Before, the 24 year old Auburn Gresham resident minded what streets he walked and corners where he stood. Those were invisible borders that marked gang territory and where crossing onto a rival’s street could mean life or death.
“I can walk wherever I want to walk without having somebody testing my patience or trying to shoot at me or stuff like that,” said Mr. Bradley who has seen friends killed or imprisoned because of gang and gun violence.
Mr. Bradley’s peace of mind came from an unlikely place––a simple game of hoops.
Last September, rival gang members of the Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Killa Wards, and the Black P Stones hit the hardwood in a basketball tournament aimed at bringing peace to the streets.
An outspoken Catholic priest, Father Michael Pfleger, organized the tournament with the help of Chicago Bulls player Joakim Noah. Father Pfleger reached out to warring gang factions to stop escalating violence near his South Side church.
Father Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church, who is White, has garnered a reputation for his head-on approach in addressing gun violence plaguing Chicago’s Black community.
Basketball, he said, was the “hook” to break down barriers often delineated by street corners or gang colors. The hope, he said, was to simply open the lines of communication.
“They knew each other by turf … . They knew each other by rivals. We wanted them to get to know each other as friends as brothers. That was our desire,” Father Pfleger said.
And it worked. Rivalry was set aside as the four gangs brokered a peace accord before the tournament began. That, Father Pfleger said, led to a decrease in area shootings and homicides.
“As a result of that, these four organizations have not shot at each other for six months now,” he said. “They got a peace treaty among them for six months and that is probably the greatest result of it all.”
What started off as a one day tournament morphed into a basketball league made up of current and former gang members (Father Pfleger prefers individuals over gangmember). The Beloved Community Beyond Limits Peacemakers Basketball League wrapped up its inaugural 12-week season in March. The league is comprised of six 10-member teams whose names reflect their uniform color: red, black blue, navy, maroon and green.
The individuals involved in the tournament urged Father Pfleger to create the league. But he wanted it to go beyond just a game. So the church began offering team members resume writing skills, job placement and enrolling them in GED classes. So far 62 members have been placed in internships working at retail stores and restaurants, earning a weekly $100 stipend and valuable skills.
“My concern is to reach out to the brothers on the streets and let them know we are here for them (that) we wanted to help them…,” Father Pfleger said. “Their response has been to keep peace on the streets.”
NBA All-Star Noah was honored to be part of the effort. And each time he took the court in a Chicago Bulls game, he played for the guys in the league. But he commended them for staying true to the game’s essence.
“I think it proves that it is just bigger than basketball,” Mr. Noah said. “You see people fighting against each other in the streets to be able to play in a basketball game for their community is powerful.”
Mr. Noah added that he didn’t mind lending his name to the effort because the event was “real.” He was moved to see the Nation of Islam working inside a church with all different types of people to do something positive for the community.
“I understand there is a lot of frustration in these streets and I try to understand it as much as I can, even though I am not living it,” he said. “It’s always been about listening as much as possible and seeing what I can do as a basketball player to try to help.”
Mr. Bradley can attest to the changes the tournament and league has brought. He said there is this new sense of brotherhood.
“Most of us are friends anyway, but sometimes we can’t see or speak to each other because of the situations we are in,” Mr. Bradley explained. “When we are in the gym, it gives us a chance to talk and break some of that ground and make us all come together.”
League member Christian Austin welcomed the peace accord brokered among the four gangs. He hopes it holds..
“It is actually a blessing,” the 22 year old said. “People want to change. I guess they needed that positive motivation just to cease everything. You got to start from somewhere.”
For many of the league members what Father Pfleger was offering was a way out of that gang lifestyle.
“I was trying to find a way out,” Mr. Bradley said. “But once I started learning about the peace tournament, I tried to bring a lot of my friends in it too … so we all can change as one.”
Charles Porter, 27, also left his old lifestyle behind when he joined the league. Now, he is getting help with his resume to land a job.
“I see that basketball could be the key to a life out of that,” Mr. Porter said. “It will give me something to do other than going out trying to fight and shoot at someone.”
But the program’s real benefit is how lessons learned on the court translate on the street. Coaches, Mr. Porter said often explain to win, one’s anger has to be kept in check, just like in life. Those words of wisdom helped Mr. Porter abate anger over minor things that could escalate into violence. It also led his team to the championship.
“That is probably the greatest area of growth,” coach Cory Williams said of the league’s players when it came to anger management.
Coach Williams, who lead the red team to victory, works as an office manager at St. Sabina. He used the concept of “court vision” to help players make right decisions both on and off the hardwood. The goal, he explained, is to analyze what’s happening on the entire floor to strategize a game plan. He encouraged players not to be afraid to go after their goals, but do it the proper way.
“It is OK to be frustrated, but you have to figure how to channel that energy in the right direction,” Coach Williams said.
Illinois State Senator Jacqueline Collins called the tournament and league a success. She contends it’s a perfect example of policies and resources combining to provide constructive programs. Sen. Collins, who secured state funding for the program, said youth want opportunities to get off the streets.
“We just don’t want it to stop at a basketball game. We need to show them that being nonviolent pays off,” Sen. Collins said.
Leonard F. Muhammad, an aide to Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, applauded Father Pfleger for his community engagement effort, a philosophy also espoused by the minister. But Mr. Muhammad also commended Noah and other Bulls players for supporting this initiative on their “own volition.” He talked about the league during an end of season banquet at Salaam restaurant, the Nation of Islam entity located within walking distance of St. Sabina. Mr. Muhammad oversees the restaurant.
“This is an initiative they are doing on their own without the league (NBA) and without the encouragement of the league,” Mr. Muhammad said. “We think that the league should support them and help bring more resources to their effort to help stop gang violence.”
When asked why basketball seemed to work best to address violence more than other programs, Father Pfleger said he doesn’t compare what others do, but knows what he does works.
“We’ve gotten peace among these four groups,” he said. “We are watching them build a relationship with each other and that’s what’s really great.”