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More than a Basketball Tournament: Hoops in the Hood’s Biggest Season Yet


Kids From 20 Chicago Neighborhoods Come Together to Play Each Other In Basketball on Balbo Drive

More than 400 kids from 20 neighborhoods are taking over downtown Chicago’s streets on Thursday, August 23, 2018 — to play each other in basketball.

The Cross-City Championship Tournament and citywide block party caps off the biggest season yet of “Hoops in the Hood,” a sports-based community safety initiative by LISC Chicago that creates safe spaces for youth to interact and build positive relationships with peers and caring adults, while making visible use of public spaces and fostering a sense of community.

At 9:45 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23, Balbo Drive between Columbus and Lake Shore Drive will be closed to unite for sports, school supplies (donated by State Farm), food, entertainment, face-painting and cross-town community-building.

“The most important thing to me is how cool it is that these kids have found a way to play together,” said Craig Chico, president and CEO of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. “And in the shadow of Soldier Field, and Millennium Park, and the bandshell and after Lollapalooza, they know they’re somewhere special, they feel it. I can’t tell you how good it is for our kids.”

The event kick-offs with a brief opening ceremony, followed by the Cross-City Tournament Round-Robin games from 10 a.m.- 3:00 p.m. Final games begin at 2 p.m.

Teams hail from Pilsen, Back of the Yards, East Garfield Park, Austin, Humboldt Park, South Chicago, West Haven, Little Village, Belmont-Cragin, Woodlawn, North Lawndale, South Lawndale, Garfield Ridge, Oakland, West Garfield Park, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Auburn Gresham, South Shore, Chatham, Near North and the Quad Communities — all backed by respective community organizations which maintain local control of the program.

Community partners include: ABC Pilsen, Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, Breakthrough Urban Ministries, BUILD, Inc., Claretian Associates, Near West Side CDC, New Life Centers of Chicagoland, Northwest Side Housing Center, Project H.O.O.D, UCAN, Southwest Organizing Project, Teamwork Englewood, The Ark of St. Sabina, Annie B. Jones Community Services – Shore UP and The Community Builders.

Since 2006, and with the support of State Farm, the Hoops in the Hood program has positively impacted thousands of Chicago kids and given them a safe place to play across the city. Additionally, for the second year in a row, State Farm is supplying school supplies for all of the youth participating in the Cross-City Finale.

“Hoops in the Hood is more than a basketball tournament to State Farm®,” said Area Vice President Amy Isuani. “We have supported this community safety program since its inception. Through mentoring and coaching from caring adults, the Hoops basketball program helps students with leadership skills, social responsibility and teamwork. We are excited to provide all Cross-City Finale participants with school supplies as they begin the new school year.” 

Approximately 5,000 Chicago kids and teens between the ages of 8 and 19 took part in the program between June and August of 2018 alone, and all at no cost to them.

“Hoops in the Hood is about creating an environment where kids can just be kids...”
— Meghan Harte, LISC Chicago ED

For players, the program is free and provides kids with safe transportation to and from games, a T-shirt, trophy, food and drink, and the chance to be among peers and caring adults in an athletic, outdoor or indoor environment that is too often unavailable due to violence in the neighborhoods. As little as a $20 donation could sponsor a child through the program throughout the summer.

“Hoops in the Hood is about creating an environment where kids can just be kids and they can go outdoors and play. And for those three hours, no one is worried about anything else. They meet people and feel part of the community,” said LISC Chicago Executive Director Meghan Harte. “The more we can build off of that, the more impact it will have.”

The program culminates with the Cross-City Championship, which is hosted by LISC Chicago and the Chicago Park District held in Downtown Chicago and will close the street for the first time in the Program’s history.

“Our kids in Back of the Yards unfortunately have had to encounter more violence than other communities,” Chico said. “A lot of them come from challenged households, a lot don’t have the opportunity to participate in basketball camps, or those kinds of things. The park, for most of them, is where it’s at — and basketball is the outlet.”

“There’s a million positive things about doing Hoops in the Hood in areas where we’re doing it — for a lot of these kids this is the most structured, disciplined activity they’re going to have all summer, maybe all year. And it’s an opportunity to have very positive interaction with law enforcement.”

In most communities, “hot-spots” for violence, mainly street corners but sometimes parks, are reclaimed for the games.

"Since its inception, LISC Chicago and the Chicago Park District have partnered to ensure a successful summer of Hoops programs throughout the city. This year, we are further expanding this partnership, and together, hosting the 12th Annual Hoops in the Hood Cross-City Tournament,” said Chicago Park District General Superintendent & CEO Michael Kelly. “By providing opportunities to play basketball, be active and connect with their peers, we’re not only improving the lives of Chicago’s young people, we’re building up communities, which makes our great city even better."

Off the courts, the players may be rivals — but on the court, they’re teammates.

Chico’s organization engages about 120 players from across the Back of the Yards community, with players in two age ranges, up to 18. Every Friday, his team of 25 volunteers, along with two bus drivers and Chicago Police officers, facilitate games at a different park in the neighborhood — a typically risky move because it requires movement between areas that may be sparring with each other.

But when the whistle blows and the game begins, those affiliations go out the door.

One of the biggest aspects of the program’s mission is “to break down the neighborhood barriers and the neighborhood silos,” Chico said.

“We’re all Back of the Yards here, but that means there’s eight factions of gangs in Back of the Yards, and typically the kids east of Ashland and south of 47th Street would never go north of 47th and west of Ashland to play basketball — it’s two different gang territories, two different worlds,” Chico said. “All these kids from different parts of the neighborhood are playing against each other in the summer, and now they have to play together as an All-Star team at the Cross-City Tournament. Now it’s like a community. We’re not just separate parks and separate organizations from Back of the Yards — now we’re just Back of the Yards. The benefits of that can’t be overstated.”

The Back of the Yards set-up is legit: It includes referees from the Illinois High School Association, professional time clocks, scorekeepers and a real schedule that requires players to be on time.

The games draw hundreds from the neighborhood to come out and unite as one, with a regular attendance of about 500 who cheer on players and partake in free hot dogs, snow cones, popcorn and water throughout the game.

To the kids, it shows there are people in the community — particularly adults and the police — who care and want to support them.

“We’re trying to get as many adults there as we can, to show these kids that they’re being cared for, being attended to, that we’re interested in their lives and what’s going on,” Chico said. “To show that sense of appreciation.”

The program is also a powerful harbinger of peace.

After 10 years with no issues in the Back of the Yards program, a fight broke out during a game this summer between two groups not affiliated with the game. The team took a week off to let tensions cool, while police and coaches collaborated on ways to ensure the program continued.

Together, CPD, coaches and players used restorative justice techniques such as a “peace circle” to speak openly and honestly about their feelings. If players wanted to get back on the court, they had to participate, Chico said.

In the end, the community came out together, stronger than ever.

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“We said, ‘What do we do, quit? No, we don’t quit,’” Chico said. “Now we’re going to wind up even better than when we started.”

Benjamin “Benny” Estrada, director of sports-based programs at the New Life Centers of Chicagoland in Little Village, said he’s got about 140 kids and teens between 8 and 19 who participate in the program, locally known as “B-Ball on the Block.”

“The parks are always packed,” Estrada said.

A reformed gang member himself, Estrada knows firsthand the transformative power of community engagement, especially through sports, for kids and adults alike.

In Little Village, the Hoops in the Hood/B-Ball on the Block program not only provides the kids with something constructive and fun to do, but also provides safety and, like in other neighborhoods, helps the players build trusting relationships with caring adults in the community.

“To get young people around positive peers, that’s huge,” he said. “For myself, I hung around a lot of negative peers when I was younger. Once I found that love to play basketball, I wanted to be around those friends because we loved the same thing. It helped me pull myself away from the negative things I was doing.”

The program can be life-saving, too, Estrada said, because it provides the players an option outside of street life.

“With the amount of violence that we have in our neighborhood, it’s very vital that we have things for our young people to do,” Estrada said. “It’s easy to tell a lot of the kids in our neighborhood who are involved in gangs to get off the corner, but at the end of the day, where can they go? What can they do? So with a program like B-ball on the Block/Hoops in the Hood, you don’t have to be on the corner on a Friday at 6 o’clock, you can come to the park, you can join the basketball team — or, you can come spectate and have something to eat.”

Now, through the Cross-City Championship, the kids and teens forge friendships with not only others in their communities, but in neighborhoods across the city. The players look forward to competing against those they’ve met in communities outside their own — but there is also an important focus on sportsmanship, Estrada said. He’s teaching his players to be positive ambassadors of their communities.

“I’m really big on sportsmanship, I want our neighborhood to be represented in the right way,” Estrada said. “Not just in being good at playing basketball, but in being very good stewards of the sport. If you knock somebody down, pick them up. We’re looking to embrace the idea that it’s OK to compete, but we want to make sure you’re getting to know other kids across the city of Chicago.”

“We’re very blessed to participate in this program,” he added. “Friday is my favorite day of the week.”

Learn more about Hoops in the Hood.


Join us in creating safe spaces for youth to interact and build positive relationships. Donate to the Hoops in the Hood program.

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