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An Undefeated Conversation

Hard stories of violence and loss

The Undefeated hosts a conversation in Chicago on athletes, guns and the path forward

Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. The Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers: A summer of horrific gun violence that continues daily from Orlando, Florida, to Milwaukee is prompting athletes and activists across the country to ask themselves what can be done. This week, The Undefeated looks at some of the issues involved and holds a town hall discussion in Chicago, the site of some of the nation’s worst gun violence.

A mother shared how her life was shattered after her 13-year-old son was shot to the death in a drive-by. A former NFL star explained how carrying a gun nearly led to him shooting an innocent man. A WNBA player recounted how three young cousins died in shootings.

Almost everyone had a heart-wrenching story to tell about the impact of gun violence and some tears were shed during a series of panel discussions hosted by The Undefeated that aired Thursday night on ESPN.

The conversations, hosted by ESPN’s Jemele Hill, were held at the South Side YMCA in Chicago and focused on athletes, their experience with violence and police and the responsibility to act. It was a fitting setting, not far from a part of the city that’s been hit hard by violence.

Chicago’s story is truly the tale of two cities.

Tourism this year is expected to surpass the previous record of 50.97 million as people flock to downtown attractions such as the Michigan Avenue shopping district, Navy Pier and Grant Park. At the same time, though, more than 2,600 people have been shot in the city, mainly on the South and West sides. With 463 murders as of Wednesday, Chicago is on pace to record its largest number of homicides since 1997, when 761 people were killed in the city.

Even if pro athletes can escape this environment, they’re not immune to the violence. Cappie Pondexter, a member of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky and a two-time champion with the Phoenix Mercury, has lost three family members in Chicago to gun violence over the last seven years.

All were under the age of 23.

“To lose someone you grew up with, to lose someone you played with, it’s the hardest thing to deal with,” said Pondexter, whose 23-year-old relative was beaten to death less than a month ago in Chicago. “To see my family members have to plan for funerals, it’s been hard. It’s something you really can’t explain unless you experience it.”

It’s those dangers that once led ESPN analyst Marcellus Wiley, a lineman for 10 years in the NFL, to carry a gun. Wiley grew up Compton, California, with uncles who were gang members, and he lost several family members to gun violence.

He described one night in downtown Buffalo, New York, where he drew his weapon when a passer-by tapped on his car window, only to ask for directions. It “made me realize I was going to hurt someone in my likeness,” he said.

Besides Pondexter and Wiley, other panelists spoke about being impacted by the violence. Stephanie Brown, a resident of Chicago’s South Side, described to the audience her pain after her 13-year-old son, Darius, was shot to death in 2011, the innocent victim of a drive-by, while playing basketball at a local park.

“You’ve got children out here that they just want to play,” Brown said. “Darius was playing ball. Nobody could have ever paid me to believe I would lose my son at 13 to gun violence.

“It’s hurtful to see our own kind killing each other.”

Besides the crime in their communities, panelists expressed frustration over their interactions with police. ESPN analyst Doug Glanville, who played for three teams over his nine-year baseball career, said he was shoveling snow in his Connecticut driveway when he was approached by an officer whose jurisdiction was in another town.

“I kind of stood up wondering why he’s approaching me,” Glanville said. “He said ‘Sir, you trying to make some money shoveling people’s driveway around here?’ ”

Glanville said he remained calm and defused the situation.

Dwyane Wade, who appeared via satellite, described his encounters with police while growing up in a South Side Chicago house headed by a drug-dealing mother, Jolinda Wade, who appeared in the show’s first segment.

“I was scared of them,” Wade said. ““The police would come knock down our doors many times. And you really didn’t know what to expect from them. Sometimes they’d be nice, sometimes they’d plant something on you. So a lot of times I would run if I heard any loud knock, if I heard the police.”

The final panel during "An Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility, and Violence" on August 25, 2016 at the South Side YMCA in Chicago, Illinois. Four panels made up of community members, athletes and journalist talked about the issues of gun violence, solutions and the roles that athletes have to help the solve the issues.

The final panel during “An Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility, and Violence” on August 25, 2016 at the South Side YMCA in Chicago, Illinois. Four panels made up of community members, athletes and journalist talked about the issues of gun violence, solutions and the roles that athletes have to help the solve the issues.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

Once Wade started his NBA career that has earned him well over $100 million, he expected his adult encounters to be limited — and never expected his 13- and 8-year-old sons to be subjected to police encounters anytime soon.

He was wrong.

“In Miami, we lived on a very popular block, a very rich kind of neighborhood, and at the end of the day there’s not many of us in that neighborhood,” Wade said. “So our kids were stopped. What’s the first thing they do when police stopped them? They ran.”

Wade was forced to gather his sons for “the talk,” a conversation many African-American parents have with their sons about encountering police.

“We really had to educate them and say, hey, stop, say your name, say where you live, answer the questions they ask you,” Wade said. “Put your hands down. Don’t put them unless they tell you to. Just go through every step.”

Wade’s mother, Jolinda, gave up drugs and turned her life around after being released from prison in 2003. Now a pastor, she sees the problems that contribute to the violence in the communities.

“Some parents have to work one, two and three jobs and can’t be there for their kids,” she said. “Reality TV is raising our children today. And they’re going out on the street and being disconnected … They grow up and look around and nothing’s there.”

The event included many such emotional stories about Chicago, including one from the bodyguard of Derrick Rose, Andre Hamlin. A former gangbanger, Hamlin shared how getting shot changed his life.

“I was shot in the neck and the chest and my best friend was killed,” Hamlin said. “I went back to school. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to make a change.’ ”

Hamlin claimed that he didn’t have positive influences growing up in the city’s Englewood neighborhood, even though his mother worked for the police department and his father was an officer.

“What I saw on the corner was somebody that was 16 with a nice chain,” Hamlin said. “And what I saw at home, other than Prince, Michael Jackson and Walter Payton, were white people that were successful. I told myself I can’t be like the white people, so I have to be like someone who looks like me.”

Former NBA great Isiah Thomas, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, sat in the crowd and listened to the stories about the challenges faced by residents of his city. When he joined one of the panels later, he stressed that he didn’t want those problems to be the night’s only takeaway.

“We’ve done a lot in exposing the negative, but there’s a lot of positive things than negative things going on in our communities,” Thomas said. “My assistant grew up on the South Side and has his law degree. There’re moms and dads in these communities every single day raising their kids and doing the right things.”

The show’s final segment addressed the importance of athletes giving back to their communities. And that’s what Chicago Bulls guard Rajon Rondo has done over the past year, becoming a mentor to 10 boys from Jensen Elementary Scholastic Academy in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood.

“I knew I wanted to touch youth,” said Rondo, a Kentucky native who explained to the audience that he got involved with the Chicago kids before he was traded to the Bulls in July. “I wanted to touch young men in particular and help show them there is a way to get out and there is hope. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I didn’t have certain mentors in my life.”

Jabari Parker, a Chicago native who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, said he wants to follow the lead of players like Rondo.

“It makes me feel I have a responsibility,” Parker said. “It gives me a platform and shows me these kids look up to us. Our presence needs to be known.”

Dawn Valenti, a crisis responder at the Chicago Citizens for Change, a group that helps people who have lost loved ones to violence, listened intently to the professional sports figures who vowed to make a difference.

“After these town hall meetings, everybody goes back to the comforts of their home and the children are still in the street and they’re still dying,” said Valenti, who spends a lot of time comforting the family members of murder victims.

“Actions speak louder than words. Once you leave here, please don’t forget about us. Don’t forget about Chicago. Don’t forget about the youth of the world.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.