It’s Friday night in a dangerous Chicago neighborhood, and a steady stream of teenagers slip inside the gym at Kennicott Park.
Peorrie Celestine is among the first on the basketball court, and his father, Pierre, just loves to talk about his 13-year-old son’s ability to dunk on an 8-foot rim. Duryea Wright, two years older, makes a couple of long 3-pointers despite the low ceiling, drawing a “You better guard him” comment from one of the boys waiting for a turn. Park Supervisor Renee Shepherd shuffles in and out, making sure everyone signs in on this chilly evening on Chicago’s South Side.
About 80 teenagers are here as the games really get going. The bustling gym is, in fact, a sanctuary for some of them. A handful of players went to school with Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old drum majorette who performed at events surrounding President Barack Obama’s second inauguration and was gunned down in a nearby park just two months ago.
“Yeah, I knew her. It was sad,” said Marcus Burks, 17, who attends King College Prep High School. “We was actually in here playing basketball when she got killed.”
Welcome to Windy City Hoops.
A torrent of gang violence pushed Chicago above 500 homicides last year for the first time since 2008, then 40 more people were killed in the city’s deadliest January in more than a decade. There was a drop in February and March, but the drumbeat of heartache kept going.
Pendleton was shot to death on Jan. 29 as she talked with friends after school in a park about a mile from Obama’s Chicago home. Janay McFarlane, 18, was killed on the same February day that her 14-year-old sister attended a speech by Obama pushing for gun control legislation. A 6-month-old girl died on March 12 after a gunman ambushed her father while she was sitting in his lap in a minivan.
“It’s a big concern, because I know like the stuff that goes on around here, I know it’s like a war zone right now, different gangs and stuff like that,” said Robert Milligan, 18, another King College student.
The violence captured the attention of one of Chicago’s most famous basketball sons.
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who grew up on the city’s West Side, helped organize two tournaments last summer that brought together members of rival gangs. But Thomas kept going from there.
“I had been to a basketball game at Christ The King where Isiah Thomas was there, but I had come early and he and I were talking,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “and he made the offer to me, it goes back to November, he says ‘You know I want to do anything to help kids, you know, get off the street, and whatever I can do, we’re going to do.'”
A week or so later, Thomas and Emanuel met in the mayor’s office and came up with an idea. They decided to start a fundraising campaign to expand the park district’s Windy City Hoops program, taking it from a seasonal schedule to a year-round plan that offers boys and girls 13 to 18 a place to play organized basketball on Friday and Saturday nights.
The price tag is $480,000 and organizers are still more than $50,000 short. Two organizations pledged a total of $365,000, and an online campaign is shooting for $62,000, said Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the park district.
The expanded program was launched last month at 10 parks, mostly on the South and West Sides of the city.
“Through basketball and just sports, we believe that if the people really get to know each other, particularly young people, they’ll have a hard time killing each other,” Thomas said. “Sports play has been taken out of the community, in terms of the park district, and what we want to do is just open up the park districts again and make them available.”
The 10 sites were selected based on high crime levels, low median income and the facility itself. The park district is hoping each location will field at least eight teams of 10 for each of four sessions during the year.
U.S. cities have used sports to help fight gang violence for years. But there is still something hopeful about this program that potentially could take thousands of kids off the streets and put them in a gym for a couple nights each weekend.
“It doesn’t so much curb youth violence as it gives good kids a place to go,” Emanuel said.