Chicago Bulls guard Ayo Dosunmu’s block party a safe space for kids and a tribute
Dosunmu lost childhood friend Darius Brown to gun violence. Now he’s trying to prevent more tragedies.
When Ayo Dosunmu and Darius Brown were young enough to still need adult supervision for a PG-13 movie, they had hoop dreams.
The two Chicago natives of course wanted to one day make the NBA, and they of course foresaw Hall of Fame-worthy careers. But being so young, their basketball dreams were more immediate, more attainable.
“Our main goal was getting to high school and getting scholarships to college,” Dosunmu, a third-year guard for the Chicago Bulls, told Andscape over the phone earlier this week.
Darius wanted to first play at Simeon Career Academy, the alma mater of local heroes Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker, before going on to play at Kentucky. Dosunmu, who eventually would play at Simeon rival Morgan Park High School, wanted to attend a fellow blue-blood like Duke or North Carolina.
Either way, the two adolescents envisioned bright futures for each other. And why wouldn’t they? The pair was always together, always at one another’s house, always talking, always playing on the same basketball teams.
“We built a bond,” Dosunmu said.
He continued: “You would never in a million years think that his life would be taken away at a young age.”
On Aug. 3, 2011, Darius was playing pickup at a local court when a shootout led to him being fatally shot. He was just 13 years old.
On Saturday, Dosunmu will host his second community block party in Chicago in Darius’ memory, an event with the dual purposes of providing a safe place for kids who have big dreams like Dosunmu and Darius had and urging young people in the Midwestern city to put down weapons to prevent tragedies like the one that took Darius away 12 years ago.
Dosunmu has lived all around Chicago. He was raised on the South Side, spending time in the Bronzeville neighborhood (nicknamed the “Black Metropolis”), in the 1990s, in the Low End and “super Low End,” neighborhoods in the lower-numbered streets. He’s also lived in the suburbs. He doesn’t hide the fact that growing up in Chicago has its struggles for some. What appears to weigh on Dosunmu is how circumstances can lead to one being a prisoner in their own hometown.
Chicago has historically been one of the most Black-white segregated major cities in America, which not only limits where Black people live, but also where they congregate: It took being drafted into the NBA for Dosunmu to visit downtown landmarks such as the Riverwalk, Michigan Avenue, Lake Shore Drive and the Magnificent Mile, all located within a train ride of his home.
“Some people are only unfortunate enough to see the tough times, the hard times or maybe just certain neighborhoods, but overall Chicago is a great city,” Dosunmu said. “It helped mold me into the man I am today.”
Dosunmu and Darius met when Dosunmu was 7 or 8 years old. Darius was two years older than him, but the age gap was irrelevant. They shared a love of basketball, playing on the same AAU team in the summers and the same Small Fry Basketball league team in the fall. Darius was like family, spending weekends at the Dosunmu’s house so the two could play for Dosunmu’s father’s youth basketball team.
They were practically inseparable. That is, until that day in 2011.
Dosunmu’s dad Quam was usually the one to pick up Darius on the weekends to bring him over to the house. But on that day, after a 12-hour work day, he rescheduled the pickup time so he could take a quick nap.
While waiting to be picked up, Darius went to Metcalfe Park in Bronzeville to play some pickup ball. A shootout broke out between rival gangs, and Darius was caught in the crossfire and was struck in the neck. He was taken to the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead later that day.
Ayo Dosunmu, just 10 years old himself, was devastated.
“It was sad. It was something I didn’t want no kid to go through,” he said.
“It was tough times being in that position. My immediate thoughts were wow, this was a bad dream.”
Dosunmu’s mission was to honor Darius as best he could. He started with a simple life motto and hand signal.
When Darius played basketball, he would fly through the air, even at his small size. He sometimes made a gesture with his hands that pressed his three middle fingers together while simultaneously extending his thumb and pinky, reminiscent of a “hang loose” gesture. Darius was like a jet, and the hand sign imitated one.
