AUBURN GRESHAM — As Andre Johnson put on his uniform and laced up his shoes in the basement of St. Sabina Church Saturday, he learned he would be playing basketball for a full house.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger announced the gym next door was packed with about 2,000 people, and even more people waited in line hoping to get inside.
"I ain't ever played in front of 2,000 people before, man," Johnson said. "I'm ready."
Johnson and other young men from the city's South Side played in the second Peace Basketball tournament, hosted by Pfleger's church. The tournament began in 2012 as a way to bring gang members in the area together to prevent violence.
The tournament — which was created by Pfleger, NBA Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas, and other NBA players and community leaders — also gave rise to the Peace Basketball League.
On Saturday, Thomas and NBA stars including the Bull's Joakim Noah, and former Bulls players Ben Gordon, Jannero Pargo, and Antoine Walker, now retired, told the tournament's players they hoped the tournament would help gang rivals look at each other as "brothers and sisters" and not as enemies.
"There was a time in this country when we, as young black men and brown men, looked at each other and never ever had the thought that we would take another black man's life or another brown man's life," said Thomas, a West Side native and retired Detroit Pistons star.
Noah told the group he was there to listen and find out what he could do to help prevent violence.
"I want to listen to what you guys have to say," Noah said. "This is not about preaching or nothing, just to show love. Everybody here is here to show love."
The group was hesitant to share at first but slowly began talking. Then 18-year-old Jabril Muhammad took the microphone. Muhammad told the NBA stars that gang members who say they hate one another could not even explain why they do.
Muhammad called up two people from rival cliques — G-ville and Killerwood — who he believed were "into it" over stuff that "really don't matter." The two shook hands and squashed their argument.
Afterward, Muhammad, who lives in G-ville territory, said he was surprised that the teen from Killerwood said he just wanted to avoid violence and graduate from high school.
"I never thought that my brother from Killerwood would have said that, about he don't want no trouble, he just trying to make it to college," he said. "But if you never communicate, you could be thinking hate, but he could be thinking love, you know, so it's all about communication."
During the tournament crowds watched as the players put on a show punctuated with alley-oops and dunks. NBA referees officiated the games.
One game stopped and fans cheered when Bulls star and Englewood native Derrick Rose made a surprise appearance. Mayor Rahm Emanuel also stopped by and watched the action courtside, sitting next to Thomas.
"It's events like this that remind us of the bonds ... that bring a community together, and I'm so proud of what Father Pfelger has done, all the athletes that are here, the coaches that are here, but most important, the parent that are here for their kids and to support them," Emanuel said.
After last year's tournament, the neighborhood saw a decrease in shootings and murders, participants said.
Andre Johnson said he expected the same effect this year.
"Today might stop a lot of stuff that's going on," he said. "There's probably some people here that are into it, and now they're probably looking at each other like it's cool."
Johnson, who identified as a Gangster Disciple, said he was not part of a clique and was labeled a "GD" because his family members were. He said he was born into gang life.
He said although Saturday's event was great, he knew NBA stars would not be dropping by his neighborhood on Sunday or in the coming months. He said he wished it was not just a "one-day thing," but was grateful for their contribution.
And ultimately, Johnson said, he knew keeping cool heads out in the street is up to those in the neighborhood.
"We got to make the decision on our own to be cool with each other when we leave here," he said.