How is it that the number of homicides in a U.S. city can outpace that of native troops slain in Afghanistan, yet concern and discourse spotlighting the epidemic still largely fly under the national radar – at least in terms of sustained reaction?
In Chicago, violence has become as rampant as the responses remain scarce. Since 2001, more than 5,000 victims have been killed by gunfire in the Windy City, well more than double the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops slain in Afghan war zones over that same time. This past August alone, a city-record 57 murders were committed and, by month’s end, an ungodly 350 or so slayings had been executed, an overall increase of some 30 percent compared to the first eight months of 2011.
Over the most recent Memorial Day weekend, at least 40 people were shot in less than 72 hours. Of those victims, ten were killed, including four teenage kids. Among what’s saluted as one the world’s “alpha cities,” Chi-Town now holds the nation’s worst murder rate, higher than even the notoriously violent Third World metropolises Mexico City and Sao Paolo.
As many as 600 different gang factions now troll city streets, according to a recent Chicago Tribune investigation. With turf war battles between groups once aligned as allies mounting, statistics also reveal nearly one-third of all this year’s homicide victims were affiliated with the Gangster Disciples, the city’s largest and most infamous street gang with well over 250 cliques.
Perhaps just as tellingly, when a local TV reporter recently asked one admitted gangbanger what can be done to bring about a cease-fire on city street corners, the youth callously yet candidly retorted “Killing, killing is the solution.”
Amid all that destruction, Derrick Rose finds motivation while striving to inspire others. As, arguably, the Chi’s most famous present day celebrity, particularly of the homegrown variety, the NBA’s youngest MVP in history takes to heart all the “city under siege” critiques of his beloved hometown.
It’s a proud and unwavering stance, one which moved the 24-year-old emotional Bulls star to sob uncontrollably when reflecting upon his heart-knock life upbringing during a recent adidas held event marking the launch of the D Rose 3. Only days before, fellow homegrown rap star Lupe Fiasco tearfully experienced his own come-to-Jesus moment while lamenting all the similar traps and pitfalls that have befallen his old West Side hood.
“With all this stuff that’s going on in this city, a kid from Englewood has something positive going on," Rose finally uttered, a proclamation seemingly meant to uplift others as much as celebrate himself.
Since inking his estimated $250 million lifetime deal with the adidas earlier this year, Rose has used his exorbitant star power to soothe sides in settling the city’s first public schools strike in more than two decades; stem rising gang problems across much of the city by reemphasizing the virtues of organized sports; and moved to purchase an equity share in one of the area’s largest and most popular pizza franchises, hoping to make a difference with the city’s black unemployment rate that lags some two times behind that of the national average.
“He's a kid who's just human,” Rose’s agent and former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong recently told Sports Illustrated. “He knows the problems in Chicago, through and through. He grew up in the public school system, grew up as one of those kids. He is Chicago, and he understands the city, understands the culture, understands the problems, understands the beauty of this place. He gets it.”
And yet, there’s no denying that the Chi-Town of today is a vastly different place from the one where Rose, still recovering from the left ACL tear that prematurely ended his 2012 season, first grew to prominence as a high school star at Simeon Career Academy.
From Englewood to Chatham to Roseland, many of the same park courts where he first took flight have now largely been deserted or even obliterated. Gang initiation and recruitment ceremonies in and around park field houses are now as commonplace as team tryouts. Even the legendary Murray Park blacktop where Rose spent his most formative years polishing up his game went more than two years without rims or backboards before Rose sprang forth over the last several months to have the entire court resurfaced and restriped.
Just as Rose grew up, Sonny Parker can remember a time when he too could freely roam from one neighborhood to the next simply in search of the best pickup game he could find. Nowadays, Parker, whose travails ultimately steered him on the path of a six-year NBA career and whose son, Jabari, is now the top-rated high school player in the country, cringes at the thought of kids not feeling free and safe enough to explore or pursue their interests.
"We can bring people in and they can talk to kids,” Parker said in an ESPN interview. “They know all this 'Say no to drugs, say no to gang violence' and all this stuff. They know that. But OK, what are my choices? They need to see some choices."
But Parker also knows all the fear is real and quite justified. Only days before, he attended the funeral of former local prep star Michael Haynes, who was shot to death near his South Side home while breaking up a fight between two acquaintances. Haynes was just weeks away from heading off to New York City and Iona University on a basketball scholarship.
“This kid is getting ready to do the right thing and go to school,” said Parker, who also runs the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation. “He’s breaking up a fight. He gets shot and killed.”
As President of CeaseFire Illinois, an award-winning public health model dedicated to reducing shootings and killings since 1999, Tio Hardiman has painfully learned to somewhat still himself to such tragedies. Largely staffed by reformed ex-cons and one-time felony offenders now known as “interrupters,” the group prides itself on its motto: “We enter their worlds to bring them into ours.”
CeaseFire outsource workers are entrusted with venturing into hotspot neighborhoods and calming frictions between rival gangs, all in hopes of maintaining some semblance of peace. Over the last year, Hardiman said mediations have skyrocketed to the point that staffers felt compelled to spend some 24,000 man hours in the field meeting with more than 1,200 “high risk individuals.”
“What’s happening in Chicago runs deeper than just gangs,” said Hardiman. “It’s drugs, unemployment, disenfranchisement, all those things and more. If everything were just a gang problem, we’d go to the leaders. What we’re now seeing is an emergence of cliques and the results of simmering frustrations. The young guys don’t take well to following orders… and now you have all this strife that culminates in gunfire. It doesn’t help that shooting is the one thing that gains you instant credibility.”
Recently rumors circulated CeaseFire was in the process of approaching Rose in hopes of convincing him to publically co-sign on some of their signature programs. While Hardiman insists no such formal talks have taken place, he readily admits he’s more than open to the idea.
“Derrick Rose and people like Derrick Rose – young guys who made it out by believing in themselves and doing positive things – definitely carry juice in the hood as leaders,” said Hardiman. “His impact can be off the charts.”
Rose’ growing involvement in matters that extend far beyond the hardwood makes one wonder if he has now undeniably emerged as an MVP of a different sort. Ask yourself, given his significance to the Bulls and his impact in his community; is there any more valuable person in all of sports than DRose?
NBA vet and fellow Englewood native Jannero Pargo predicts Rose’s Windy City impact will ultimately even surpass that of Michael Jordan. “More kids can identify with him,” Pargo told ESPN. "They go through the same things he went through. I'm just saying he carries a lot of weight being from this city. It gives a lot of kids in this area a lot of hope."
But just how much lifting can any one man really do? Try as he might, most all agree there’s no way DRose can or should be expected to save the Chi all by his lonesome. “There’s a role for him to play, maybe even a huge one” said Hardiman. “But he’s not a God.”
Still, mere days before the start of training camp, Rose added to his rising street creed by taking a break from his exhaustive rehab schedule to join fellow Chi-Town legend Isiah Thomas in hosting the first annual Peace Basketball Tournament.
From the moment Thomas, Rose and other homegrown NBA players – including Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons and Antoine Walker – set foot in Gresham to coach and mentor the wayward about taking greater responsibility for their own lives, CeaseFire spokesperson Cobe Williams trumpets there have been no new shootings in one of the city’s most trigger-happy neighborhoods.
“Will just playing a basketball game keep the peace forever? Maybe not,” conceded Williams. “But for right now, the shootings have stopped. That’s a good thing, and sometimes it starts with something as simple as one man showing the next a bit of respect.”
City officials, Mayor Rahm Emanuel undoubtedly among them, are now hoping rumors that adidas may be working on a “major community initiative” involving the entire Rose family will actually come to be. Perhaps a social center or a school named in his mother’s honor, all the possibilities now seem endless.
“Derrick’s no different than any other responsible, informed person living and working in a given community,” said Armstrong. “I say that to say he cares. The kid cares and is interested in uplifting all those around him that mean the most to him. His heart is in the right place.”
And all the caring seems mutual. All across town, life-size posters and billboards of Rose abound under the heading “from Englewood to MVP.” And in the hours after joining Twitter under the handle @drose, he had gained thousands of new followers, many of whom exchanged sentiments and ideas with him in hopes of improving the city’s plight.
“This city needs what he can bring right now,” said Hardiman. “That’s just real talk.” In fact, the mere possibility of Rose not being of Chicago, as former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy recently prophesied, has since left some in the city literally waiting to exhale.
But understand that the bond and commitment Derrick Rose shares with the Chi remains the same, more than ever, stretching far beyond the limits of some survivor-like alliance. To borrow a line from one of his multi-million dollar ad campaigns, DRose is all in when it comes to the Chi.
“Derrick’s about finishing what he starts,” said Armstrong. “Anything less than that just isn’t in his makeup. Right now, I think Chicago can use him and I know he’s proud to need the city back.”