Non-violence group works to stop violence with hoops and hopeAndy Grimmon November 7, 2021 at 5:02 pm

Jamil Hayes (center rear), 25, huddles up with his teammates and their coach, Chicago CRED Outreach Coordinator Terrence Henderson, during a basketball tournament organized by CRED in Hyde Park on Oct. 8. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

With violence spiking at summer’s end, Chicago CRED recruits at-risk South Siders with offers of safe place to play ball

On a recent Friday night, some of the most dangerous and endangered people in Chicago played basketball at a Hyde Park fieldhouse.

The Chicago CRED basketball tournament, an ad hoc schedule of basketball games, was reaching its conclusion, with the team in black jerseys up 48-39 over the team in white.

It might have surprised the middle schoolers running baseball drills on the opposite side of the gymnasium to know the two teams are made up of some of the most likely victims — or perpetrators — of Chicago’s gun violence.

The players are mostly young men, all gang-affiliated and from the South Side communities of Roseland or West Pullman, where CRED has established a network of outreach workers over the last three years.

Based on CRED’s analysis of recent shootings and arrests, along with information outreach workers glean from the streets, any of the 16 players who showed up for the game rank as roughly 25 times more likely to be shot than an average Chicagoan. Most are not aware of the exact calculus that goes into CRED’s formula, but they are acutely attuned to the unique risks they face in trying to find a basketball game.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Jamil Hayes, 25, shoots a free throw during the Chicago CRED basketball tournament Oct. 8 in Hyde Park.

“I’m not gonna lie, I can’t play basketball on any court in Chicago, but there are places I can play,” said Jamil Hayes, a rangy, broad-shouldered 25-year-old who had done most of the scoring for the white team.

Hoops ability was not why Hayes was recruited for the game; his recent life experience and social network made him a target for CRED — and gang rivals. A former high school and AAU league player, Hayes found his way into games almost daily until last September, when his ankle was shattered by a bullet outside a friend’s home.

As he took the court for the CRED game, he was diverting his mind from the murder of a close friend a few days earlier in Rockford — a killing Hayes witnessed via chilling doorbell camera video that made TV news upstate.

Despite the hardware still in his ankle, Hayes bounds down the court with abandon, dishing passes to teammates who might be mortal enemies — if he were to ask what block they lived on.

With his team trailing by nine points as the clock wound down, Hayes missed a free throw, another bad bounce in the trajectory of a hard week. Instead of racing back to defend the ensuing fast break, he plopped onto the floor and scowled at his coach, CRED Outreach Coordinator Terrence Henderson.

Final score: Hayes’ white team 39, black team 50.

“You do this to me every week!” Hayes complains.

Henderson shrugs. After the game, he will admit he has indeed stacked the rosters each week so that Hayes’ team is undermanned. Hayes is precisely the sort of high-risk player Henderson wants to recruit into CRED’s intensive program of cognitive behavioral therapy, job training and placement. He’d like to lure some of Hayes’ associates as well.

“I know if (Hayes) doesn’t win because he ain’t got no teammates, he’s going to go out and recruit his boys and bring them,” Henderson says with a smile. “Those are the guys we want to be here.”

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Chicago CRED Outreach Coordinator Terrence Henderson coaches a team during a basketball tournament in Hyde Park on Oct. 8.

Basketball leagues are not an official component of CRED’s anti-violence efforts, which were launched in 2016 with a multimillion-dollar grant from the Palo Alto-based Emerson Collective, a charity founded by Laurene Powell Jobs. The league was formed in a matter of days in early September, as CRED staff was at a loss to squash a violent feud between gang factions on the South Side.

Henderson oversees a team of 18 outreach workers, mostly former South Side gang members who daily walk the streets of Roseland and West Pullman with a list of candidates for the program.

Outreach workers also rush to the scene of every shooting scene in the two neighborhoods — reaching out to relatives of victims and trying to suss out the story behind the violence, so they can reach out to the shooters as well.

Young men who’ve recently been shot are often less receptive to help and empowerment, even when the offer includes paid training and, in some cases, housing assistance. They have immediate concerns that make long-term change seem improbable. And on average, CRED participants have been contacted by outreach workers nearly three dozen times before signing up for the two-year curriculum.

