NEAR NORTH SIDE — Basketball is more than a game for the dozens of young people who descended upon Seward Park Saturday for an annual cross-city tournament.
"It gives you something better to do then sell drugs and it keeps you off the streets," said Troy Pryor, a 14-year-old competing for Englewood. "It lets you know that people love you and they really care about you."
The program began a decade ago in Pilsen as anti-violence initiative where neighborhoods would block off gang hot spots with portable basketball hoops, art displays and grills.
"It's not so much about basketball but getting the community out," said Tony Dixon, a program director from North Lawndale.
Dixon said they locked down five spots for basketball along with adding face painting, gospel music and a pop-up tent that taught people about using technology.
The Hoops in the Hood cross-city tournament took over Seward Park in the Near North Side Saturday afternoon, bringing together 13 Chicago neighborhoods that participate in the program. The streetball tournament is in its seventh year, and allows teams from the different neighborhood leagues to compete against each other for bragging rights in the final summer tournament.
"You wouldn't think a few summer basketball games would amount to a community-building experience, but that's what's happening. And the finals at Seward Park are like an exclamation point to a successful summer," said Keri Blackwell, deputy director of LISC Chicago, which hosts the tournament.
Erskin Thomas, a 17-year-old from Englewood believes this tournament allows kids "to leave what's in the streets in the streets." He said without programs like this some of his teammates may be "dead or in jail."
"I know a lot of those gangbangers, so this is good and keeping a lot of those kids off the street," Thomas said. "They're trying to stop the killing, so they find a program for us."
The championship for the Major Division, made of 15- to 19-year-olds) pitted North Lawndale against Englewood in a heated battle that took over the main court. After being tied at halftime the tournament MVP, Kyle Odom, started the half with an offensive onslaught that propelled North Lawndale to victory.
"I knew it wasn't just me - it was God through me. The hard work and dedication paid off," said Odom, 19.
Odom said he "felt great" coming into the game after he "brought [his] team together and prayed," which helped fuel the 46-30 victory over Englewood.
"Anything could've happened and had us killed today, [but] this program let us live another day," Odom said.