It all started with a walk through the hood.
Father Michael Pfleger, head of St. Sabina Parish on the South Side, and Isiah Thomas, a West Side native and NBA legend, tell the same story in slightly different ways.
However, both agree that after a late-night march through the city streets and talking to people affected by drugs and gang violence on a daily basis, something needed to be done. That's how the Peace Tournament came to be.
On Saturday, St. Sabina will play host to the third annual event that pits members of rival gang factions from different areas of Chicago against one another in friendly yet highly competitive games of basketball. Although many of the players may be at odds with one another on the street, inside the Ark of St. Sabina gymnasium the environment is just as the name of the tournament suggests.
"It's hard to have a beef with somebody that you know," Pfleger said. "Since we've held this tournament there have been no incidents. There has been no violence. We want to let these brothers know that we care about them and their ability to succeed in this world. Basketball is just the hook."
"When we held the first tournament, the kids had to be bused in separately because we wanted to avoid any incidents caused by them crossing the boundary lines signifying someone else's territory," Thomas said. "Now, some of these same guys carpool to the games together. It's a result of being in a positive environment and building relationships with people that you wouldn't have a chance to otherwise."
Adding to the gravity of the Peace Tournament is the involvement of Bulls superstar Joakim Noah. The two-time All-Star is heavily involved with the event and is also active in the community and the city that serves as his adopted hometown. His support adds to the credibility of the event and attracts other NBA players. Guys like Taj Gibson, Will Bynum, Jabari Parker, Bobby Simmons and Englewood native Derrick Rose have all come out and lent their time, voices and support.
"Star power works when it comes to getting people's attention and sending a message," Pfleger said. "When we first put the plans for the tournament in motion, Joakim reached out to us. Here's a kid who is the son of a famous tennis player and even though he was raised in New York City, he said he really didn't understand the complexities of the gang problem in Chicago. But he offered to help and he's been really committed.
"Joakim has given guys tickets to Bulls games and met with some of them afterwards and took them back to the locker room. There was also a documentary filmed on the tournament and Joakim spoke about it during the All-Star Game. His direct involvement has been as impactful as anyone's."
"When NBA players show up and spend time with these kids, their impact is tremendous," Thomas said. "Anytime these guys can actually see the people they watch on TV in person and be able to talk to them and touch them, it creates unforgettable moments in their lives. It also gives them a sense of hope that these guys actually care about the things going on around them and they want to help."
Bryan Crawford is a RedEye special contributor.
3RD ANNUAL PEACE GAME
Noon-5 p.m. Saturday
St. Sabina Church
7800 S. Racine Ave.
The tournament is free and open to the public.
HELP OFF THE COURT
The Peace Tournament isn't just about basketball. Many of the participants receive help in getting their GEDs and pursuing job opportunities. Some have even gone on to college with the help and support of Father Michael Pfleger and his staff.
There are four former participants who serve as full-time peacemakers in the streets, working to diffuse situations before they escalate. Pfleger, who lost an adopted son to gun violence in 1998, said he and his parish have an obligation to help.
"Churches occupy land that it doesn't have to pay taxes on and the membership is made up of the people who live in the community," he said. "Therefore, we have a responsibility to make an impact and help them in any way we can."
ONE IMPRESSIVE ROSTER
Among the participants in Saturday's Peace Game at St. Sabina Church will be these current or former NBA players:
>> Joakim Noah
>> Derrick Rose
>> Isiah Thomas
>> Jabari Parker
>> Craig Hodges
>> Antoine Walker
>> Jannero Pargo
>> Zach Randolph
>> Will Bynum
>> Jeremy Pargo
>> Bobby Simmons
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