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Basketball tourney offers a shot at peace in tough neighborhoods

Chicago Bull Joakim Noah works with his team during Peace Basketball Tournament St. Sabingymnasium Chicago Ill. Saturday September 22 2012.

Chicago Bull Joakim Noah works with his team 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: December 19, 2012 1:20PM

To some guys in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, Ashland Avenue is the front line of a gang war zone: Crossing the street can mean getting yourself killed.

Two of those guys, Charles, 30, and Kevin, 15, try to stay east of Ashland and 79th, where one faction of the Gangster Disciples rules. They avoid the west side of Ashland, where a rival faction is in control.

But on Sept. 22, both sides of Ashland came together for a South Side basketball tournament. And Kevin and Charles said it’s changed the whole neighborhood.

“The game neutralized things for a whole lot of people,” said Charles, who got out of prison in August after serving a five-year prison term in a drug case.

Les, a 22-year-old who lives west of Ashland near 79th and Paulina, agreed.

“A lot of people who were getting into it was at the tournament,” he said. “I feel I can go anywhere now. ... I’ve been bumping into those guys. We’ve been talking and staying in touch.”

Charles, Kevin and Les — deemed to have a high risk of becoming involved in gang violence — were recruited to play in the Peace Basketball Tournament. On the court, they forged bonds of respect with their sworn enemies. The bonds have held strong, they say.

Crime statistics support their view that the violence in the neighborhood has cooled. There was one murder in the Gresham District over most of October and early November, compared to six over the same period in 2011. Shooting incidents were down from 16 to six.

Police say they’ve put a lot of resources into the district to reduce violence but acknowledged the tournament also could have made a dent in crime. Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel both support the concept.

“If kids are playing basketball instead of being involved in criminal activity, that’s obviously a good thing,” McCarthy said.

The tournament, the brainchild of activist Roman Catholic priest Michael Pfleger and NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, was held in the gym of Pfleger’s church, St. Sabina, near 78th and Racine.

Older guys in the neighborhood — Cobe Williams, an “interrupter” for the anti-violence group CeaseFire, Target Area outreach worker Brandon Jackson and activist Asa Powell — helped recruit the players.

Kevin said he never experienced anything like it. NBA players, including Chicago Bulls stars Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, volunteered to coach. It was a far cry from the Salvation Army games Kevin joins at 69th and Morgan.

“For some of us, it was the best time of our lives,” said Kevin, who, like Charles and Les, asked that only his first name be used.

Charles said: “It was a surreal moment. It’s not too many times you get to be around a millionaire.”

The Peace Tournament moved to the West Side on Saturday as three teams from Austin and one from Little Village competed at Christ the King Jesuit College Prep in the 5000 block of West Jackson.

The Bulls stars are out of town this weekend, but Isiah Thomas, who grew up in the area, attended. The winners will face the South Side champs.

Charles, from 79th and Morgan, said he was wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet on his left leg when he played in the South Side tourney in September. He says he’s no longer active in a gang but admits he was “involved in the madness” before he was locked up. Many of the guys who played in the game from the west side of Ashland were out to get him back then.

“I was in a state of shock playing with these guys, because we spend all this time trying to hurt each other,” Kevin added. “I let it go. It’s hard to do with people who you know are trying to hurt you.”

Kevin and Charles both said things have changed for them. For Kevin, it’s as simple as how he addresses gang rivals when he sees them in his area. In the past, there “would have been trouble,” he said. “Now we speak and keep moving. We ain’t looking for no trouble.”

Still, Tio Hardiman, head of CeaseFire Chicago, said the truce isn’t universal.

“Some of the guys in those neighborhoods are still holding on to feelings about lost comrades. So everything isn’t cool. But it is cool, mostly, among the players now,” he said.

For Charles and other guys in the tournament — from both sides of Ashland — it’s also meant a job. Pfleger brought the older players together for job training, and Charles said he’s landed a job as a nursing home worker.

Pfleger said he’s helped 28 of the players in the tournament to find jobs. He’s also expanding the concept into a six-team, 12-week league.

“It’s not just about bringing down [crime] numbers if we don’t redirect their energy,” he said as he watched Saturday’s tournament with Isiah Thomas.

Thomas nodded, saying: “Poverty does not have to be wedded with murder and drugs. These kids have the chance to educate themselves, get out of poverty and contribute to society.”

But Charles said the tournament has led to even more than a job.

Joakim Noah’s foundation came up with 10 tickets to 22 Bulls home games, and Charles and the other players in the tournament have been invited. They sit next to each other, regardless of their current or past gang affiliation. Some have become friends.

Les said he’s been to a few Bulls games and is Twitter friends with Noah. He also landed a janitorial job through Pfleger.

“It’s really working for us,” said Les.

Charles, from the other side of Ashland, added: “This was more than a feel-good moment. It’s bringing us closer.”

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