The basketball season for Chicago Public Schools seventh- and eighth-graders is a short one and doesn't begin until early next year. This month, a number of players (plus their fifth- and sixth-grade teammates) got a head start that's meaningful in more ways than one.
On Nov. 19, Murray Language Academy emerged the winner in the final round of the University of Chicago Police Department–sponsored middle school basketball tournament. UChicago Charter Woodlawn was the runner-up and host of the tournament; other participating teams came from Bret Harte Elementary, Carnegie Elementary, Carter G. Woodson Elementary, and Wadsworth Elementary.
As a focal point for practice and play before the season starts, the tournament is a great opportunity for building skills, said Murray player Jayden Hawkins, an eighth-grader. "It builds your character, your craft. You can dribble, you can practice on stuff that you never worked on before." His coach, Erick Lomax, agreed: "These games let us practice together and get a feel for the game before we start our season with CPS."
The Murray players earned bragging rights, but the double elimination tournament of six teams from the South Side is about much more than the game.
UCPD Officer Tawrence Walton, the tournament organizer, explained. "The biggest goal is engagement — youth getting to know the officers that serve their community," he said. UCPD officers helped host the coaches and players and served as tournament referees.
Bret Harte coach Darrell Bullock bonded with Walton years ago on the basketball court when both played for City Colleges of Chicago teams. When he heard that Bullock would be coaching at Bret Harte, Walton reached out about the tournament.
"He wanted to bridge the gap between with the community and the University of Chicago Police Department — just bring the community together through basketball. And that's what I'm about," Bullock said.
"They realize I'm a person just like them"
Walton, who grew up in Englewood and worked in social services before becoming a police officer, runs the UCPD chapter of the Police Athletic/Activities League (PAL) at the South Side YMCA. He provides homework help, teaches life skills, and leads arts activities and sports four days a week after school and during the summer.
The UCPD PAL program, part of a national PAL network, aims to reduce youth violence by encouraging young people to make good choices and by building relationships between kids and officers.
Participant surveys show that PAL helps increase students' respect for law enforcement, their understanding of the negative effects of drug use and gang involvement, and their feeling that they have social support available.
According to Walton, one of the most important things about the tournament and PAL is that the activities give young people the chance to get to know officers like him and his colleagues.
"They know I’m a kid from the same community they’re from, not just a face showing up" for events like the tournament, he said. Over time, as trust develops, "the walls come down and they realize I'm a person just like them."
"I didn't know the police would ever do something like [have a basketball tournament]," said Oliver Collins, a Bret Harte eighth-grade player. "They're usually on the streets, of course, patrolling. It was a pretty cool thing to see the police set up this awesome tournament."
Lomax said he and his players enjoyed getting to know the officers who took part. "It was our first time over here at the University," he said.
"So many people came out — the community, and a lot of officers off duty and on duty. [The boys] were shocked and amazed that Officer Walton came to our school in uniform, just to stop by and say hi and good luck for the game this weekend."
Bullock added that officers benefit from getting to know the players, too, with the tournament providing an opportunity "for the police to see, hey, these are kids. So you get to see the human side of police, and also vice versa.”
Bringing back a sense of normalcy
The basketball tournament extends the reach of PAL beyond the YMCA, giving kids a chance to come together, have fun in a safe setting, and build skills. This year's tournament marked the return of the competition after COVID forced a two-year hiatus.
“We've just been grinding it out, trying to get them to understand the concept of basketball," Bullock said. "It’s been fun, though, because the boys are working hard and they’re definitely becoming a family now."
And, he added, the tournament gives players a chance to meet high school coaches who might not otherwise see them play, and to meet other students from different neighborhoods.
"It was like a new experience, playing with the bigger kids and new people I've never seen before," said Collins. "It's like a big old basketball family."
For Walton, the tournament came at just the right time. "The parents, the families, the schools were excited about the tournament, and that gave me motivation," said Walton.
"I feel like we’ve been living in some precarious times ... from law enforcement to so many things not being what was normal before the pandemic. We’re trying to bring that sense of normalcy back for the youth that we serve."