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TELANDER: Mayor Emanuel, Isiah Thomas join forces on inner-city basketball program

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Updated: June 14, 2013 4:05PM

It’s not that basketball has to be the urban sport.

But why shouldn’t it be?

The dynamics, the space, the surface, the crowd density, the vibe — it all works.

So Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his basketball buddy Isiah Thomas, sponsors such as Nike, the Sammons Financial Group, Integrys Energy and GEM Realty Capital and some charitable Chicago citizens are bringing us basketball for those who so desperately need it — the poor, bored, scared and talented kids of the inner city.

Windy City Hoops is what the main program is called. It started in April and now features open gyms and hoops leagues on Friday and Saturday nights at 10 city parks, from Ogden Park on the South Side to Loyola Park on the North Side to Columbus Park on the
West Side.

On top of that, Nike is teaming up with the Chicago Park District to offer free summer basketball clinics called CHI LEAGUE PARKS in neighborhoods throughout the city.

More than 1,000 kids ages 9 to 18 already have joined the programs. Thousands more are coming.

Just as the hot, dangerous summer is coming.

‘‘I met with Isiah at a high school game last year,’’ Emanuel says, ‘‘and he remembered how important his park-district coach was for him growing up. We decided, ‘OK, let’s open up 10 or 12 gyms on weekends and have competition and refs and mentors and camaraderie, all in a safe place.’’

Thomas, an impoverished Chicago kid who went on to become a 12-time NBA All-Star and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member, has had a lot of jobs since his playing career ended. Not all of them have been successful. Some have been quite unsuccessful.

But he recently earned his master’s in education from the University of California-Berkeley, and this project is close to his heart.

‘‘I was so fortunate to have great mentors when I was growing up,’’ he says. ‘‘John McClendon was a Converse rep, and I would see him at a Boys & Girls Club. He helped me, and he has mentored me throughout my life. He was a student of Naismith’s at Kansas.’’

Talk about a close connection to the roots of the game. So Thomas feels compelled to give back.

‘‘Basketball is a game that can bring a community together,’’ he says. ‘‘Just kids playing, everybody mixed together, all playing in that arena for joy. At one of our ‘Peace Games’ last summer at Christ the King High School, a guy stood up and said to another, ‘Man, the other day you shot at me!’ And that kid would have killed the other with that gun. But they played together, and the shooter cried and hugged the guy afterward and said, ‘I love you.’ ’’

Basketball can’t change the world, but it can be the center for so much.

Emanuel and Thomas know that there probably isn’t another ‘‘Zeke’’ (Thomas’ longtime nickname), but there are thousands of salvageable lives and tens of thousands of decent, desirous children who no longer can be left to sink alone into crime, drugs and despair. Safe, joyful play is a start.

‘‘We want to open another 10 gyms,’’ says Emanuel, who always is visiting basketball games, talking with kids, even giving them rides home while talking about issues.

Emanuel has taken whacks in this nasty political world from a lot of sides. He has been called a lot of adjectives — headstrong, foul-mouthed, impetuous, aggressive. But he believes in kids. Sports, too.

‘‘I think we’re very fortunate to have a mayor like Rahm,’’ Thomas says. ‘‘He’s sincere about helping our children, of all colors, all ethnicities, all areas.’’

You see a YouTube rap video called ‘‘I Don’t Like’’ — by 17-year-old Chicago rapper Chief Keef — with more than 30 million views, and you know why safe sports are needed. Keef and a dozen teen pals dance bare-chested, with their pants almost to their knees, while passing huge blunts and showing off what appears to be a real TEC-9 with an extended clip. It almost breaks your heart.

NBA stars will be coming to some of these clinics — Chicagoans such as Anthony Davis and Will Bynum — and they’ll get mobbed by adoring kids. But the NBA means nothing here.

‘‘It’s the false narrative of [pro] sports and entertainment,’’ Thomas says. ‘‘Those just keep African Americans down. The real truth is, just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you can’t be educated.’’

Martell Cowans, 18, is a student at Urban Prep who religiously goes to the weekend open gym at Columbus Park. If he couldn’t do that, he says, he’d be forced to stay in his house, playing video games, to be safe.

‘‘Thank you,’’ Cowans says to Emanuel and Thomas. ‘‘Thank you very much.’’

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