—- by Christopher Johnson —-
There’s something about the Windy City that spreads ideas across America.
It’s the transportation hub of America, and the world’s central marketplace for trading in real things, from sugar to wheat to meat. With a meandering river creating breathing room between buildings, its skyline opens the mind and inspires liberation not suppression.
Like a force of wind from the Great Lakes blowing across the prairies, you can feel soul in Chicago. It’s a soul that attracted Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, and gave the world symbols of hope — skyscrapers, electricity, Barack Obama — as well as basketball legends from Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas to Derrick Rose, Joaquim Noah and Jabari Parker.
These players have helped Lauren Gillian and Connor Sports, Spike Lee and Father Mike Pfleger build the foundation for the Peace Games, a basketball tournament held annually on a sparkling new floor which Connor Sports donates to the St. Sabina church in the community of Auburn Gresham.
Tucked deep within Chicago’s south side, Auburn Gresham has a thriving beat of hair salons, grocery stores and other businesses. Overlooking Chicago’s thriving culture, world media often focusses on the area’s darker side, a battleground for four of the city’s main gangs: the Black P. Stones, the Vice Lords, the King Cobras and the Gangster Disciples.
But during the Peace Games, the area around St. Sabina church feels like a haven, a sort of United Nations where men from rival factions can talk, agree to disagree, and disarm. Every year in September, Connor Sports turns the church’s modest gymnasium into a fountain of hope for a non-violent peace movement growing week by week, year by year.
The church itself feels like a diamond in the rough. Evoking the wonders of Notre Dame in Paris or St. Peter’s in Rome, the light of Chicago streams through St. Sabina’s stain-glass windows onto ornate carvings and portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Black Jesus, as self-taught musician Joseph Saunders fills the air with sweet sacred music.
This isn’t an ordinary church, though. There are peace signs and also signs declaring a strong stand against gun violence. There are the warm, welcoming hearts of the church employees, but also locked security doors and a protective gate.
At the front of the church, a memorial — not unlike memorials in Ukraine and other war zones — honors the victims of an America conflict often ignored or misunderstood. Many are children of parishioners.
Father Mike, age 67, says he lost his adopted sons too: Beronti, who died suddenly of an illness in 2012; and Jarvis Franklin, killed by stray gunfire in 1998.
Like a veteran basketball coach, Father Mike is tough, street smart, and brutally honest, whether he’s speaking with Jesse Jackson or Barack Obama, whose photos turn his office walls into a history museum of American activism.
Jackson has praised Fr. Mike for defending the interests of Auburn Gresham versus Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, the tobacco industry, the Chicago Archdiocese and others.
Without pulling punches, Father Mike says that American society and government treat local men like “lions in a cage” rather than providing educations and jobs. He assails local media, and also the BBC and other international media, for painting Chicago in red blood and fanning the flames of gun violence. “You need to understand the roots of these issues,” he says. “Most kids in grade 3 still can’t read. More than 25 percent of his neighbors are unemployed.”
Spike Lee, who worked with Father Mike and St. Sabina on his new film “Chiraq”, calls Father Mike a “saint”.
That’s because Father Mike talks the talk and walks the walk. He often leads a peace march on Friday nights, crossing the “front lines” of four rival gangs.
The 2016 Peace Games march begins with Joseph Saunders, the self-taught musician, fusing prayer and rap into an inspiring call for positive action. While Saunders shoulders a cross, four large men hold hands in a circle.
It’s more than symbolic. The four men were powerful members of rival gangs, and their street cred and moral force gives the marchers the security to cross the front-lines as they implore drivers to honk their horns in support.
While Saunders shoulders a cross saying “Stop Shooting”, others rock a megaphone chanting out slogans. “Stop the Shooting!” “Black lives matter”. “Don’t shoot”. “Save the babies”.
Father Mike reaches out to people in the street, and also in shops and restaurants. He personally invites them to the Peace Games on Saturday.
As drivers honk in support, residents also cheer from houses on dark streets. With no police cars in sight, dark barren streets feel safe for a few hours, and teeming with hopeful spirits. Along the way, Father Mike leads speeches and prayers. Even children take the megaphone.
The march ends with hugs all around.
If Father Mike was a basketball player, he’d be a hard-nosed defender, a play-maker who also sets screens to free up other players. He’s defending men penalized in society for growing up poor and under-educated on the south side, where many are swept into the vortex of rising violence. He’s freeing them up to go beyond the gangster life, and find salvation in God and one of America’s great religions: basketball.
Gillian, marketing manager of Connor Sports says that the gang members finally bought into the peace initiative when basketball legend Isiah Thomas contributed his leadership and star power to the group.
On Saturday morning Sept. 17, residents line up early outside St. Sabina church, hoping to see NBA stars and also receive free backpacks for their kids.
