A player from the Back of the Yards team goes for a jumper against the Auburn Gresham team during Saturday's Peace Tournament at St. Sabina. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

AUBURN GRESHAM — While most of the All-Star Weekend action may have been Downtown, a few basketball legends took some time to show the South Side some love at St. Sabina’s eighth annual Peace Tournament Saturday morning.

Teams from Back of the Yards, North Lawndale, Englewood/Auburn Gresham, and Humboldt Park faced off in the packed gymnasium of St. Sabina’s campus, 7900 S. Racine Ave.

A crowd of 250, including star athletes like former Bear Otis Wilson and Bulls Guard Denzel Valentine, rooted them on from the sidelines. The half-day tournament was created by Father Michael Pfleger in 2012 to “increase the peace” among Black and Brown youth across the city.

Players decked out in uniforms supplied by Nike’s Air Jordan brand were given an All-Star welcome, with NBA luminary Bill Russell kicking off the half-day event with words of encouragement. And though Derrick Rose had yet to make his annual scheduled appearance, copies of his book, “I’ll Show You,” flew off merchandise tables faster than volunteers could replace them. V103 DJ Joe Soto served as emcee.

NBA Legend Bill Russell looks on as Peace Tournament players take to the court to start the game. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

While the Peace Tournament usually takes place in the fall, Pfleger and co-organizer Cory Williams wanted to provide a free alternative to kids and teens unable to afford tickets to All-Star Weekend festivities.

“In years past we’ve had four teams from here in the Auburn Gresham community, each team representing a different street organization or gang, coming together and playing against one another but also trying to build relationships with one another, seeing that they’re not that different,” said Williams, who also serves as executive assistant to Father Pfleger. “Typically, they’ve grown up a block or two away from each other, and those dividing lines can cause a lot of division. So we hoped to break down barriers with this game.”

This year’s tournament was a little different, explained Williams, in that it was the first year teams from other neighborhoods were invited to participate.

“We reached out to those communities that we knew, and they put those teams together,” Williams said. “The Auburn Gresham team is comprised of members of St. Sabina’s basketball league. We took three players from each of the four teams.”

Over 250 people — including former Bear Otis Wilson —attended Saturday’s tournament, now in its eighth year. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

The tournament’s objective in bringing together warring factions has been successful from its inaugural event, in which two teammates — a shooter and his intended target — made peace while playing together, added Williams.

“If something like that can happen, then there’s hope,” said Williams.

For Pfleger, expanding the Peace Tournament and making it free to the community is the work he and his team were meant to do.

“We don’t just play ball, we work with the youth afterward. Last year in our Strong Futures program, we had 165 young brothers between 18 and 26, and by the end of 2019, 122 of them had full-time jobs. Basketball is just the hook,” Pfleger told Block Club. “But our program is to give you life skills, access to mentors and coaches, and get you into a program that gets you a job.”

Spike Lee was slated to host a discussion with Bill Russell but had been held up by the weather, said Pfleger, who added that St. Sabina would be honoring the award-winning director with the Drum Major of Justice Award after his scheduled speech during Sunday’s mass.

“Him coming here to share his story, his journey is important,” Pfleger said. “Spike has been a voice of conscience forever, so we wanted to honor him.”

Kentrell Hill, a player on the Auburn Gresham team, credits the tournament with making him a “better all-around human being.”

“I’m in a mentorship here at St. Sabina, and it’s helped me in every aspect of life,” said Hill, a Truman College freshman competing in the tournament for a second year. “This is like our own little All-Star Weekend. This is forming unity, not just for Black folks, but for everyone. This is what it means to give back.”

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