to be gangster. But the rest? Give them an education, get them a job."
A 30-year-old participant named Charles, who played the game wearing an electronic ankle monitor, told the Sun-Times, “I was in a state of shock playing with these guys, because we spend all this time trying to hurt each other." Charles, who told the paper he's no longer active in a gang but was involved before going to jail, added, “This was more than a feel-good moment. It’s bringing us closer.”