CHICAGO — Deon Thomas says books — not the National Guard — can save Chicago.
The former Simeon and Illinois basketball star — who now broadcasts the Illini on the radio and is part of the Big Ten Network — said countless residents in the South and West side neighborhoods where he grew up have lost hope.
"It's tragic. It's extremely sad," said Thomas, who routinely keeps track of Chicago's shooting totals. On Monday, he paused at length before discussing the weekend's violence, when 31 people were shot and four were killed.
"It's a total loss of hope," he said. "And when you lose those types of things, you revert to the streets. And the streets are not kind."
Thomas said today's youths have lost their way compared to the 1980s when he lived on the West Side and Englewood. In a recent Facebook post, Thomas said fistfights, not guns, solved disputes, and when a grown-up was disrespected, the perpetrator were "gonna get HIT with whatever's close..."
"The Facebook post is about trying to inspire people," Thomas said. "The loss of respect for people's elders and things like that is startling."
Thomas is trying to do his part as director of the Engage Program at University of Illinois at Chicago, which teaches math and writing skills to elementary students near UIC's campus. He's also planning a summer program that will combine basketball and education to keep kids off the streets.
Thomas said talk of bringing the National Guard to help solve Chicago's shootings "won't solve anything."
"You can solve this by educating people," said Thomas, who's still Illinois' all-time leading scorer with 2,129 points. "Nobody wants to stand on the corner and sell drugs. They'd rather have a legit way to take care of their families. I've had several friends who lived that life, and there has to be a better way. No one wants to live like that."