CHICAGO — Nike and USA Basketball descended on the city of Chicago this week, and partnered to put on its World Basketball Festival event that was created to celebrate and honor the global passion for the game. The two previous versions took place in New York in 2010 and Washington D.C. in 2012, but Chicago’s city-wide, deep-rooted passion for the game seems to be the most appropriate stop to date.
The folks at Nike and Jordan Brand wanted to give a group of media members an overview of just how influential basketball has been to those in this city, and after a day spent visiting historic sites related to the game and speaking to some of the legends associated with it, it’s clear that basketball is incredibly important to all of the individual communities that make up one of the country’s largest cities.
Our day began with an introductory speech from Scoop Jackson — a well-known journalist, but also a Chicago basketball historian whose enthusiasm for the game and what it means to this city is evident from the very first words he speaks. Jackson tells us about legendary players like Billy Harris, the name at the top of everyone’s list anytime the topic of Chicago’s greatest playground legend is ever approached. He explains how no matter the age or skill level, people can be found all over the city playing the game and discussing the area’s most influential players.
He points out the wide variety of players from the area who made it to the NBA, all of whom don’t necessarily do one thing great, but have mastered multiple aspects of the game in order to compete anywhere while growing up in the city. Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Shawn Marion and Tony Allen are a few examples he gave, and of course there are more recent entries like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and incoming rookie Jabari Parker. He tells us stories of Michael Jordan flying in to compete on the city’s playgrounds to scratch that competitive itch, both while he was still in the league and for years after he retired. Finally, he implores us to talk to as many people around town that we can to verify that what he’s saying is the truth — something we’d get a chance to do anyway, but that wasn’t at all necessary given the intensity and excitement with which he conveyed his words.
“Basketball is Chicago’s export to the world,” Jackson has said. “I’ve compared it to Hip Hop in New York, technology coming out of Seattle, the auto industry in Detroit, food from New Orleans. This is what we do.”
Our bus pulled up to Simeon Career Academy, a high school on the South Side of Chicago that is a large facility, but unassuming when you consider the level of basketball talent that has been produced there over the years. There’s Bucks rookie Jabari Parker and Bulls superstar Derrick Rose most recently, but others like Nick Anderson and Benji Wilson (whose tragic story was chronicled in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary) speak to just how rich the school’s history is.
We walked into the gym that doesn’t have air conditioning, and made our way to the bleachers. In came Sonny Parker — Jabari’s father, and a former NBA player who was born and raised in Chicago. He spoke about growing up in the city, and how the South Side has changed. Back in the day, he said, it was understood that athletes could walk through bad neighborhoods with a free pass, and that if something was about to go down, they would be given a warning so they could get away unscathed. He doesn’t believe that’s the case anymore, but also doesn’t feel like the neighborhood is nearly as bad as the media reports make it seem.
He talked about Michael Jordan, and how he had a “Love of the Game” clause in his contract that allowed him to play anytime, anywhere — even on the playgrounds of Chicago. Jabari, he said, has the freedom to do the same. Parker told us how players from different areas play the game differently — for example, on the West side, he said, they’re a little more aggressive because of a shortage of bigs. Intensity is used to make up for that size advantage with players from that part of town, but those differences speak to what Scoop Jackson told us, which is that players had to be able to play a variety of different ways and hone a broad range of skills if they wanted to be able to dominate in all parts of the city.
The day wrapped up with a trip to the 63rd Street Beach House, home base for all of the World Basketball Festival’s activities. We stopped by some outdoor basketball courts across the street, where clinics were being conducted for children from all parts of the city. We got some time to speak with Anthony Harris, who currently plays professionally in the D-League but more importantly for our purposes, is the son of Billy Harris, Chicago’s most legendary basketball player.
Anthony didn’t get to see his father play in his prime, of course, but said the man could still shoot the lights out, even in his older years. Scoop Jackson told us about how he was researching Billy, and walked all over the city on a daily basis trying to find one person — just one — who would say they ever saw Billy play a bad game. He gave up after three months. Anthony echoed that sentiment, and said he heard ridiculous stories — like his father grabbing a jump ball at one end of the court, and immediately shooting from there and draining what would have been an incredibly long shot. Anthony had trouble believing it, but said multiple people who claim to have been there swear that it happened.
Anthony talked about growing up in Chicago and leaving the house early in the morning to play an entire day’s worth of basketball, sometimes going from court to court in search of the city’s best players.
“If I went to your court, I was coming for you,” Anthony said.
We wrapped things up by walking over to the Beach House, where there is a Nike Basketball museum of sorts set up that has some incredible artifacts — like the LeBron James MVP Puppet that was a part of one of the company’s more popular campaigns in recent years.
There will be games held there all weekend — pro-am and three on three tournaments, FIBA skills competitions and appearances by members of the USA Basketball team. But more than anything, it’s simply a celebration of the game of basketball, and one that the city of Chicago seems uniquely positioned to appreciate.