AUBURN GRESHAM — Larry Daniels has long worked to create safe spaces on the South Side where kids could feel like basketball stars.
On Saturday, Daniels, an Englewood resident, MC’d one of his Hoop Hard Or Get Off the Court events. It was the first time he’s held a tournament in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was Monday.
Daniels said Saturday’s event was an olive branch for community members to come together, support neighborhood children and reflect on King’s legacy.
He made sure every kid, coach, referee and volunteer got a custom Hoop Hard Or Get Off the Court warmup shirt with King on it. All participating players — who came from elementary and middle schools across the city — left with a trophy featuring King.
Daniels hopes basketball can inspire Chicago youth to learn more about the civil rights legend.
“The trophies send a special message and let the kids know who paved the way for all of us,” Daniels said. “And basketball keeps kids really focused [and] off these streets. You gotta have that MLK mindset when you play the game of basketball. Because you can make it if you keep your mind to it and your heart to it.”
Daniels recently launched a GoFundMe in hopes of opening a basketball facility dedicated to Hoop Hard events, which he believes can keep kids out of harm’s way.
“The violence has got to stop,” Daniels said. “Only way to stop it is to start at home, then it’s got to start on the blocks, and then it’s got to go out here to the neighborhoods. It’s a touching thing when you can just get kids to come out and play the game of basketball.”
John Baye Spellers, 13, came ready to play. The 6-foot-3 eighth grader from Skinner West Elementary School threw it down twice in front of the roaring crowd at The Ark of St. Sabina.
It was the first time the South Shore native had dunked in a game.
“They were easy,” Spellers said. “It’s important to give kids like me exposure, make them feel good.”
On the car ride over, Spellers’ dad, John Randy Spellers, promised his son $100 if he got his first in-game dunk. His wife, Sherry Spellers, said her husband now owes their son $200.
“That’s gotta be the price per dunk,” Sherry Spellers said, laughing. “We’re just so proud of him. We just try to keep him busy.”
John Randy Spellers, who played basketball at Howard University, said he and his son will have to negotiate over lunch, “wherever he wants to eat.”
Parents at the event said they were thankful to share a positive event with their children.
Derrick Brooks sat atop the stands, hooked his phone up to a tripod and filmed the entirety of his daughter Danielle Brooks’ game. Danielle Brooks is a budding basketball star who will be a freshman at Kenwood next year, and her dad likes to review the game tape with her at their home on the Near West Side.
“It’s just a great way to spend time together,” Derrick Brooks said.
Khristiana Patterson, of Englewood, didn’t sit down once while her daughter, Kylah Patterson, played. Khristiana Patterson jumped up and down, screamed and streamed the whole game.
“She keeps me motivated,” Khristiana Patterson said.
Daniels often invites police officers to Hoop Hard events so basketball can begin to “bridge the gap” with the community. On-duty officers, all in uniform, sat in the bleachers Saturday to cheer on the kids.
Officer Derrick Jones, of the 6th Police District, said officers should support neighbors.
“It’s important to be an example. I believe representation is very important,” Jones said. “We have to continue to support our youth and get them involved in positive activities.”
The Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina said he is always happy to let Daniels use the church’s ’60s-style court for Hoop Hard events for free. Pfleger said the pandemic and a spike in violence has left “the community hurting like I haven’t [seen] in a long time.”
Basketball provides a release, he said.
“The violence is out of control in this city. I feel that the city has failed in the violence. I feel the community, we failed, and our kids are dying,” Pfleger said. “Any way we can serve the community like this with sports, it might seem like drops in a bucket, but they’re important ingredients that let the kids know we care about them.”
Daniels passed out trophies and made sure every team got a photo in front of a custom-made banner with King.
“This says kids have possibilities, with organized structure, with showing them care and showing them love,” Pfleger said. “We need to be doing that seven days a week.”
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