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Courting a peaceful alternative

A violent Chicago summer took a backseat to hoops for about 2,700 fans on Saturday. Courtesy of Ben Solomon

This is a story about The Chi. Not Chicago.

There remains a difference.

That difference can be found in the numbers of kids and people who weren't killed or shot or in schools that weren't closed. It rests in the feel-good story of the South Side's Jackie Robinson West Little League team coming within one game of making it to the Little League World Series on Saturday. It comes in the form of the annual pride of Saturday's Bud Billiken Parade, and in the form of an entrepreneurial program in the Austin neighborhood where 27 West Side entrepreneurs received seed money to start their own businesses by graduating from the Bethel New Life community group's training program.

The stories of a city that are often hidden and too often untold.

It comes in the form of a league. In this case, on this day, a game. A continuation.

Billy Baptist's name won't save any lives, but for two hours on Saturday night he made a few thousand people forget all about the reality that is blocks away from the Whitney Young High School gym where basketball took center stage. As Tone Kapone of Power 92 (92.3 FM WPWX) said, "Baptist is baptizing them." The night before it was Stefhon Hannah.

For nine weekends throughout this summer, the Nike/Jordan Chi-League -- this year's version of the city's annual summer pro-am basketball league -- has been a form of escapism disguised as a basketball tournament. Week after week, Chicago basketball legends and former (and a few current) NBA players did what they do best. They put on shows. But somehow their shows resonated far beyond what happened on the court.

To damn near every fan who came through the Chi-League, who got everything from free food to free haircuts to hearing DJ Pharris spin a free party to go along with the free basketball the league provided, the Saturday and Sunday escapes were more than just hoops.

"The Chi-League was more than just basketball," said Dwayne Young, who played host/MC for all the games over the summer. "It was an event desperately needed in Chicago. The basketball league was an escape for children and people of all ages from the violence, struggle and issues that they may face on a regular basis. It seems as if for the time we were in the gym, all other worries halted."

Capacity crowds -- 2,700 Saturday night -- full of kids, older kids and adults had no worries. No issues. No threat of lives being taken or crimes being committed or fights of any sort breaking out. For at least 10 hours every weekend since June 15, civility in the Chi came in the form of basketball games.

For at least 10 hours every weekend this summer, Chicago was what it is supposed to be. The only thing missing was Derrick Rose, who did show up as a spectator over the summer to watch a few games. But he didn't participate or give the city a preview of what's to come. Back in the old pro-am summer basketball days, that more than likely would have happened. Anyone remember when Michael Jordan used to show up when they held the games at Chicago State University, and he'd hoop for the Schlitz Malt Liquor squad?

And even when asked about Rose -- or any other player not playing -- the people in the crowd didn't seem to care. The here and now was all that seemed to matter. What Osiris Eldridge or Mustafa Farrakhan (or Will Bynum, who opened the season scoring 50 in a game) was going to do in a game was more important than anything D-Rose-related at the moment because everyone was so in the moment. Even in a crowd that included Anthony Davis, Scottie Pippen, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Mark Aguirre, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and members of the Chicago Bears, the return of Rose and the return of football season and the MLB playoffs were all afterthoughts.

"It gave people in Chicago something to look forward to during the weekend," said independent filmmaker Anthony J. Sturdivant, whose series of antiviolence short films "Think Before You Shoot" deals directly with Chicago's sociocultural violence. "Which is great because unfortunately the weekends are when gun violence and shootings are happening at a high rate. I felt like it helped bring excitement back to a city during a [summer] season where we are dealing with everyday effects of gun violence. I had the chance to make it to a couple weekend games and I felt the vibe of the people in attendance, and they along with myself were relaxed, excited and felt like kids with no worries watching some great athletes display their talent.

"I mean, the social media can be a witness to that. I felt the excitement just reading tweets, seeing posts on Instagram and Facebook. It gave people something to cheer about, and you never know what people may be going through. Some may have used that as a way to get out of the streets and give them time to relax and think."

It felt just like a continuation of what Father Michael Pfleger started with the Peace Game last September. This was an extension of that feeling and of the universal love the game of basketball has the power to bring amid hours, days, months and years of chaos.

Arms open. Hearts and minds open.

Just The Chi.