Congenial security guards in spiffy suits check bags for any drugs or weapons, and the modest little gym fills up quickly.
At the first Peace Games, fans were mainly gang members, says Gillian. “The next year, girlfriends came. Now it’s a family affair with parents and kids.”
The Peace Games are becoming a Chicago institution, part of basketball lore. Every year, Chicago-based Connor Sports, which makes courts for the best NCAA and FIBA players in the world, spends more than $75,000 building a gleaming floor for St. Sabina, making it the Boston Garden of all the world’s churches.
Celebrities volunteer to attend on their own time and dime.
Born and raised in Chicago, Isiah Thomas was Curry long before Steph; he was the little underdog who beat the big guys. As a kid, he commuted for hours every day across Chicago for school. He survived — and thrived — under the discipline of Indiana coach Bobby Knight. In the late 1980s, Isiah led a team of blue-collar players to two NBA titles, feats that continue to stir pride in Detroit. Hobbling on a wounded ankle against Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the LA Lakers, Isiah somehow scored 25 points in one quarter, an NBA finals record. It cultivated Isiah’s image as a sort of miracle worker and holy man leading his flock to the Promised Land. Not many knew that off the court, Isiah was also paying college tuition for 75 students.
Derrick Rose, the hard-luck hero who grew up in Englewood near St. Sabina, came. Fans mobbed him on the court.
Joakim Noah, the son of French tennis legend Yannick Noah and a Swedish mother, didn’t let his privileged upbringing in New York prevent him from taking a compassionate interest in those he helps through his foundations.
Gillian of Connor Sports tells the story of how Thomas, in a meeting room near Fr. Mike’s office, “passed the torch” last year to rising NBA star Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks. Isiah and other veterans lectured Parker on how to give back to the community. Jabari got it. He’s now taking after his father, former NBA player Sonny Parker, who fell on hard-times in Chicago and used those lessons to help lift others.
When Sonny Parker takes the podium at the Peace Games press conference, everybody — Jabari, Isiah, Aguirre — gives him a standing ovation.
In the basement before the games, the men from four teams sit amongst each other, listening to the speakers.
They proudly pose for photographs, showing off their tattoos and skills.
The opening ceremonies begin with marching musicians, speeches and the national anthem. Players are eager to don their black or white uniforms and impress fans with dunks in the warm-ups.
It’s a fun atmosphere, with a comedian doing live play-by-play commentary. Fans scream as fabulous tumblers soar through the air.
Smiling and enjoying the spotlight, competitors play hard to defend their teammates and turf. The Peace Games aren’t a frivolous exhibition. It’s hardcore physical street ball, with hollering on court (“Switch!”, “Get Up!”) and jawing at referees (“Oh, come on ref!”). They play hard below the rim, and above it.
But I saw no dirty or unsportsmanlike play. It was cleaner than many high school, college or pro games. These street-savvy guys played with honor, dignity and empathy. When one player hustled after a loose ball into a crowd of mothers and kids sitting court-side, he came back to ask them if they were alright. After some close combat inside, rivals even helped each other up.
The t-shirt messages — “together” — seem to be working.
The battle was even clean enough for a multi-million dollar asset like Parker to enter. He played for a few minutes, setting up teammates with no-look passes, and staving off attackers swarming to steal the rock. He even wiped the court.
In the end, opponents shook hands and, naturally, gravitated around Parker. There were genuine scenes of peace: people hugging, crying, and smiling. These players are proving that peace isn’t emptiness or absence of something, it’s fullness of something: a fullness of feeling; fullness of action; fullness of commitment. Peace is unity, not division. Peace is working hard to overcome the bitterness of memories. It’s building a bridge over the blood of the past. It’s battling on the court, not off.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Peace Games 2016 was what happened — or didn’t happen — below the gleeming Connor Sports floor, away from the fans and media. Guys who’ve been taught for years to hate or kill each other sat or stood amongst each other, bantering, bragging, eating, posing for photos, showing off their trophies, or just hanging. It’s what guys do after tournaments at the Y or local playground. Realizing it or not, these “brothers in arms” were gradually getting used to sharing turf with each other. Through basketball, the battleground was becoming common ground. The mutual love of basketball was disarming them.
Jabari was there too with his dad, hanging out with old friends. He might become the greatest player ever from Chicago, but nobody was bothering him. There was respect all around — a lesson that Father Mike and his followers have repeatedly stressed.
Peace isn’t easy, and ceasefires don’t always last in any conflict around the world. But for at least one weekend every year in south Chicago, the Peace Games are big, boisterous fun. It’s surely a winning formula that can take root in New Orleans, Baltimore, Compton, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit or other cities.
((words and images for Connor Sports by Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved))