It is shameful that a few bad apples ruined a free event at the United Center on Monday night.
Despite having private security guards, comprised of off-duty police officers, and calling for backup from uniformed Chicago Police officers, organizers were forced to shut down the West Haven Safe Summer Basketball League championship games when multiple fistfights broke out.
More than 7,000 young people were robbed of an opportunity to enjoy an event in what was supposed to have been a safe environment — all because a bunch of thugs-in-training decided to attack each other inside the arena.
“We have been doing this for nine years, and there have been no problems, no fights, no fatalities, and no incidents,” said Earnest Gates, executive director of West Haven Safe Summer Basketball League.
Gates said Monday’s crowd was the largest ever because of two outstanding players on two high school teams.
When fights broke out in the food court and started mushrooming, the organizers made a decision to stop the tournament.
“We debated a while about what we should do and concluded part of the problem was the police department couldn’t come into the United Center to do anything,” Gates said. “That was left up to the security inside of the United Center. When you have fights breaking out everywhere, that takes your troop strength.”
“We thought it would be best to shut it down. We didn’t want anything to get out of control,” Gates said.
The United Center has donated its building and other supportive services for the tournament for the past five years.
“We will have to discuss it and see if the tournament goes back there. If it doesn’t happen, the only thing that angers me and gets my goat is I watch the kids walk across the floor and go into the locker room. We used to tell them that was Michael Jordan’s locker or that was Scottie Pippen’s locker, to make the experience that much bigger for them,” he said.
“On Monday, there was a young kid who came in and started crying like a baby. I thought something was wrong, but the kid said, ‘I just can’t believe I am here,’” Gates told me.
Fights during high school sporting events are nothing new.
Earlier this year, a brawl broke out at the United Center following the McDonald’s All-American game. About 10,000 people attended the game.
In 2005, at the Illinois High School Association Supersectional playoff game between Thornton and Homewood-Flossmoor, three people were hospitalized after a fight.
Given Chicago’s gun violence, it is a blessing that no one was seriously injured during Monday’s melee, and that no weapons were involved.
Gates puts the blame on 12, 13, 14 and 15-year-olds that came to the United Center to settle a Facebook beef.
“They showed up. They got in free. In years past we could call up the [gang] chiefs and tell them what we were going to be doing and to keep those folks in line,” Gates said.
“Now [gang members] are in another universe. It doesn’t take much to set them off because they don’t have anything to lose. There is no reason for them to preserve the safe summer legacy.”
Gates estimates that no more than 30 kids took part of the violence.
“But once it blows and you force people into positions . . . somebody feels they need to take a side,” he said.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) agreed that stopping the championship tournament was the right call, even though doing so added to the mayhem.
“Our kids are now on this thing where they just like to brawl. It is like a hip thing to do now. They do it everywhere, even in the middle of the street. Then they put it on Facebook,” he said.
“I would say out of the few brawls that you had, you had 100 times more people who were not involved. They didn’t tear up the United Center. There were no shootings, or stabbings. Yes, we did have clowning,” Burnett said.
“Now we are worried about how we are going to continue to do this. You don’t want the United Center to stop having a black event because of a few silly kids,” he said.
Burnett has some advice for the parents of the kids who were throwing punches:
“Parents need to get on their kid’s case if they see them on the video. I know their parents didn’t teach them to act like that and they probably don’t act like that home,” he said.