Urban safety zone reveres jump shots, not gunshots


September 07, 1992|By Curtis Lawrence | Curtis Lawrence,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- In neighborhoods haunted by abandone buildings and drive-by shootings, there are still sanctuaries that even the gangs respect.

They are outdoor basketball courts.

"It's a safer place to be," Sammy Ivory said of the courts behind Emmet School. "I haven't seen one fight up here. But once you leave here, everybody's on their own."

On one of the hottest days of the year last month, Mr. Ivory joined more than 30 other young men on the schoolyard court, some sitting on benches with their baseball hats cocked to the side or backward, some racing up and down the concrete.

The Emmet School court is just one of many throughout inner cities across the country that have become sacrosanct in neighborhoods where violence often breaks young lives.

"The blacktop has become a secular sanctuary," said John Koval, an associate professor of sociology at DePaul University. "It's a refuge, like the church was in the Middle Ages."

Historically, the courts have served as a neutral zone reserved for young men to earn respect by showing off athletic prowess. But they are much more. They are also places where the older players dispense advice on the art of getting ahead to the younger ones, known in the neighborhood as "shorties."

"I tell them to stay in school," said Mr. Ivory, who earned a general equivalency diploma after dropping out of high school but is now unemployed. "I would sure like to see them doing better than me."

The older guys take pride in trying to help the younger ones, said Julius Nelson, a neighborhood relations police officer in the Austin District, who has started a small basketball league at Columbus Park, a few blocks south of Emmet.

"They feel they have accomplished something if they can help the shorties dodge some of the pitfalls they haven't been fortunate enough to miss," Officer Nelson said. "Everybody at 11 or 12 wants to 'be like Mike.' But as you grow older, the illusion goes. By the time they are 20 or 21, reality smacks them, and it smacks them really hard."

Gang members hang out at Columbus Park, but even there, Officer Nelson said, the courts remain a place for basketball, not violence.

"It has always been a norm that athletes were given a safety pass," Officer Nelson said. "If you played basketball, you were almost beyond recruitment by gang members."

Wisdom about the future from the older men may eventually sink in, but for the moment many of the boys seem more interested in honing their basketball skills.

Lionel Taylor, who was about to enter the eighth grade at Emmet, said, "You get to learn how to play better when you play with the older people."

As the sun begins to set, Mr. Ivory and a friend head for a courtside bench under the shade of an elm after losing a game by 4 points.

Mr. Ivory, 26, wears a black baseball cap cocked backward. He said many people incorrectly associated it with gang activity; for him, it's just about style.

Occasionally, a couple of smiling young women stop, lean against the iron railing and watch the games. "Tell that girl to come over here," one player coming off the court calls to his friend.

"You see the guys show off for real then," Mr. Ivory said. He said that off the court, women and money usually dominated the conversations.

On this day, Mr. Ivory and his friend Maurice Johnson, 23, also unemployed, have other things on their minds.

Mr. Ivory said he would vote for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in November. "I think Clinton will do a better job," he said. "He's talking more about jobs."

As Mr. Ivory got up from the bench, he said, "There ain't no jobs around here."

Mr. Johnson doesn't plan to vote.

"I ain't seen a worthy enough candidate," he said, waving away the thought of either presidential contender's bringing prosperity Austin, where the per capita income was $8,759 in 1989, far less than the city average of $12,899.

At 9 p.m., Derrick Clinkscales, a lean and serious 14-year-old, heads home.

He said his mother was leery of the streets and insisted that he be in the house by 9:30 each night.

"That's how my mama is," he said.

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume Wednesday.

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