NBA social justice effort builds bridges through basketball in Pilsen

Chicago Police Officer Luis Crespo talks with Ivan Medina, 13, of Pilsen during the "Building Bridges Through Basketball" program at Union League Boys & Girls Club on Thursday, July 27, 2017. | Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

Eighth-grader Ivan Medina, 13, of Pilsen, was deep in conversation with an adult he has learned to trust.

Chicago Police Officer Luis Crespo listened intently to Ivan’s dilemma: He’s trying to choose between the selective enrollment high school his mother prefers; the military school his brother went to; and a neighborhood school offering proximity.

“The officer said he has the same problem. Like, if he asks one of his partners, they tell him one thing. Then another officer tells him something else,” Ivan said after their conversation one day last week at the Union League Boys and Girls Club.

“He said look at the benefits of each school, then weigh those. I think I’ll do what my mom says. As long as I have the scores, why waste the opportunity?” Ivan said.

He’s among 70 black and Latino teens from West Side neighborhoods who, along with dozens of Chicago police officers, have converged at the Pilsen club every Thursday for the past six weeks, for “Building Bridges Through Basketball.”

The 10-week program of the National Basketball Association brings teens and police together to share perspectives on leadership, conflict resolution, identity, empathy and trust, using a curriculum of the nonprofit Ross Initiative In Sports For Equality, a partner along with Under Armour. They also play basketball.

“It’s been kind of cool, because you don’t really stay around police officers for a certain amount of time unless you get in trouble,” Ivan said.

Elio Esquivel, 13, listens to police officers at the Union League Boys & Girls Club on Thursday, July 27, 2017. | Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

The league’s foray into the social justice arena was spurred a year ago by powerful entreaties made by players LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade, during the 2016 ESPY Awards.

In the wake of the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, the four used the national platform to urge fellow athletes to do their part to fight racism, injustice and gun violence.

“A lot of our problems, when you come down to it, is a lack of civility,” said 12th District Police Capt. Philip Kwasinski. “The fact that the RISE program invited us and allowed us to be a part of this work, all I can say is thank you, because truly, we gotta break down those barriers.”

The NBA says it responded to the entreaty with a framework of initiatives to help build trust between diverse communities and address racial and economic injustice. “Building Bridges” expands on a six-week program piloted in January in New Orleans, said Chantal Romain, an NBA spokeswoman.

Former NBA player Wallace “Mickey” Johnson (standing at right) talks to kids in the “Building Bridges Through Basketball” program. He talked about growing up in North Lawndale, and about how an officer in his community helped him stay on the straight and narrow. | Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

This particular day, retired player Wallace “Mickey” Johnson, a Chicago native who played from 1974-1986 for six NBA teams, including the Chicago Bulls, is in the mix. He talked to the teens about growing up in North Lawndale, and about how an officer in his community helped him stay on the straight and narrow.

“I got out of hand one time. I was 6’10”. He was maybe about 6 feet. He grabbed me by the throat, and said, ‘Young man, you better act right.’ That was a pull-up for me. I got it together,” he said.

“I know we have a lot of animosity between the police department and us citizens, and I’ve had problems with the police department also. But just like in basketball, you got some busted basketball players, and you got some great basketball players,” Johnson told the teens. “Fortunately, I’ve run across mostly good officers that helped in rearing me and making me the person I am today.”

Youths, facilitators and police will meet for 2 1/2 hours weekly through Aug. 24. The goal is to rebuild frayed police-community relations as well as strengthen youth’s confidence in walking their own paths in violence-plagued neighborhoods, RISE CEO Jocelyn Benson said.

“I think it’s important for law enforcement to understand these kids and what their lives are like, and for kids to see law enforcement as people who are on their side to keep them safe. Our goal is that we can build that bridge,” she said. “We want these kids to think about their role as change agents.”

Police Officer Mister Jarrett talks with teens at the Union League Boys & Girls Club on Thursday, July 27, 2017. | Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

At one point, speaking passionately about the concept of accountability, Sgt. Chris Schenk captured the kids’ attention.

“The important thing with accountability is that when you do something wrong, you are going to suffer, but from that suffering is actually how you transform yourself, if you’re accountable. You know what I mean?” he pressed.

Corey Newman, 16, of East Garfield Park, said he did.

“I like this. It’s something you wouldn’t expect from a basketball program,” Corey said. “For us to be involved with these officers is like, changing the stereotype. You get to see something different. These guys, outside of their uniform, they’re cool people.”

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