The basketball court – cracked and bruised blacktop marked with chalk and two portable basketball hoops – is a place where these kids from Pilsen can forget, at least for a little while, about gangs and crime.
As part of The Resurrection Project, kids ages 6 to 17, and many others in this Near-Westside neighborhood, are learning what it means to be part of a community that says no to violence.
At least that’s the aim of the project started in 1990 by an alliance of six Pilsen Catholic churches and several worried residents. The community-based organization, which originally assisted the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen, has since spread to neighboring communities.
The initial investment of $30,000 17 years ago – $5,000 from each of the six churches – has helped pay for programs such as this moving basketball court, also known as the Resurrection Basketball League (RBL).
The league started in summer 1999 in Pilsen; last year, Little Village started a similar basketball program, and Back of the Yards is attempting to get one started as well.
“This is a way to spend that time to give people in the community, not just young kids but also adults, something healthy on Friday afternoons,” says Julian Lazalde, 24, an RBL organizer.
As Lazalde talks, 12-year-old Santiago stops to chat about his favorite team – the Chicago Bulls – and his favorite player – Michael Jordan. As Santiago runs back onto the court, dribbling, spinning to his left and making a fade-a-way jump shot, 10-year-old Mike comes running.
He shouts, “Hey! Watch this!” then smiles as he spins the basketball on his left index finger for a couple of seconds before saying, “I hope we win today.”
Lazalde says he thinks the program is winning, too: “It sends a message of community unity but also that safety is starting to spread across the city during the summers.”
Former gang member Tony Lopez, 44, says he hopes Pilsen youth learn that violence isn’t the way.
“I did some crazy stuff back then,” he says, recalling his days as a gang member. “I was young and stupid. I had no guidance like there is now.
“I learned my lesson,” says Lopez, now a laborer for a commercial construction company. “Gangs and related violence is so dumb and can be easily avoided if kids are given a little bit of direction.”
Steering clear of the gangs isn’t easy, though.
Last year, as Carmelita Frias, 35, and a few volunteers walked up 17th and Loomis streets collecting signatures from homeowners so the block could be closed off for the weekly basketball games, they faced disgruntled gang members.
Frias remembers the gang members shouting, “We don’t want that shit here!” But the group continued its work. “We’re just here for the kids,” the group told the gang members.
Still, Frias and her volunteers felt threatened. This intimidation is what the RBL is attempting to fight.
“We’re breaking through a lot of barriers,” Frias says. “As the mother of four kids, I love the concept of not only making a difference in my kids life but the friends they’re around.”
“The kids are intimidated to go outside,” says the Rev. Brendan Curran of St. Pius Church, one of the founding churches of the The Resurrection Project. “We motivate kids to go outside and get involved.”
To keep the players safe at their weekly Friday basketball games, cars block off the area where they play and two police officers keep watch at each side. Another officer referees the game. Each week, the basketball court moves to a different hotspot in Pilsen in the hopes that the hoops and players will drive away the gangs.
At one point at a game earlier this month, the basketball court fills with as many as 15 kids running, dribbling, shooting and, most importantly, laughing.
One night last summer, about 150 kids turned out for a game – a record for the RBL, Lazalde says. He’d like to see that number turn out every Friday night, but that’s not easy.
Alvaro Obregon, 40, the New Communities Program manager for the RBL, realizes the hardships of getting the kids involved.
“We [the RBL] try to alleviate some of the gang problems,” he says. “Take the bad areas and make them good.”
Obregon, who’s been involved with the RBL each of its eight seasons, has seen the blocks where the hoops get set up begin to transform into more positive places, which he says is his main motivation.
“They [residents of Pilsen] come out of their houses, and they see something else is possible,” Obregon says. “Instead of hiding from our problems, let’s face them … lets make Chicago safe.”
Editor’s Note: The next game will be June 29 at 18th Place between Throop and Loomis. Before the 5 p.m. tip-off, there will be a short memorial service honoring Chicago Police Officer Brian Strouse, who was gunned down on 18th Place and South Loomis as he conducted surveillance of gang activity in June 2001.
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basketball gangs little village pilsen the resurrection project violence