A gang-changing assist from 'Zeke'

Basketball has given Isiah Thomas so much throughout his life. Now, he hopes the game can help bring peace to his hometown.

The former New York Knicks president and GM has worked with community leaders and elected officials in Chicago to try to stem the tide of gun violence that's claimed the lives of scores of teens in the city.

The growing peace movement, naturally, is centered around basketball.

"Basketball has a way of bringing groups together, bringing people together and breaking down barriers," Thomas said. "Just as sport has broken down racial barriers, we think sport has an opportunity to bring down gang barriers."

Thomas, now an analyst for NBA TV and a confidant of Knicks owner James Dolan, worked with community leaders to organize two separate basketball tournaments for gang members last year, during the height of gun violence in Chicago that drew the attention of the nation. He's also teamed with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to create a weekend youth league in local parks to provide an alternative for at-risk teens.

"Every time a child dies, we should feel a sense of urgency," Thomas says. "Everyone wants to live. No one really wants to die. And everyone wants to feel safe."

Safety had been a fleeting feeling in some Chicago neighborhoods in recent months. Four hundred and forty-three people were killed by a gun in Chicago in 2012, and 65 of those murdered were under the age of 19. To put that in perspective, there were 236 murders with a gun in 2012 in New York, a city with nearly triple the population of Chicago, according to the New York Daily News.

"It's just not a good situation," Chicago native and Knicks forward Quentin Richardson said. "This is real life, it's not a movie or a TV show. And when you talk to the kids, they tell you, 'I don't want to do the things I have to do. I don't want to have to come home and watch my back every day.' Who at 16 [years old] would want to do that?"

Like Thomas, Richardson has been active in anti-gang efforts in Chicago. Richardson and Thomas both attended the town's first "Peace Game," a basketball contest fielded by gang members, held at St. Sabina Church on the South Side last summer. Members of four gangs played together on the same court and were coached by Thomas, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.

"After the game, there was this kind of opening up, a sharing conversation about what had just happened," Father Michael Pfleger, who helped organize the event, said. "You had guys in the gangs getting up and breaking down in tears talking about what it meant."

What were they saying?

"We've got to stop this. We've got to change this," Pfleger said.

The scene was similar at Christ the King High School, a Jesuit Prep school on the west side of Chicago. There, Thomas teamed with school president Father Chris Devron and former gang member Clifton "Booney" McFowler to organize another peace game.

"Kids saw him as someone they could call upon to be an advocate for them, but he was very up front, taking them to task on the need to lay down their weapons," Devron said.

Added McFowler: "He gave a gleam of hope for a lot of people that day … When they see him, they don't see that big old giant. They see a humbled individual that's genuinely concerned."

That concern has also sparked "Windy City Hoops," a program which includes basketball leagues for Chicago teens. Thomas, in conjunction with Mayor Emanuel and the city's parks department, has helped re-open 10 parks and created 10 new weekend leagues for children ages 13-17 in high-crime, low median income areas of the city. The leagues opened in April and are expected to run year-round.

"We had more kids turn out than we could possibly support," Emanuel said in a phone interview. "I could do 50 [leagues] and I probably wouldn't be scratching the surface."

According to Emanuel, Thomas helped raise nearly $500,000 in three weeks to fund the project, one Thomas called "a small but very critical and crucial step" toward stemming the violence in Chicago.

Thomas will work with children at Windy City Hoops League clinics in July and plans to attend a second Peace Game at St. Sabina in September.

"Isiah never forgot where his roots were and that he himself had an obligation to reach back, grab somebody's hand and pull them through the door of opportunity," Emanuel said.

For Thomas, anti-gang and anti-crime work is nothing new. He spearheaded anti-crime efforts in Detroit while playing with the Pistons and, in 2010, established Mary's Court, a nonprofit named after Thomas' mother, who was heavily involved in anti-gang work in Chicago (Mary once greeted gang members hoping to recruit her sons with a shotgun at the door.)

"This isn't a new avenue for me," Thomas said. "This is the same street."

Thomas has also been involved in anti-gang efforts in Jacksonville, Fla., and Philadelphia. But he approached the problem in Chicago with a particular urgency because of the staggering amount of crime in the city.

"We want people working together and people helping each other as opposed to killing each other," Thomas said.

According to NBCNews.com, murders in Chicago dropped 42 percent in the first quarter of 2013 over the same period in 2012, and shootings were down 27 percent. Through Memorial Day weekend, there had been 140 murders in Chicago, 60 fewer than the same time period in 2012.

Both Devron and Pfleger say they have noticed a steep downturn in gang violence in the areas surrounding their churches since their respective "Peace Games."

"There is a decrease," Devron said. "There's no disputing that."

Added Pflegler: "I've been here for 38 years, and I've never seen anything that we have been involved in that has made a deeper impact in the neighborhood with these young brothers out here. Ninety-five percent of the guys out here in the streets that we call 'gang-bangers'-- all they want is help."

That's all Thomas is trying to provide. His backstory is well known -- NCAA and NBA champion, Hall of Famer, less than successful as an executive and coach. But his hard-won stature in basketball has helped him develop lasting relationships with some of Chicago's at-risk youth. Through those relationships, Thomas has found that most just want a chance to feel safe in their community.

"No one disagrees with that," Thomas said. "Everyone agrees that our kids deserve health, safety and education. That's something they all want themselves. That's all we're asking for."