It was a day when they were told that they would not be preached to or profiled. And they weren't.
It was a day when the words of the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," sung before the games, seemed to take on a different meaning.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
It was a day when no one passed judgment on a 19-year-old for playing basketball with an ankle monitor, a day when the Nation of Islam operated security inside a Catholic church in Chicago, a day when people in the crowd were yelling how the player wearing No. 6 in white "got them thangs," they weren't talking about guns, they were talking about his ballhandling.
It was a day when one of the games went into double OT, the announcer had to come up with another saying besides "sudden death" to let everyone know that the next basket would be the game-winner.
Still, the feel inside the gym was impossible to fully describe with words.
There is no way to describe the feeling of being at a single-day basketball tournament where no sponsors' banners hang from the walls, where there is no corporate presence at halftime or between games, where none of the players wore matching sneaks and shorts given to them for marketing purposes. There is no way to describe the feeling of watching a kid who is a member of a gang chase a ball going out of bounds run into a police officer and the officer pats him on the back while helping him back onto the court.
Four teams. Three games played over the course of almost five hours. PEACE Basketball Tournament painted on the gym floor, on the backboards and on the fronts of the red, white, black or blue team T-shirts.
Members of different gangs bused in to play ball against each other. Putting -- for at least one day -- all beefs and business aside and letting their common love for the game be their guide. Different sects representing with no sect tripping. The memory of once-powerful gang leader Jeff Fort replaced on this day with the memories of former Corliss High School basketball player Michael Haynes, who was shot and killed this summer while trying to break up a fight.
Chicago Bulls players (Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson); NBA players from Chicago (Quentin Richardson, Antoine Walker, Bobby Simmons); the two greatest players in the history of the city (Isiah Thomas and Derrick Rose); NBA referees from Chicago (Danny Crawford, James Capers); legendary Chicago high school coaches (Robert Smith, Simeon; Tyrone Slaughter, Young); and the No. 1 high school player in the nation (Jabari Parker), all in one place for one reason: To let the young, black, at-risk kids of Chicago who have lost their sense of purpose know what normal is supposed to feel like.
Many have tried to stop the recent onslaught of violence in Chicago; very few have come close to having any impact. The mayor, the police department, activists, corporations, teachers, parents and preachers have come up empty too often.
Many told Father Michael Pfleger, whose church hosted the PEACE tournament and who along with Thomas came up with the idea, not to organize or be a part of something like this. While standing in line to enter the church, one man behind me said, "I don't think Dr. King could stop the violence goin' on in this city." When a kid asked one of the people involved with putting the tournament together if Michael Jordan was going to show up, the man simply said, "No. He's too scared to come here."
Yet the SRO crowd at a gym inside of a church didn't come to see NBA players coach or for the slim possibility of getting Rose's autograph. They came to the Auburn-Gresham 'hood in Chicago to show a bunch of "hoodlums from the 'hood" whom they'd never seen play basketball what can happen when young men decide to shoot hoops against each other instead of guns at each other.
In this attempt to redirect and change the culture of violence that is a new part of the new definition of the post-Obama/post-Oprah/post-Jordan Chicago, it became clear to me that the understanding of true power has been lost.
True power is having the juice, vision, wherewithal and love to bring a bunch of black kids whom society fears more than it cares about together to compete in a basketball tournament on a priest's turf.
True power is getting NBA players, Hall of Famers and MVPs to commit to a cause and be a major part of something without ever once asking or expecting anything in return. True power is having members of an ambulance-chasing media for one day relate to young black men as human beings instead of as thugs and as the reason for Chicago being labeled the "city under siege." It is speaking to these youngsters about their lives after this day instead of how they lived and what they did before they walked into the gym.
True power is being able to eliminate all of the B.S. that always seems to get in the way of organizations and grown people who are trying to help save kids and re-prioritize the lives of "the trash" who have no idea that they have something to live for.
True power is what every kid in the gym -- on the court or in the stands -- is searching for. But it wasn't until Saturday that they got a sense of what real power actually felt like.
Duce Powell of 5x2 Marketing walked around with a T-shirt that read: "Not Hard Core Criminals, But Mixed Up Kids." It said what everyone wanted to say but didn't have to. The day he, along with Cobe Williams of CeaseFire, helped Thomas and Father Pfleger bring to life, was one that was based on nothing but ambition, with a little faith, hope and charity.
"To each his own" has been the mentality that has been suffocating Chicago the past several months. YOLO. The city has become synonymous with a war zone, and the majority of those in the crossfire, as well as those in control of the escalating homicide rate, all physically look like Trayvon Martin, Kanye West or me.
So Saturday, when Joakim Noah walked into a gym full of Chicago gang members and said to them, "This is about more than basketball," and Isiah Thomas followed, saying to them that everyone was there "to show them that we love you," there was a sense -- a small, fleeting sense -- that every word, spoken or not, would be more than heard.
They'd be felt.