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Joakim Noah uses basketball to battle gang violence

Chicago Bull Joakim Noah greets fans after Peace Basketball Tournament St. Sabingymnasium Chicago Ill. Saturday September 22 2012. | Andrew

Chicago Bull Joakim Noah greets fans after 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 27, 2012 6:14AM

In my last article, I wrote of meeting Cobe Williams — who is featured in the documentary “The Interrupters” — and talking to some of the kids he works with about the issues of violence they face on a daily basis. Earlier this summer, Cobe introduced me to Rev. Michael Pfleger and made me aware of his involvement in the community through his church, Faith Community of St. Sabina, and of his tireless efforts to stop the violence in Chicago.

Pfleger had an idea to host a basketball tournament, where members of different gangs could come together to play ball to promote peace and bring some positivity into the neighborhood. This idea evolved into the “Peace Tournament.” I knew immediately that this was something important to be involved with, so I jumped in right away with my foundation, the Noah’s Arc Foundation.

Even though there were many doubters who thought something like this would never work, I felt really positive about the tournament and expected all of the players to cooperate. However, what I came away with at the end of the day was far greater than I could have ever imagined.

Going into the event on Saturday, I didn’t know who was fighting whom, or which guy was representing which gang. All I knew was that kids were killing kids at an unimaginable rate. My only goal that day was to listen to what they had to say and try to offer them some hope.

Upon arrival at St. Sabina’s, a group of us — including Williams and Pfleger, my Bulls teammate Taj Gibson, assistant coach Ed Pinckney, the Orlando Magic’s Quentin Richardson, retired NBA star Isaiah Thomas, promoter Asa Powell and Rev. Ishmael Muhammad of the Nation of Islam — had a discussion with the participating players. The kids spoke about the various issues affecting their communities and schools, but also voiced their excitement about what was about to take place.

When we walked into the gym with the kids, the love from the community gave me the same butterflies I get when I suit up for the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. The kids felt the energy, too, and put on a great show for the crowd. Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Quentin Richardson and I each coached one of the teams. In the end, Quentin’s Red Team beat Taj’s White Team in the “championship” game. Overall, the whole day went smoothly.

After the game, all of the participants gathered in a room to discuss what we had done. What was expected to be a brief final recap of the day turned into an open forum among the tournament’s players. One after another, they shared messages about “waking up” and getting on the right path, understanding the importance of brotherhood, and finding legitimate jobs to get off the streets. These guys were speaking from the heart, and it was not easy to fight back tears while listening to them.

What was beautiful about Saturday was that people from all walks of life came together to work for one common goal: peace in our communities. For example, watching Pfleger work in partnership with the Nation of Islam, which did a wonderful job of handling security for the event, was incredibly inspiring.

What I witnessed was different gangs, different religions and different kinds of people joining forces to address the problems that affect a community they all share. I felt we accomplished our goal on a micro-level for that one day, and hopefully the effects will stretch far beyond. I am completely humbled to have been a part of the Peace Tournament, and am even more inspired to continue to find ways that we can help these neighborhoods.

Joakim Noah donated his fee for writing this column to his foundation,

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