NEAR WEST SIDE — The sole purpose of West Haven Safe Summer Basketball League is built into its name, but for the first time in its decade of existence it failed when a brawl broke out at its finale Monday night.
In an emotional news conference outside Crane High School Wednesday morning, organizers said about 20 "renegade youths" have put the league's relationship with one of its biggest assets — the United Center — on slippery flooring.
"Yes there was a brawl, but it was at the United Center. No other NBA team, sports franchise has opened its doors to the community and become partners with the community like the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago Blackhawks," said Ernest Gates, executive director of Near West Side Community Development Corp., which works to provide programs and social services to people in the area, among other work. "Safe Summer is more than just that brawl."
The league was created as a "tribute" to Crane student Ruben Ivy, who was gunned down by another Crane student, and other victims of gun violence in Chicago. In March 2008, Ivy was shot by 15-year-old Devonte Smith barely a block from where the news conference was held Wednesday, he said.
After the murder, the development corporation began discussing ways to address violence in the community and decided on the basketball league. In June 2008, the group began hosting the nine-week league between 4 and 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, "a dangerous time for black youth in the city," he said.
"If we could save one life, then Safe Summer was worth doing. Our motto became if we keep the butts in the seats then their a----- won’t lay in the streets," he said. "To date, we have had zero injuries, zero fatalities and zero fights with the exception of the brawl at the United Center this past Monday, which garnered national attention."
Tuesday, Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson criticized security at the United Center. And Wednesday, stadium officials called the criticism "an insult."
"To shift the fault of this to anyone other than those who caused it, is an insult to the overwhelming majority of people who were there with good intentions, as well as a professional building staff that has historically operated with the utmost professionalism and integrity, most notably in matters of security. Anyone suggesting to the contrary is misinformed," the United Center said in a statement posted on its website.
The Chicago Police Department refused to comment on the United Center response.
Johnson on Tuesday lamented that people fighting ruined the day. But he also suggested the security was lacking.
“It’s just ridiculous that kids can’t go out, enjoy themselves and have a good time without some people causing problems,” Johnson said Tuesday, according to the Sun-Times.
“It’s frustrating. The whole point of that event was to keep kids safe, and it turned into what it did. It’s unacceptable. … That just goes to show you that you have to have security in place in the event that those types of things happen if you’re gonna invite that many young people. We’ll be talking to the sponsors to make sure their security plans are on point next time,” he said.
Gates said Johnson was "incorrect."
The security, which included their own security along with the United Center's, was "more than adequate," he said.
"It's like having a bomber: if they’re hell bent on exploding a bomb, they’re going to do it. There’s not a lot of security to put in place to prevent that," he said.
The Monday evening fight came amid championship games and occurred as people were leaving, according to video of the event.
Fighting occurred near a concession stand and outside the venue.
The youth involved in the brawl included 12- or 13-year-olds, who planned to meet "a rival group" at the event and use it "as a platform," said Oji Eggleston, program developer for West Haven Sports Clubs.
"I would prefer it not to happen, but unfortunately that’s what we face every day, so that actually reinforces why we do what we do in the community. Safe Summer Basketball league is ... set up as a platform for individuals of that age to come out enjoy activities receive mentoring, life skills training, etc. This is more reinforcement to support the work we do," he said.
Organizers said there's a "good chance" the tournament may not return to the United Center, but the league has not had a discussion with management. The United Center hasn't objected to hosting the event, Gates said.
For the past five years, the league has hosted its final games of the season at the stadium, with estimated crowds of 5-6,000 people. When asked whether the game should remain at the United Center or be moved, Grant lost his composure and shed a tear. He said the league had gone 1,620 summer hours without an incident until the brawl.
"You have to see the look on those kids' faces to appreciate what we do. So if we take that out, take that away from them, it’s a problem. … We’re here for those kids," he said. "It’s the United Center. For a lot of folks, its their first time there so it makes a huge difference to those kids and some adults. … It’s a fantastic event for them, but that’s not my call."
The final three games of the tournament are rescheduled for Wednesday evening at Crane High School.
A video showed the fight: