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ESPN hosts needed discussion on athletes and responsibility

Chicago, IL - August 25, 2016 - South Side YMCA: Isiah Thomas (l), Kristi Castlin, Jemele Hill, Michael Wilbon and Kenny Williams during the town hall discussion panel An Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility and Violence â in Chicago. Discussing: Racial Profiling, Athletes and Police, Sports and Activism, Guns and Violence and A Call to Action
(Photo by George Burns / ESPN Images)

Dwyane Wade and his mother, Pastor Jolinda Wade of the New Creation Church on the South Side, took part in a town-hall forum Thursday to address the terrifying epidemic of gun violence on the streets of Chicago.

‘‘We chose Chicago because gun violence has reached crisis level here,’’ moderator Jemele Hill said. ‘‘But it’s not a black issue; it’s not a Chicago issue. Across the country, a person is killed by firearms every 15 minutes.’’

One day later, this plague that is so indiscriminate in its choice of victims touched the Wades when Nykea Aldridge, Dwyane’s cousin and Jolinda’s niece, was shot dead while pushing a baby stroller near her home in the Parkway Gardens housing complex. She was a 32-year-old mother of four.

‘‘Another act of senseless gun violence,’’ Dwyane Wade posted on Twitter. ‘‘4 kids lost their mom for NO REASON. Unreal. #EnoughIsEnough’’

It seems the urban terrorists preying upon Chicago neighborhoods are impervious to a swelling chorus of pleas to put down the guns and respect the sanctity of human life. That was the message of ‘‘Athletes, Violence and Responsibility,’’ the event Thursday in which the Wades were participants.

Its sponsor was ‘‘The Undefeated,’’ an ambitious ESPN multimedia venture that vows to take sports coverage to a more thoughtful level by examining the racial, cultural and societal components of major stories. Such as, can sports and the people involved in them influence issues of greater consequence than the playing of games?

ESPN being ESPN, there was star power all over the gym at the South Chicago YMCA, including Jabari Parker, Isiah Thomas, Ken Williams and Rajon Rondo. Three-plus hours of taping was distilled into a 90-minute broadcast that aired Thursday evening.

It was great and important TV, with heartrending testimony from Chicago kids traumatized by gunfire putting real faces and helpless voices to the topics being discussed.

Not that the stories needed embellishing. You wanted to cry for Stephanie Brown, who somehow didn’t while recalling how her 13-year-old son, Darius, died in a gang crossfire while playing basketball in a neighborhood park.

Marco Johnson, a tough, streetwise veteran of 29 years as a Chicago police officer, fought back tears as he mourned Arshell ‘‘Trey’’ Dennis, the 19-year-old son of a fellow officer whom Johnson had trained. Trey’s funeral was wrapping up elsewhere on the South Side as the taping began.

Parker (South Side) and Cappie Pondexter (West Side) recounted growing up in parts of the city where hope is hard to come by amid violence that’s a fact of life. Basketball was their escape, but there has to be something else for kids not blessed with blue-chip athletic talent.

Pondexter has lost three family members to the streets in the years since she left Marshall High School for Rutgers and the WNBA.

‘‘I got out, and I was blessed because I had a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who instilled the right things in me,’’ she said.

ESPN football personality Marcellus Wiley echoed Pondexter in assigning first-responder responsibility to the home.

‘‘Parents, raise your kids,’’ he said. ‘‘If you don’t, they’ll be outside finding other role models, and that might not turn out too well. We know it takes a village to raise a child, but most of all it takes you.’’

A TV critic might fault the effort as overly ambitious, with too many panelists offering opinions and observations, leaving too little time for meaningful discussion. And the mutual distrust between police and the communities they serve is a topic worthy of its own show.

But ‘‘The Undefeated’’ deserves credit for a bold attempt to get people talking — and thinking. There’s often too much of one without the other, in sports and everywhere else.

I work at Leo High School in Auburn-Gresham, where gun violence is all too common. Leaving the taping, I got the call I dread above all others: Harvey Moss, a 2016 Leo grad, had been shot Wednesday in a drive-by near his home in Washington Heights. He and a friend were returning from a gym workout; Harvey hopes to play basketball at the junior college where he begins classes next week. Thankfully, he suffered only a graze wound. He’s OK.

A member of our state runner-up basketball team and our sectional champion track team, Harvey is as good a kid as I’ve known at Leo. His friend, also recovering, is a junior at Lewis University. If they’re gangbangers, I’m a nuclear physicist.

But Harvey Moss, Trey Dennis, Nykea Aldridge . . . it doesn’t matter anymore. No one is immune, and it’s crazy.