CHICAGO – Isiah Thomas has worked the intersection of guns and senseless violence before. In fact, it’s something of a family tradition: His mother Mary once greeted gang members who crowded her doorstep, eager to recruit her sons, with a shotgun.
Today, there literally is an intersection named “Mary Thomas Way” on this city’s West Side close to where Thomas grew up, avoided the worst that the streets had to offer and became an NBA champion and a basketball Hall of Famer.
Thomas was working those streets again Saturday. The basketball lifer with star turns (and less successful stints alike) as a point guard, coach and executive was in a church gym on the South Side, one of the meanest and most dangerous areas in America these days. He and several other NBA figures took part in the Peace Basketball Tournament, yet another attempt to combat a problem that literally is snuffing out hope for young people in the inner city.
Last month, Thomas marched with Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina to raise awareness about gang violence and Chicago’s soaring murder rate. This time, Thomas – along with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Quentin Richardson, Zach Randolph, the Chicago Bears’ J’Marcus Webb and others – was trying to bridge the gap between rivals with basketball, using the celebrity of the sports stars to deliver messages about, well, communicating.
“It’s a historical event where the gangs are coming together and they’re going to play a game involving peace, to stop the killing,” Thomas said. “Murder has run rampant in Chicago the last couple years, but gangs are calling a truce for this. By getting them to come together and play a sport, they might come to know each other. We believe it’s hard to kill someone if you get to know him.”
Teams from four parts of the rough Englewood and Gresham neighborhoods were pulled together for two games. The players in some cases never had played with their teammates and, given the divisions between gangs, might never have spent time under the same roof.
“The importance of it is building relationships,” Pfleger said. “We come together to play ball, have fun together. Then we can begin to build relationships and say, ‘Let’s settle problems with each other. And not on the street. Let’s do it in conversation.’ ”
The St. Sabina gym was packed and security was tight. Chicago police patrolled outside and members of the Nation of Islam handled security inside, but NBA referees Danny Crawford and Jim Capers were the authorities on the court.
The NBA celebrities spoke to the players and coaches at length in a panel-style discussion in the rectory before they took the floor, with Noah and Gibson squared off as honorary coaches for the first game. Bulls star Derrick Rose made an appearance, as did Simeon High’s highly touted player Jabari Parker. The event got heavy media coverage from Chicago TV affiliates, newspapers and Web sites, part of the plan to spread the impact beyond one afternoon in one gym.
“These cats comin’ down tells these brothers, ‘We care about you. We love you,’ ” Pfleger said. “You see the reaction. People are so thrilled, so excited. This isn’t happening at the United Center. This is happening on 79th St. That’s the key.”