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Prep all-star game: Hoops with a higher purpose

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Second Annual Chicago United Hoops Classic

3 p.m. Saturday

Gerald Ratner Athletic Center, University of Chicago, 5530 S. Ellis Ave.

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Updated: June 5, 2012 11:45AM

First off, it’s important to know there is violence in our inner-city world.

Second, it’s very important to know that the beauty of sport, the joy of play, can help fight the mindlessness of gunshots, gangs, and drive-bys.

Third, please remember the image of good ol’ Norm Van Lier, the feisty, compassionate, beloved former three-time All-Star guard for the Bulls, the skinny, 6-1 dynamo of desire who died of a heart attack three years ago. That Stormin’ Norman’s No. 2 jersey is not hanging from the rafters of the United Center with his bonded-at-the-hip fellow guard Jerry Sloan’s No. 4 jersey is a travesty that we’ll discuss another time.

For now, let’s visit the swelteringly hot gymnasium at Simeon Career Academy on 81st and Vincennes and watch as 12 South Side high-school seniors run drills that honor Van Lier and his legacy to the max.

Under the eyes of Hillcrest High School coach Don Houston and Simeon coach Robert Smith, these all-star players from throughout the South Side grapple, jump, run, shoot and pursue perfection at a game they love.

And in so doing, they are preparing not only for the Norm Van Lier Scholarship/Chicago United Hoops Classic to be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Gerald Ratner Athletic Center at the University of Chicago, but they also are preparing themselves for useful lives. They are preparing themselves for destinies that, hopefully, don’t include macho posturing, bullets, hopelessness, prison or early death, the fate of far too many young inner-city males.

One of the players, a tall, skinny kid with a sweet jumper and nice ball skills, wears a soaked red T-shirt that reads “BASKETBALL NEVER STOPS.’’ His trunks are baggy, and you wonder if there is enough of him to hold the shorts up. During a break, he comes to sideline and wipes his face with the wringing wet T-shirt. It never stops, remember?

The youth’s name is Jayon’e Troutman. He’s 6-5 and growing, and if he weighs 165 pounds that’s after a huge meal.

‘The violence stops with me’

The South Side all-stars will be playing against the West-Side all-stars because, in a city such as Chicago, that’s where demographics and the economy of poverty have established the rivalries. The North Side doesn’t count; there is no East Side.

And the “United’’ part of this game means just that. The South Side and West Side can come together and play a fierce game with rules and sportsmanship, winners and losers, and violence will play no part. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has endorsed the day and has signed the code of non-violence that Susan Van Lier, Norm’s widow, has asked each player to sign and hopes to have everyone in the entire Chicago Public School system someday sign.

It begins, “I, ______, pledge to do my part to stop the violence in my community. Beginning right now, I will do my part by not committing ANY acts of violence, whether physically with guns, weapons, fists, etc., or verbal through cyber-bullying, name-calling, or taunting.’’

It ends, “The violence stops with me. I commit to being a leader in my community and show others there is a better way.’’

Sure, you could sign it and walk out and shoot somebody. But might you think? Might you hope?

That’s all Troutman wants. For he has been damaged mightily.

Last June, his best friend and near-brother, Ryan Royall, a
17-year-old all-conference guard for Hillcrest, was shot and killed by a random bullet as the two left a Sweet 16 birthday party/dance in Lynwood. Royall apparently wasn’t the target of anything, just an unlucky guy in a land where such things can’t even be called unusual.

Trauma of senseless shooting

Troutman, who lives in the house with Royall’s widowed mother and family because his mother has moved away, basically has taken the place of his dead pal on this team. He is a very good player, with a scholarship to Southwest Baptist University, a D-II school in Bolivar, Mo., and he is, as coach Houston says, “a great kid who never acts as if he’s entitled to anything.’’ Troutman wants to be an accountant, and this should be a happy time for him.

But how do you forget the sight of your friend suddenly on the ground, eyes vacant, leaving this world?

Why, the pair had played that Saturday in a tournament at Riverside-Brookfield, and they had another game coming up in 12 hours or so at the same place.

“We weren’t being rowdy,’’ Troutman said, thinking back. “There were a few of us walking, and I looked back and Ryan wasn’t with me. I didn’t see him anywhere. I heard eight or nine shots, and I ran back and found him, and I said, ‘Get up! Get up!’ But he wasn’t even looking at me.’’

Troutman has internalized this, as young men will do. And he tries to move on, though the moving is hard.

“I try to respect Ryan every day of my life. Everything I do is for him.’’

Then his face goes blank in reflection.

“If we’d left two minutes earlier,’’ he said, almost to himself. “Just two minutes.’’

This all-star game will be good. The best talent in the city will be there. And many, if not all, of the players will be carrying wounds, some even like young Troutman’s.

The practice starts up again, but Troutman asks Houston if he can sit out. The coach understands. He can see the pain, the distance in the boy’s face.

The young athlete moves to the stands, where he sits alone and silent, a look on his face that you wish weren’t there.

Yet the future beckons, and maybe this is a start. Maybe someday, it’ll all be good.

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