For months, outreach workers also try to broker peace agreements among rival gang groups; by this summer, they’d assembled truces among about a dozen factions. But by late August, that fragile peace was fraying as a gang clique based on 118th Street was trading shootouts with one on 119th Street. During that month, the clashes led to two fatal shootings, and outreach workers were at a loss to defuse the conflict.

CRED’s staff investigated and believed the shooters were part of a Latin Kings faction CRED had yet to penetrate, though the 118th and the 119th street groups were targeting each other because of misinterpreted social media barking. Convincing the rival factions was proving tough. As Labor Day weekend approached, Henderson’s team needed to get high-risk players off the streets and out of harm’s way.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Jamil Hayes, 25, goes to the basket during the Chicago CRED basketball tournament in Hyde Park on Friday, Oct. 8.

Henderson, himself a former gang member, got his start as a non-violence activist nearly a decade ago, recruiting fellow gangsters to play in St. Sabina Church’s Peace League. Since coming to work for CRED five years ago, he’d envisioned building a similar tournament for the Far South Side. This summer, he rushed to pull together the first CRED game, with the help of the non-profit PeacePlayers, in a matter of days.

The first games were played Labor Day weekend on outdoor courts in Gately Park, but that limited the appeal for gang-involved players CRED was trying to enlist.

“Young guys like athletics. They’ll do a lot to be able to get into a game,” Henderson said. “A lot of these guys are too hot to go to a park and hoop, because they don’t know who’s going to roll by.”

The next round of games was played indoors in Pullman, but the evening’s hoops were canceled about midway through the two-hour session, after a car went squealing through the parking lot and a passenger shot up a parked car.

When the games resumed two weeks later, black tire streaks still marked the path of the shooters’ car across the parking lot, and bow-tied Nation of Islam security guards hired by CRED patted down each player as they arrived.

Since the shooting, Henderson has had most players board a windowless van to commute to games together, hoping to draw less attention from rivals than showing up in their own cars.

Players are reminded not to break out their phones or post their whereabouts on social media, so rivals won’t know where they are. The location for the final game was changed several times, The Pullman courts were double-booked; the move to the Hyde Park gym was finalized only hours before tip-off.

The confusion likely hurt turnout, which was off by about half for the final game, and the ad hoc nature of the games seemed to offend Henderson’s sense of professionalism. The games he organized with St. Sabina’s featured appearances by Bulls players and other NBA stars, and Henderson envisions more production value when CRED’s league resumes around Thanksgiving.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Keith Walker, 25, tries to block a shot by Jamil Hayes, 25, during a Chicago CRED basketball tournament in Hyde Park on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

Henderson counts the inaugural league a success. While the play on the floor included plenty of bobbled passes and ill-advised jump shots, the rest of the scene could pass for a high-end rec league. Players wear matching, numbered jerseys. Two referees roam the court, a pair of PeacePlayers staff keep score and run the clock. Henderson and his opposing coaches barking encouragement from courtside.

Despite the lopsided score throughout the game, there is minimal trash-talking. In 40 minutes of play, there aren’t even any particularly hard fouls. It could have been a church league, observes a PeacePlayers scorekeeper.

“We don’t really work with this age group or this (at-risk) population,” said PeacePlayers manager Angela Johnson. “But on the court, everything has been just fine.”

The games have given CRED’s outreach team a few hours with young men they otherwise might be lucky to spend just a few minutes with on the street.

Hayes’ best friend had been in CRED’s program for more than a year, but Hayes started the process to become a full participant in CRED’s program just a few weeks ago. Once enrolled, he’ll commit about 40 hours a week to the CRED curriculum.

While Hayes left the court in a funk after yet another loss, Henderson expects him back for Friday basketball as well.

“He’s mad,” Henderson said. “But he’s going to be back with some of his boys.”

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Chicago CRED Outreach Coordinator Terrence Henderson playfully tackles Keith Walker, 25, after a basketball tournament in Hyde Park on Friday, Oct. 8. Henderson coached one of the teams in the final game; Walker led the opposing team to victory.

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