Since he was a child, NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas has been active in promoting peace in the West Side Chicago community where he was raised. Taking after his mother, Mary Thomas, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr in a fight for Civil Rights, Isiah has been outspoken on social, cultural, race and violence issues for most of his life.
In 2011, Thomas and Father Michael Pfleger of The Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Chicago, organized the Peace Game, which later grew to the Peace League, to bring rival Chicago gang members together for a peaceful game of basketball. As has been widely reported, gun violence has plagued Chicago communities—including the neighborhood where the Thomas family was raised—and Isiah has used the game of basketball and the Peace League to try and bring gang members together in a non-violent way in an effort to slow the violence epidemic in Chicago.
With Thomas and Father Pfleger’s efforts, and the support of NBA players like Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker and Will Bynum, the Peace League has yielded positive results. As Thomas notes, in the Peace League’s first year gang members had to be bused in so they would not cross rivals’ lines. In subsequent years, gang members have car pooled together to get to the gym.
However, there is still much work to be done. In August, Dwyane Wade’s cousin Nykea Aldridge was fatally shot while pushing her newborn in a stroller on Chicago’s South Side. The shooting came just one day after Wade, Wade’s mother and Thomas took place in a Town Hall event and spoke on putting an end to gun violence in Chicago. The shooting was one of 400 reported in August. At least 78 of those were homicides.
Earlier this month, NBATV aired a “Beyond the Paint” special about Thomas’ involvement in Chicago communities, the Peace League and Wade’s family opening a new recreation center attached to their church.
SLAM caught up with Zeke about the special, his history of activism, involvement in Chicago, LeBron James’ similarities to Muhammad Ali and more.
SLAM: How did the Peace Game and the “Beyond the Paint” special come about?
Isiah Thomas: For the last five years, Father Pfleger and I have been doing the Peace Game in Chicago. The idea was to bring rival gangs together and play a game for peace. We do a Sunday Peace Walk and as we were walking the neighborhood, I ran into some of the former gang members and we started talking and Father Pfleger and I were asking if we put together a game would they play with the rival gang members. At first there was some resistance to it but the more we talked with them, the more we got some of the gang members to buy in.
The first year we had to bus the rival gang members in because they couldn’t cross a certain boundary line. The second year, they were actually carpooling together and getting to know each other.
I got my master’s in cultural studies and sport and education and what I came to find out is when you take the play out of neighborhood and play out of the community, people don’t get a chance to know each other. Once they get the opportunity to really know each other, you start breaking down social boundaries, cultural boundaries, language boundaries and intellectual boundaries. We were able to do that with the Peace Game and our first year, our first game actually, NBATV was involved. They came down with a camera crew and followed our growth over the first five years. Matt [Winer] and his crew came down with his crew and did a special about it.
SLAM: You spoke about basketball and sport being a vehicle to break down barriers. When you were growing up on the West Side of Chicago, did anything like the Peace Game exist for kids your age?
IT: Well, there were always leagues in terms of basketball leagues but nothing really specifically to speak to the gang violence and the people who were part of the educational season. There was no specific league or program designed for that.
SLAM: Did you find playing basketball, whether in Chicago, at Indiana or in the NBA, to be a unifying thing?
IT: I find that sport is the only place where you can bring different factions of life together under one arena and people will only root for or against the team in blue or the team in white. Very rarely do those differences that they have—socially, culturally or racially—ever come to mind when they are in that arena space.
SLAM: Why is community involvement so important to you and why do you continue to make it a priority?
IT: I guess you would say it goes back to my mother—it’s the family business, so to speak. My mom marched with Martin Luther King Jr. She was very active in the community on the West Side of Chicago—there is actually a street named after my mother on the West Side of Chicago. We didn’t have nannies so every place that she went—my brothers and sisters all went with her. Her activism and fight for equality has always been ingrained in me and is something that I have always done and always been a part of whether I was in high school, college or the NBA.
You hear players talking about using their platform for social activism; we were taught that in high school. I was fortunate to save some of my high school clippings and when I went back and looked at the things I said in high school into where we are today, we were still talking about equality, race, class and gender.
SLAM: I read that your family had interactions with gangs but your mother was very adamant that none of the Thomas children would join. There’s a semi-famous story of her coming to the door with a shotgun to scare away gang members who were recruiting you, but also stories of her going to bond gang members out of jail. Did this teach you to have compassion for people despite the faults they may have or what their intentions may be?
IT: Absolutely and you hit on the right word, compassion and also being a servant to the community. Never judging, giving acceptance and showing love for your fellow human being no matter what his or hers situation may be.
SLAM: Was there ever a point where you considered joining a gang? Or was it always something that was out of the question?
IT: My mom was such a strong woman who had relationships with both gangs. We were always considered friends of the gangs, not necessarily in the gang. It was a very unique position we held in the community to be able to balance and walk on both sides and not be seen as an enemy or rival but as a peacemaker or peacekeeper. And that was the role we always tried to play in the community.
SLAM: When Joakim Noah was in Chicago he was very adamant about being being involved in the community. Jabari Parker, who is a Chicago native, is open and vocal about issues in the community and shows his face in neighborhoods. That didn’t necessarily start with you, but you are a huge star who has been doing the same since the beginning of your playing days. Do you think part of your legacy is paving the way and setting an example for guys like Joakim, Jabari and Derrick Rose to go into communities to try and make a difference?
IT: Absolutely and that was the intent, to always give and show a path way back to your community to inspire and motivate and educate. The more young people we can touch, the better our world and communities will be.
A big part of my conversations with LeBron was not necessarily about basketball but about understanding how he has an opportunity to be talked about to this generation like Muhammad Ali was talked about in our generation. When it’s all said and done and history writes his story, it won’t just talk about NBA champion, it will also talk about someone who stood for equality and justice off the court also and trying to help people and that’s what I tried to do in high school, college, in the NBA and after the NBA.
SLAM: With the amount of violence that is shown in entertainment and media, do you think gun violence has become normalized in our country and people are starting to be desensitized to it?
IT: I don’t want to say the nation is desensitized, I think we as a nation and we as a people are very sensitive to anyone dying and it impacts all of us. In terms of how it is covered and how it is talked about, those are things that we should definitely always critique. When we talk about gun violence, I don’t think many people are opposed to the Second Amendment, but some people would want qualifications for the type of weapon that is on the street and the type of militarization and arsenal that we have and an everyday person can purchase is concerning.
SLAM: It seems now more than ever that it’s important to focus on the good coming from communities that suffer from violence. What is the next step for you in terms of promoting the good work being done in violence-riddled communities in Chicago?
IT: To go back and re-invest in these distraught communities and more or less put your money where your mouth is. What I do in Chicago is I do multi-family housing and affordable housing some of the toughest neighborhoods and toughest communities. Those are the areas that I am looking to not only put my time into but also my resources into to make sure we can educate in poverty; we can be decent and respectful to each other in poverty.
I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel. Those things have been done and the reason that I keep emphasizing that there are more positive things that come out of our neighborhoods than negative things is because the question should be how do parents continue to graduate their kids, send their kids to college to become doctors, lawyers, policeman, fireman, there are more good things that come out of our communities than bad things. When you talk about highlighting the positive, at one point in time those things were highlighted and then the news cycle changed to if it bleeds it leads. With words and pictures, you can change and create perception. What we want to do with words and pictures is balance the story to positive side of our communities and of our people. There are some negatives but the positives far outweigh the negatives.