AUBURN GRESHAM — Chicago high school basketball legend and NBA Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas might not have expected his suggestion for South Side rival gangs to play basketball with each other would turn into an annual celebration of neighborhood peace.
But seven years later his idea has become a local institution.
Cory Williams, assistant to Rev. Michael Pfleger of the ARK of Saint Sabina, 7800 S Racine Ave., shared the origin story of the 7th Annual Peace League Basketball Tournament just a few weeks before the game will tipoff from the ARK of Saint Sabina’s gym between at 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15.
Admission to the single day tournament is free. Players receive trophies and jerseys for participating.
“[Thomas] came up with the idea and we at St. Sabina put in a lot of the leg work in putting it together,” Williams said. “The basic premises was to use a sport we all know and love to provide an atmosphere to bring unity. We want to use basketball as a vehicle to show though you guys may live on different blocks, you are not that different from one another.”
Williams said the initial games involved four different street gangs playing with and against each other for a championship. In fact, for the first game, one player on a team had previously shot at another player on a different team, he said. Yet, no violence took place on or off the court.
New to the tournament this year will be the inclusion of players from Chicago’s West Side. The format will be two teams from the West Side will compete against each other and the two South Side teams will play against each other. The winners of each respective game will play a final championship game.
Williams said the idea to add West Side players was suggested by Thomas.
Born out of the initial games is a year-round basketball league hosted by St. Sabina, Williams said. Two 12-week leagues and one six-week league run throughout the year with the same premises as the annual game. The league typically features eight teams with 10 players per team.
Players participating in the games are given holistic resources dealing with housing, finance, education, food, employment resources, free GED courses through Kennedy King College, and more.
“Once we get them involved we try to figure out what’s going on with them,” Williams said.
Williams said in an effort to continue to reach the community, about a year ago he scheduled basketball games with four teams of neighborhood young adults versus four teams of regular St. Sabina players.
“I felt like our guys were OK, they were progressing, and I looked and said these aren’t the guys up there on the corners as they used to be,” he said. “We got a group of 15- to 20- [year olds] who may be on the fence, the neighborhood is pulling them one way yet they want to go another way.”
Over the years, former Chicago Bulls players Joakim Noah, Ben Gordon and Jannero Pargo were in attendance at the annual game and offered participants advice on life.
“Jo would also just pop up periodically,” Williams said. “He would just come down on a Monday night while we’re having a game and sit and talk to the guys. Just himself, not a whole entourage or anything like that, and get to know some of the guys. While he was here in Chicago he was really vested in it.”
This year, Williams anticipates Chicago high school basketball legend/Chicago Bulls forward Jabari Parker will make an appearance at the event.
“We’re just really proud to have someone of his caliber back at home who is ready and willing to do the work in the community to try and make a positive change,” he said.
For more information about the Peace Tournament visit www.thearkofstsabina.org.