Anti-violence basketball tournament brings sense of peace to East Garfield Park

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An anti-violence organization hosted an outdoor basketball tournament between teens and young men from rival groups Saturday in East Garfield Park. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Ten teenagers and young men played basketball on an outdoor court in the scorching sun while the adults threw some hamburgers on the grill.

The players, wearing sweat-drenched, light-blue and gray T-shirts, argued over travel calls, sometimes shoving each other. One rap hit after another blasted through speakers while a few dozen more hoopers wearing a variety of colored shirts sat on the sidelines, laughed at missed layups and ate burgers, waiting for their turn to play.

It was summer in Chicago as it should be.

And for at least a few hours on the 90-degree Saturday afternoon, anyone from a different part of the city would have been surprised that the group at Delano Elementary School was full of neighborhood guys from rival groups and cliques, some of which had been convicted of felonies.

But for the community organizers with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago who put together the eight-team, daylong Memorial Day weekend tournament at the East Garfield Park school, that’s exactly who they had in mind.

“One side of Pulaski is one thing, the other side is another,” said 58-year-old Frederick Seaton, an organizer who has lived in the community his entire life. “That was the premise, to bring some guys to get to know each other. To let them know, this guy, he isn’t really a bad guy. They can get along, they can coexist. Get to know people on the other side of Pulaski.”

In a community hit hard by violence — 16 people have been shot to death in East and West Garfield Park so far this year — and on a holiday weekend notorious for violence throughout the city, the tournament injected a sense of calm and normalcy into the neighborhood.

Community leaders organized the basketball tournament to promote peace during a historically violent weekend. Eliza Davidson and Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Street ball tournaments used to be a staple of West Side culture. The same court used to be home to competitions similar to the famous games at Rucker Park in New York City. But as violence crept into the surrounding neighborhoods, the tournaments faded away about a decade ago.

This time around, the revived tradition was a way to bring the community together on the court rather than settling disputes off of it. Though it took weeks of planning to make sure everyone followed the strict rules of no violence, those who showed up understood the day’s importance.

“I’ve seen a lot of violence — real violence,” said Gregory Williams, a 23-year-old who was asked to get a team together for the tournament. “I’ve been in shootouts. Family and friends have been killed. A lot of stuff that I don’t really speak about. It’s been a lot of stuff.

“Just to still be able to even come out here and be able to run up and down the court, it’s a blessing to still be here,” Williams added before he played in the last quarterfinal game of the afternoon.

In an earlier game, a familiar face had taken the court and dominated.

Arthur Agee was a former Cabrini Green public housing projects kid whose NBA aspirations were highlighted in the critically acclaimed 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.”

Arthur Agee gathered a team Saturday to play at the non-violence basketball tournament in East Garfield Park. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Arthur Agee gathered a team Saturday to play at the non-violence basketball tournament in East Garfield Park. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

His dreams of playing in the NBA never came to fruition even after he played Division-I basketball at Arkansas State. But as a 45-year-old widely recognized in the neighborhood as “the Hoop Dreams guy,” Agee felt a sense of nostalgia and comfort seeing his younger self in the kids on the court on Saturday.

“I would like to see it more. Because of the atmosphere that our city is in right now, a lot of parents don’t want their kids playing outside anymore,” Agee said, with his son circling around him. “I know for [at least] today, there’s no one in this area that’s involved in anything other than positivity.”

Though some were excited to see him because they’d watched him in the documentary, at least one person was happy to see him for another reason: Revenge.

A year ago, Williams and Agee played against each other in a different tournament, with Agee’s team coming out on top.

“When I saw him, I told him we owed him one,” Williams joked. “So we’re gonna get him today.”

Though the day was all fun and games, Agee, much like others on the court, isn’t a stranger to violence. In 2004, his dad was shot to death by a robber in an alley in west suburban Berwyn, near the home Agee had bought for his family. In October 2017, Agee himself was arrested on a felony battery charge in suburban Forest Park.

But like everyone else at Delano Elementary on Saturday, Agee put his history behind him to focus on keeping the neighborhood peaceful over the weekend.

“We don’t have to go downtown or go out somewhere else,” he said. “We can do it right here in our own community.”

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