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Saving kids, one hoop at a time

By Isiah Thomas, Special to CNN
updated 11:39 AM EST, Tue March 5, 2013
Isiah Thomas poses with some of the young people at a Peace Tournament, which gave rise to Windy City Hoops.
Isiah Thomas poses with some of the young people at a Peace Tournament, which gave rise to Windy City Hoops.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Isiah Thomas: In Chicago, kids want jobs, schools and safety, not lives of crime
  • Thomas: Basketball gives kids an alternative to finding sense of safety and belonging in gangs
  • Sports break down barriers; Thomas' life was set on the right track by basketball
  • Thomas and Mayor Emanuel want to expand a basketball league for at-risk kids

Editor's note: Isiah Thomas spent his 13-year NBA career playing basketball with the Detroit Pistons, leading the team to championships in 1989 and '90. He was an All-Star player 12 times; won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in 1990. Thomas was a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA. He's now an analyst for NBA TV and is a regular contributor to NBA.com.

(CNN) -- "Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying./ Brother, brother, brother, there is far too many of you dying./ You know we got to find a way to bring some lovin' here today. /Father, father, we don't need to escalate. You see war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate..." From "What's Going On," sung by Marvin Gaye in 1971.

In Chicago, we asked that simple question of people in the heart of communities plagued by violence. What's going on?

"We need jobs, education, recreation and we want to live, we want to feel safe," is mainly what young people told us. They shared their stories with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina's Church, the Rev. Chris Devron of Christ the King Jesuit College prep school and me.

Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas

A young man said: "When I grow up I want to be a lawyer. I am good at arguing and debating. My friends call me good news because I always take the positive side of the argument."

Another young man said, "I'm good with the pen. I write short stories and put music behind the story so you can really hear what I'm saying."

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What we heard was that they all have hopes and dreams. Not one of them dreamed or aspired to a life of crime. Among the violence and death that so many experience, hope is alive. I was not shocked or surprised. It is what I expected to hear and what I knew: These kids want to belong and they want to feel valued and, yes, respected.

Kids play basketball for \
Kids play basketball for "Windy City Hoops" in Chicago.

Earning respect, having a positive reputation and being a valued member of a group or a team is partly the reason I'm where I am today; I was taught I could achieve these virtues by playing on a basketball team. Too many of our kids try to achieve them by being in a gang.

We need to teach our young people that respect is given and never taken, that reputation comes from doing honest work and not hard time. They need to know the only group worth being a part of requires giving back through teamwork.

My coaches, mentors and teachers taught me those lessons when I was growing up on Chicago's West Side. They taught me to use my sports platform to help others, better the community and better others' lives. It can be the crucial difference for thousands of young people, whose only knowledge of a structured organization comes from gangs.

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Gang members face off on the court

Over the years, sports and play have broken down racial and cultural barriers. We believe that once kids who might be at risk get to know each other and play sports together, the murder rate will drop. In fully functioning parks and schools, we can win their hearts and minds and create safe places for them to interact with each other. I am proud to join forces with Mayor Emanuel to expand the "Windy City Hoops" basketball league, which would extend our Friday and Saturday night tournaments to 10 more Chicago parks beginning in March.

This is where all of us come in. We are calling on all Chicagoans to donate what they can at cityofchicago.org/hoops in order to reach our goal of $500,000. With that money, we can provide an additional 3,200 young people in Chicago a safe alternative to drugs, gangs and violence, one hoop at a time. Donations will go toward buying a jersey, paying a referee for a game, reserving a court or supporting another part of the program.

This effort began last fall when I met the mayor at a Saturday morning basketball game at Christ the King High School on the West Side. The tournament brought rival gang members together to compete. When the colors came off and the jerseys went on, nobody saw gang members: We just saw great athletes playing classic Chicago basketball.

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Right then, the mayor and I started working out how we could give as many young people as possible across Chicago this opportunity to show off their skills and do what they love in a safe place.

Whether it is 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 competition, basketball teaches you how to get along in a group; it teaches you how to set common goals and work with others to achieve them.

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From the courts on the West Side to the Hall of Fame, those are lessons that stayed with me my entire life, and they can give other kids from a similar background a better shot. I believe deeply in what the mayor is trying to achieve because I see the incredible potential in Chicago's young people. When I walk down the street in Englewood or Austin or Little Village, I don't see criminals or gang bangers or thugs; I see athletes and artists and academics capable of great things. Our challenge is often to get them to see themselves in the same light.

Right now, too many kids aren't optimistic because they don't have much to look back on with pride. We can change that; we can give them an opportunity to build up their confidence and build up each other. We can help them see clearly that they have choices. Poverty should no longer be wedded to drugs and weapons. We want them to know that education is the only true way to better their lives.

Opinion: Chicago's violence took my dad, friends

Our kids are worth saving and they're worth fighting for. If you can't give resources, give them your time; have conversations with them, and become a strong mentor. Being present and showing up can change a kid's life for the better. I know, because I was one of those kids.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Isiah Thomas.

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