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Shot blockers: NBA stars help rival gang members call truce on St. Sabina court

The Orlando Magic's QuentRichardsleft jokes around with Chicago Bull's Derek Rose during Peace Basketball Tournament St. Sabingymnasium Chicago Ill. Saturday

The Orlando Magic's Quentin Richardson, left, jokes around with the Chicago Bull's Derek Rose during the Peace Basketball Tournament at St. Sabina gymnasium in Chicago, Ill., on Saturday, September 22, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:54AM

‘Take that, chump!” a fan called out when Lester Mims bumped into an opponent hard during a Saturday afternoon basketball game on the South Side.

After the game, the other player approached Mims and they gave each other a friendly handshake.

Such sportsmanship might not be out of place in a school-sanctioned game. But this was different: Mims, a gang member, was playing sworn gang rivals in something called the Peace Basketball Tournament.

The tournament — organized by NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and the Rev. Michael Pfleger — was played in the tiny gymnasium of Pfleger’s St. Sabina Catholic Church at 78th and Racine. The purpose: helping rival gang members forge friendships on the basketball court so they stop shooting when they return to their neighborhoods.

Mims, a 22-year-old Gangster Disciples member from the 79th and Throop area, was thrilled with the experience of working with his coach for the day, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah.

“Coach told us to go out there and play hard, but he said it’s more than just this game,” Mims said. “With this violence going on, I hope they can help us to do better and stop all this killing.”

Mims said he bonded with some of the guys on the other team — members of the Black Disciples from the 79th and Ashland area. If he crosses paths with them, “I’m going to say we had a good time and don’t want any problems,” he said.

Four teams participated in the tournament. The winners of the first two games met in a lopsided championship won 36-13 by a team from the 85th and Racine area. Their coach was Quentin Richardson, a 12-year NBA veteran and a Far South Side native.

“This is a great cause, it’s all positive,” Richardson said as his players hoisted trophies. “Everybody has to come to common ground. We gave them a forum to talk to each other.”

Thomas came up with the idea for the tournament when he joined Pfleger last month on one of the fiery activist priest’s “Stop the Violence” marches.

Thomas, who grew up in North Lawndale on the West Side, said he’s following the footsteps of his late mother, Mary Thomas, who encouraged young people to choose education over the streets. They lived on the 300 block of South Homan. The street there has been renamed for her.

“We’re coming here to reclaim our community,” Thomas told the packed gym. “Love is stronger than hate.”

The Nation of Islam provided the official security for the event, although there were some Chicago Police officers in the church and outside.

Thomas and Pfleger relied on CeaseFire, the anti-violence program, to recruit gang members to play in the game.

Frank Hawkins, who said he’s affiliated with a gang, said a CeaseFire volunteer asked him to come.

“I don’t think this will change everything, but it’s a start,” said the 35-year-old, whose team defeated Mims’ team in the first round.

“I was cracking a few jokes to one of their guys during a free throw,” Hawkins said. “If I see him in the neighborhood, I will vouch for him.”

Englewood and Auburn-Gresham — the neighborhoods where the players come from — have long been plagued with gun violence.

In the Gresham District, there have been 32 murders this year through Sept. 9 compared to 26 over the same period last year.

In Englewood, murders are actually down, but there were still 30 of them through Sept. 9 compared to 43 last year.

Pfleger, known for holding protests against suburban gun stores and inner-city liquor stores he believes are fueling the killings in the city, has a personal stake in the fight. In 1998, his adopted son, Jarvis Franklin, was shot to death near the church.

“Our job is to love these brothers and get them back to school and into jobs,” Pfleger said. “If we do the job of prevention, we don’t have to keep saying, ‘More police, more police.’ Let’s love these brothers, not say how bad they are.”

Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, said he hopes to persuade NBA stars to host a similar tournament for gang members on the West Side.

“Today is a historical start,” he said. “But it’s all about the follow-up. They have been beefing with each other. This can get the dialogue started.”

The crowd included Ondelee Perteet, who watched the game in his wheelchair. He was shot in the neck and paralyzed three years ago after he got into an argument outside a party.

Perteet, 18, said he was encouraged to see the NBA players ­­— who also included Chicago Bulls stars Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson — coaching regular guys from the neighborhood.

“I’m glad everybody is coming together to stop the shooting,” Perteet said softly.

Rose was smiling and animated while he led his team, which lost its game. He left without speaking to reporters.

NBA referees volunteered to officiate the games, and members of the Luvabulls dance squad were also on hand.

“They behaved a lot better than some of the NBA guys,” one ref joked.

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, watched the tournament at the invitation of Pfleger.

Wexler, whose organization consults with law-enforcement agencies across the country including the Chicago Police Department, said he was intrigued by the idea of the tournament.

“It’s important to try different strategies,” Wexler said.

Mims, the player from the 79th and Throop area, said he wasn’t sure it would work. But afterward, he said it changed his outlook.

“It’s going to be different,” Mims said, nodding to Gibson as he walked by. “We gotta try to stop all this b-------.”

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