As Dosunmu grew older, he grew taller, tapping out at 6-feet-4 sometime in high school. As he and Darius envisioned, Dosunmu became a basketball phenom. He won back-to-back state championships at Morgan Park, receiving multiple all-state selections along the way. As a part of Team USA, he won the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship with future NBA players Tyrese Maxey, Cole Anthony and future Bulls teammate Coby White. At the University of Illinois, Dosunmu was an All-American, the winner of the 2021 Bob Cousy Award for the top point guard in the nation, and helped lead the Fighting Illini to the second round of the 2021 NCAA men’s tournament, the school’s first trip to the postseason in eight years.
In the 2021 NBA draft, Dosunmu was selected No. 38 overall by his hometown Bulls. Last week, he re-signed with Chicago on a three-year, $21 million contract extension.
All the while, he wore Darius’ No. 11 jersey (he switched to No. 12 with the Bulls because DeMar DeRozan had the number). During starting lineup introductions or celebratory moments, he threw up the jet signal. Nearly every social media post from Dosunmu is punctuated by the JL4L (Jet Life for Life) hashtag.
“[I’m] always speaking highly of him, always having his name being heard in a room, and just anywhere I go having him live with me, have him be with me,” Dosunmu said.
As great as things were going for Dosunmu in his career, the same couldn’t be said for Chicago.
While homicides in Chicago were down (695) in 2022 from 2020 and 2021, that total marks the fourth-most homicides in the city since 1999, according to WTTW Chicago. This is due in part to the streets of Chicago being flooded with guns. According to Chicago Police Department data, more than 12,000 illegal guns were recovered last year. Seventy-five percent of the homicide victims in 2022 were Black.
But gun violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are multiple mitigating factors that led to the issues Chicago, and countless other cities, are facing.
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools decreased by nearly 37,000 students between 2019 and 2022, with more than 90% of those students coming from low-income families. That directly affects Black communities as Chicago public school budgets are tied to enrollment numbers. A 2022 analysis by the Chicago Board of Education projects a $628 million deficit by 2026.
The coronavirus pandemic extended the unemployment gap between Black and white people in the city: Between 2019 and 2021, the Black unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds grew to 57.4% compared to just 25% for white people in the same age range.
And when homicides, chronic diseases, infant mortality, opioid overdose and other comorbidities (such as COVID-19) are factored in, Black Chicagoans live nine fewer years than non-Black residents on average.
All of this says nothing of the overpolicing of Black neighborhoods. Data pulled from the police department shows that Black motorists are five times more likely to be pulled over than their white counterparts.
In the face of all of that, with the constant memory of Darius, Dosunmu decided to launch the community block party. He’d always wanted to shine a more favorable light on Chicago, and after speaking with his family, he finally decided to do that in 2022.
Dosunmu recognizes that it’s a privilege for kids to grow up in a safe environment. Many kids aren’t exposed to the violence as he was growing up. So the block party is a form of escape for more than 100 kids in Chicago, providing an example of what a normal, carefree childhood can look like. He hopes events like his will encourage young Black kids to stay away from firearms and help solve the myriad problems that many youths face in the city.
“Some kids don’t have the same advantages other kids may have,” he said. “Creating safe spaces all around is giving kids no matter what where you live at, if you live in one of the worst neighborhoods or you live in one of the best neighborhoods, everyone has the same opportunity in terms of going outside to play in a safe space.”
The event will feature a basketball clinic, free lunch, equipment donations, and other games and entertainment. “Some kids, they want to play basketball but they never had a real coach, real counselors, real drills,” he said.
This event is personal to Dosunmu not because of what happened to Darius, but what didn’t happen to him. Growing up, he had a support system, a safe place to learn basketball, and overall guidance that some of the youths in Chicago will never experience.
Dosunmu knows the reputation his city has and wants the city to represent more than the small pockets in neighborhoods that face the most problems.
“I do understand in the city of Chicago, it is neighborhoods, it is certain blocks where it can be labeled as that. Only thing I tell people is don’t be ignorant. Chicago is one of the biggest cities and one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” he said.
“Don’t label the city based off of a small percentage of the city that you see on the internet, or you see on [people’s YouTube channels] looking for clickbait.”