Guns, the game, and the soul of a city

A spate of gun-related violence has emptied the outdoor basketball courts in Chicago

Originally Published: August 25, 2010
By Scoop Jackson |

Basketball HoopMary Knox Merrill/Getty ImagesWhat happens to hoops when the courts aren't safe? The heartbeat of a city is silenced.

CHICAGO -- Basketball has always been the sport of two seasons: winter and summer. Winter is when money is made (NBA, NCAA, etc.); summer is when legends are made.

Every summer in most urban areas around the country, the game rediscovers itself. Resurrects itself. On concrete.

This summer? Different. Including in a city that claims as many -- maybe more -- street basketball legends than any place in the world.

This summer, the basketball courts in and around Chicago have been dry, almost empty. And calls to other cities indicate the situation is pretty much the same in New York, Baltimore, LA, Houston, D.C., Philadelphia, Oakland, Birmingham, Atlanta and Gary, Ind.

[+] Enlargeplayground basketball
AP Photo/LM OteroThe game has always thrived on scenes like this.

It's probably because I live here, but the decline in the number of kids hooping on the streets, on outdoor courts, in Chicago has been particularly noticeable.

Is it that video games and other sporting or extracurricular activities are pulling the kids away? Maybe. But maybe it's something else, too. Maybe the violence and the gunshots in the city this summer are doing more than harming and killing people. On the streets of Chicago, they may be killing a game, too. A game responsible for giving the city some of its life.

According to a recent report in the Chicago Tribune, 303 people were shot and 33 of them were killed in the city in the 31 days of July. That's an average of almost 10 people per day hit by gunfire, and more than one per day killed by it.

And those are just the numbers that have been reported.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, it probably isn't possible to prove the connection. But it doesn't seem like a stretch to me to link the much-publicized increase in random, often nonspecific, non-gang-related violence to a decrease in use of the more than 150 public courts that grace the city from the west side to the south suburbs. And caught in the middle: basketball.

The silence on the courts is far from golden, silver or platinum.

[+] EnlargeEmpty Basketball Court
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWaiting to 'get next' has taken on a new, and ominous, meaning.

"Do I think the shootings over the summer have had an effect on people playing [basket]ball in the streets? Absolutely," says Rob Graham, the former director of parks and recreation for the village of University Park just south of Chicago and now the Chicago marketing director for 94x50 Sports Marketing. "They already didn't play as much as they did when we were coming up, but now the parents are scared. And so are the kids."

When urban areas go through periods of violence like Chicago has experienced this summer, the effect on lives beyond those who are directly involved in it is sometimes overlooked. In this case, the soul of a sport has been damaged. And maybe lost.

Basketball used to be the pulse of summer here. The sounds of the game were the heartbeat of the city. All day and most of the night, you could hear balls bouncing and arguments agitating. Drive, walk or ride almost anywhere in the city, and you'd see bands of brothas lining fences and sidelines waiting to get next.

Now, it seems, everyone is trying not to be next -- next to have his life ended or altered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One of them is a 17-year-old kid, whose name I won't use here. He's going into his senior year of high school. He used to play basketball for Hyde Park High School. Even when his hoop dream began to turn into the reality of a non-Division 1, non-NBA future, he always felt he still had the parks. On the courts around the city, he could still build his rep, keep his name attached to the game.

The courts -- and what he did on them when he played -- were going to be his mouthpiece. They were going to tell his story as they did ours, those of us whose basketball life he's repeating.

He's been shot at four times this summer, he says. Some of the shots were meant for him -- he admits to getting into a fight on a basketball court at the end of the school year, and the fight carried over into the summer. Some of them were just wrong place/wrong time incidents.

[+] EnlargePlayground Basketball
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesPlayground courts once were an escape from the streets. Now kids need an escape from the courts.

Because he played ball every chance he could get, he says people always know where to find him.

The basketball courts used to be his escape from the streets that called to him with their less righteous alternatives. They used to pull him away from that mayhem. Now, like thousands of other kids who just want to play ball, that is much less of an option. Now, it's either find a gym or die trying.

Some say the weather is part of the reason kids haven't been populating the courts the way they used to. (Chicago had a record 46 consecutive days where the temperature was over 80 degrees this summer.) Some blame the heat for the escalation in the behavior that has accounted for so many black and minority youths becoming gunshot victims. Police data indicate that a disproportionate number of the shootings in the month of July occurred on the city's south and west sides, areas that are predominantly black.

Others blame the economy, the high unemployment rate and a lack of job opportunities that are giving so many kids nothing to do but wild out. Some say it's simply the state of the world we live in now. Get used to it.

Some of the basketball purists -- high school coaches, former players and local street legends -- with whom I spoke claim that AAU ball has taken more kids off the public courts than the threat and fear of getting shot has, and it's a possibility. But it's hard to believe it could be the prime factor; the AAU circuit has been strong in Chicago for the past 15 years, and the city has never looked this desolate when it comes to basketball.

"The shootings and the drug trade have stopped these kids from playing ball [outside]," Chicago State University coach Tracy Dildy says. "The drug dealers have taken over the playgrounds. It's open season out there now. The playgrounds and basketball courts have become battlegrounds. I can't blame these kids for not playing ball outside."

The shootings became so bad, so routine, in the 6th Ward that Alderwoman Freddrenna Lyle disabled the basketball courts at the famous Nat King Cole Park by putting locks on the rims. And then ordered that the hoops should come down altogether.

[+] Enlargeplayground basketball
AP Photo/Brad DohertyThe violence has been so bad that some courts have closed down altogether.

In mid-May, Tom Wortham, a Chicago policeman, Iraq war veteran and the president of the advisory council for the park, said this in a story printed on the Tribune's website: "It's starting to feel like it's expected in this community. When people think of the South Side of Chicago, they think violence. In Chatham [a neighborhood in the 6th Ward], that's not what we see. It's happened, and we're going to fix it so it doesn't happen again."

Three days later, on May 19, Wortham was shot and killed in front of his father's house during in a robbery attempt of his motorcycle. The house is directly across the street from the basketball courts.

Used to be the old saying of "Shoot Hoops, Not Guns" could be a rallying cry for a campaign to stop the violence, but it's too late for that now. It's too late for Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose or even President Obama -- three people who represent and are deeply connected to the culture of basketball in Chicago -- to say something that might shift the thought patterns of the knuckleheads who refuse to cease fire, or that might convince thousands of kids that it's safe to return to the parks to play ball.

It's too late, too, to write a column to try to make change.

Summer's over.

Instead, I am left to drive around the city and watch an integral part of the beauty of a game become extinct. And I ask myself: What happens to a sport when the fear of being shot while playing it forces the game into obscurity?


Scoop Jackson is a columnist for


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