CHICAGO – It's Friday night in a dangerous Chicago neighborhood, and a steady stream of teenagers slip inside the gym at Kennicott Park.
Peorrie Celestine is among the first on the basketball court, and his father, Pierre, just loves to talk about his 13-year-old son's ability to dunk on an 8-foot rim. Duryea Wright, two years older, makes a couple of long 3-pointers despite the low ceiling, drawing a "You better guard him" comment from one of the boys waiting for a turn. Park Supervisor Renee Shepherd shuffles in and out, making sure everyone signs in on this chilly evening on Chicago's South Side.
About 80 teenagers are here as the games really get going. The bustling gym is, in fact, a sanctuary for some of them. A handful of players went to school with Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old drum majorette who performed at President Barack Obama's second inauguration and was gunned down in a nearby park just two months ago.
"Yeah, I knew her. It was sad," said Marcus Burks, 17, who attends King College Prep High School. "We was actually in here playing basketball when she got killed."
Welcome to Windy City Hoops.
A torrent of gang violence pushed Chicago above 500 homicides last year for the first time since 2008, then 40 more people were killed in the city's deadliest January in more than a decade. There was a drop in February and March, but the drumbeat of heartache kept going.
Pendleton was shot to death on Jan. 29 as she talked with friends after school in a park about a mile from Obama's Chicago home. Janay McFarlane, 18, was killed on the same February day that her 14-year-old sister attended a speech by Obama pushing for gun control legislation. A 6-month-old girl died on March 12 after a gunman ambushed her father while she was sitting in his lap in a minivan.
"It's a big concern, because I know like the stuff that goes on around here, I know it's like a war zone right now, different gangs and stuff like that," said Robert Milligan, 18, another King College student.
The violence captured the attention of one of Chicago's most famous basketball sons.
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who grew up on the city's West Side, helped organize two tournaments last summer that brought together members of rival gangs. But Thomas kept going from there.
"I had been to a basketball game at Christ The King where Isiah Thomas was there, but I had come early and he and I were talking," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, "and he made the offer to me, it goes back to November, he says 'You know I want to do anything to help kids, you know, get off the street, and whatever I can do, we're going to do.'"
A week or so later, Thomas and Emanuel met in the mayor's office and came up with an idea. They decided to start a fundraising campaign to expand the park district's Windy City Hoops program, taking it from a seasonal schedule to a year-round plan that offers boys and girls 13 to 18 a place to play organized basketball on Friday and Saturday nights.
The price tag is $480,000 and organizers are still more than $50,000 short. Two organizations pledged a total of $365,000, and an online campaign is shooting for $62,000, said Jessica Maxey-Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the park district.
The expanded program was launched last month at 10 parks, mostly on the South and West Sides of the city.
"Through basketball and just sports, we believe that if the people really get to know each other, particularly young people, they'll have a hard time killing each other," Thomas said. "Sports play has been taken out of the community, in terms of the park district, and what we want to do is just open up the park districts again and make them available."
The 10 sites were selected based on high crime levels, low median income and the facility itself. The park district is hoping each location will field at least eight teams of 10 for each of four sessions during the year.
U.S. cities have used sports to help fight gang violence for years. But there is still something hopeful about this program that potentially could take thousands of kids off the streets and put them in a gym for a couple nights each weekend.
"It doesn't so much curb youth violence as it gives good kids a place to go," Emanuel said.
You play the ball to the wall in the tiny gym at Kennicott Park, so pay no attention to the lines on the floor. It seems as if the white ceiling with intermittent light panels just clears the baskets on each side, so be careful on long shots. And it's going to be another week until the jerseys arrive, so take a good long look at your teammates so you know where to throw the ball.
There is a faded NBA sign in the corner and a painted Bulls logo in the middle of the court, a quiet reminder of all the great players who learned how to play in these same poor neighborhoods.
Things pick up when Javon Reynolds and Xavier Robinson hit the court.
First, Robinson, 17, sweeps in and dunks a missed 3-pointer, drawing wide grins and chuckles from the players lining one side of the court. Then the 18-year-old Reynolds, wearing a black T-shirt that reads "IT'S GOOD TO BE THE KING," thunders down the middle on the other end and throws down a ferocious right-handed jam, sending the boys on the side into even more of a tizzy.
They use a running clock for the Windy City games, so the duel between Robinson and Reynolds ends almost as quickly as it started. But the friends and former King teammates are grateful for the few plays to add to their collection.
"It's an honor, just to get us black kids off the street, you know, stop killing each other, and just a way to just hang out, play," Reynolds said.
This is how it's always been on the courts of Chicago: The kids watch, then they grow and become stronger. They take their lumps for a while, then start running the games themselves.
Some turn into household names.
Hall of Famers like George Mikan and Thomas. Maurice Cheeks. Mark Aguirre. Tim Hardaway. Today (Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis) and tomorrow (Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor).
"It was very fierce. I mean that's where you learn how to play at," said Wade, the winner of two NBA titles with the Miami Heat. "I used to go down and I had to play against guys way older than me. That's where you became, in a sense, a man.
"I grew up, being in Chicago, I used to go watch Scottie Pippen play outside. He was part of the Bulls then, so he would go out and play outside. It was against my father and them. I just watched that and that's where we knew, we knew that the blacktop was kind of where you had to make your name."
Thomas, 51, went from the parks and blacktops of Chicago to Indiana, where he helped the Hoosiers win the NCAA tournament in 1981. He played 13 years in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons, winning consecutive titles with the "Bad Boys" teams in 1989 and 1990.
That road started when he was just another kid playing hoops in his hometown.
"Sport is really about education and making sure that the kids go to school," Thomas said. "So what did I learn? I learned that there were more lawyers and doctors in my community and there were more hard-working people in my community than I ever realized because they were able to come to the sporting event or I had a chance to meet them at the park district and had a chance interact with them. They all reinforced the positive message that I was getting at home about how important education was."
That's the real message for players in the Windy City Hoops program, Wade said. The lessons he learned playing basketball translate to any career.
"What it does for kids," he said, "I mean by playing on a team, by understanding sacrifice, by understanding hard work, all these things you use in the workforce. All these things you use in real life."
Renee Shepherd stays busy while the games continue in the gym, and the referees keep order on the court. A police officer peeks in, and there's a security guard nearby.
Shepherd offers praise — "I saw you did good," she says to one kid — and the referees only smile when they receive suggestions from the gallery. There is plenty of contact, but it stops with the whistle. The play is civil and respectful, and Shepherd says the reason is their relationships with the teenagers.
"That's important. That's essential, the relationship building," she says. "I have a relationship with them as the supervisor, so it's important that I engage with them. ... My staff, they have a different rapport with them. They're out there sometimes, they come and they play with them, which they love because they love to beat them."
Shepherd chuckles as the games go on inside. The jerseys are on the way and teams will be chosen soon. "That's when they're really going to compete with each other," Shepherd says with a smile.
Welcome to Windy City Hoops.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap