NBA players with Windy City roots look to stop the violence

CHICAGO (STATS) – It’s a relatively quiet afternoon on Chicago’s

South Side as Englewood residents soak in the summer sun. The

sounds of car traffic and street conversation are barely noticeable

to the conditioned urban ear as the rhythmic thud of a bouncing

ball echoes through the crime-saddled city blocks.

At the playground, two young boys engage in a friendly game of

one-on-one, taking turns shooting at a rusty orange rim, passing

the time, staying out of trouble, perhaps imagining that the fate

of their next jumper could give their hometown Bulls a seventh NBA

title.

Not long ago, Derrick Rose was one of those boys. A protective

family and a wealth of talent were enough to keep him on the

straight and narrow. Others, however, haven’t been so lucky.

Because those who grow up in rough Windy City neighborhoods face

more than just the challenge of the city’s schoolyard competition.

The real opponent is often the streets themselves.

Perhaps no one is more familiar with that obstacle than former

Illinois and Orlando Magic star Nick Anderson. Twenty-seven years

ago, Anderson’s best friend, Ben Wilson, was widely considered the

top high school prospect in the country. The day before their

season opener, Anderson stopped into a local convenience store.

Wilson accidentally bumped into a fellow teen just outside it.

Seconds later, Wilson was shot.

Just hours before what would have been his senior tip-off – Nov.

21, 1984 – he was pronounced dead at 17.

“I think about him every day,” said Anderson, now a community

ambassador for Orlando who still has flashbacks of Wilson slumped

against a fence, gasping for air. “He was Magic Johnson with a jump

shot. It was all ripped away from him in a split second.”

While the murder of Wilson was an exceptionally high profile

case given his talent, not much has changed in Chicago in the

almost three decades since his death. Gangs poach more members with

each passing day. Drug deals and gunshots are as common as they are

cliche. In 2010, 611 children age 17 and younger were hit with

gunfire; 66 of them died, and another four were killed in

non-gun-related crimes.

As recently as June 4, Hillcrest High School basketball player

Ryan Royall was killed by stray bullets during a post-party fight –

one he wasn’t even involved in – in suburban Lynwood, about 10

miles outside the South Side.

“Where can you live in Chicago now and be safe? It’s terrible,

it’s really gotten bad,” said Anderson. “The gangs and the violence

in Chicago are spreading like a disease. It’s a cancer.”

Long before he experienced Wilson’s senseless murder, Anderson

witnessed how gangs can rip families apart from his own home.

Growing up in a tiny red house which still stands on the 4600 block

of West Jackson Street in K-Town – a dangerous neighborhood on the

city’s west side nicknamed for its many streets beginning with the

letter ‘K’ – his two brothers were members of rival gangs.

“It was amazing how they would fight each other, tearing my

mom’s house apart,” Anderson remembered. “Back then, it was at all

costs when you represented your gang. You wouldn’t even let family

come through.

“I’m being totally honest. Growing up in Chicago, there’s

nothing I haven’t seen.”

Earlier this year, the Chicago Police Department organized a

gang summit in an attempt to curb violence that was on the verge of

spiking. While exact numbers are difficult to pin down, an

investigative report by the city’s ABC television affiliate quoted

gang membership at over 100,000 by a local federal enforcement

agency. That’s more than twice the number of Chicagoland’s

cumulative police force.

By comparison, Los Angeles – a city more stereotypically

associated with gangs – was estimated to have about 45,000 members

a year ago.

Basketball became Anderson’s way of distancing himself from that

type of local trouble, and he often speaks to youths in the Orlando

area encouraging them to find a means to do the same.

“It’s a way for young men and woman out of their situations in

today’s society,” Anderson said. “Some have the athletic ability,

some have the academic ability. Some have both. It’s the way of

life. Cards are dealt differently.”

Like Anderson, others are hoping to minimize the damage by using

their big-name influence. Rose himself brought attention to the

issue by donning jersey No. 25 – Wilson’s number, also worn by

Anderson at Illinois and Orlando – while winning back-to-back city

titles in 2006 and 2007 at Simeon Career Academy, the same school

Anderson and Wilson attended.

But for all the esteemed preps history Chicago has to offer –

think names like Dwyane Wade, Tim Hardaway, Mark Aguirre and

Candace Parker – perhaps no one ranks higher than Hall of Famer

Isiah Thomas, a product of the city’s North Lawndale neighborhood.

Despite his professional rivalry with the Bulls honed by years of

playoff battles as a member of the Detroit Pistons, Thomas makes

regular trips back home to work with city officials on improving

the area for children.

“I give them real information,” said Thomas, now the head coach

at Florida International. “I let them know there are some unsafe

places in your environment, but your environment isn’t a dangerous

place all the time. If you seek the light, and stay away from the

dark, you’re more apt to have a chance to make your mark on

society.”

Thomas, the youngest of nine children, said his meals were “few

and far between at times” due to the prevalence of drug abuse,

alcohol and violence in his family, but he – like Anderson – used

the court as a means to keep himself separated from negative

influences.

“I think it’s safe to say that all of us who have grown in

poverty and have come from poverty-stricken environments –

especially urban poverty – sometimes you’re more lucky than good,”

Thomas said. “You can very easily be an innocent victim.”

Gangs recruit children at a young age, promising protection and

a family life some may not have at home. Thomas’ focus is to help

youths realize that lifestyle is not the answer.

“There’s always a choice between going to the dark side and

stepping into the light,” Thomas said. “Although they’ve lived in

poverty and lived in ghetto, they can become guarded against ghetto

mentality.”

And Thomas feels there are more children doing just that

nowadays, despite the constant reports of violence in predominantly

African-American neighborhoods.

“There are more people doing right than are doing wrong,” Thomas

said. “In a community of 100, you may have 10 people participating

in the dark side. Unfortunately, those 10 are the stories being

told.”

Thomas and Anderson are working to change that narrative,

sharing stories of success with kids simply hoping for a future.

Rose still visits the playgrounds in Englewood from time to time,

living proof to young ballers of life’s possibilities regardless of

one’s background.

Their message is not unlike the one passed on by a famous 1997

Nike commercial paying tribute to Wilson:

“One out of every five black men die before they reach the age

of 25. That was Benji’s number. Benji was the first in Chicago

history to ever be named top high school player in the nation,

right before he was gunned down. But you know what? Benji’s not

dead. Benji’s spirit lives on in every jump shot. Remember: Shoot

over brothas, not at them.”

Jeff Bartl is a writer for STATS LLC. Write to him at

jbartl(at)stats.com.