In order to find mecca, one must take a journey.
For four Wednesdays this summer, fans in the flyest pairs of sneakers and trendiest fashions lined up at a high rise in the city’s West Loop neighborhood. Some show up an hour or more before the start time of the Jumpman Summer Series to ensure they can get into one of the most exclusive basketball events.
Basketball, local basketball, is a dominant color in the fabric of Chicago’s sports culture. It has birthed high school legends whose names still carry weight in local gyms and NBA stars whose impact on the game will be remembered for years to come.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve attended both the Summer Series and Wilson basketball’s Chi-League held at Whitney Young High School. Current NBA players such as Dalen Terry (Chicago Bulls), Wendell Carter Jr. (Orlando Magic), Kendrick Nunn (Washington Wizards) and Talen Horton-Tucker (Utah Jazz) can be seen playing alongside NBA G-League, WNBA and college players including Alfonzo McKinnie, Javon Freeman-Liberty, Keifer Sykes, Khaalia Hillsman and Xavier Castenada.
The gyms are crowded and a DJ plays music throughout the games. Commentators move up and down the court, microphone in hand, offering jokes and heckling players when they miss shots. It’s a who’s who of local basketball talent, but it’s got a family feel. At Chi-League, kids are on the court at halftime and between games, trying to put up their own shots and competing for prizes. The games serve as an introduction to the community for the youngest athletes in the room and a reunion for everyone else.
“The pro-ams are important because (they) really bring the city together,” said Chanise “Trixy” Jenkins, an assistant coach at Loyola who played basketball at DePaul and won a gold medal at the World University Games in 2015.
“You see past favorite hoopers coming back from different countries, college, or out of retirement to rep the city once again against the new age generation. Pro-ams bring back tradition and originality from the old school, and fresh attitudes and sauce from the new school.”
It’s easy to get completely caught up in the environment. I found myself looking around, trying to take in as much as I could. Little girls dancing. Moms discussing back-to-school plans. Old-timers remembering the days they were running up and down the court.
Bragging rights don’t just last for the summer, but a lifetime. Chicago is their basketball mecca and the greatest player of all-time, at least to them, helped cement that reputation.
“The impact of Michael Jordan nationally turned Chicago from being a football town to a basketball city overnight. Jordan gave the city hope,” Derrick “Lottery” Hardy, a former Simeon football player, said. “Chicagoans will always be boastful about being from the city of Chicago, but Jordan gave us validation.”
NBC Sports Chicago’s Anthony Gill agrees.
“The ‘Jordan Effect’ absolutely centers Chicago as a mecca. His success, his commitment to excellence and his profound impact on the sport locally makes this a hub. You can make the argument that because of his impact in growing the game internationally, him being in Chicago drew eyes to the city globally.”
That hub can be traced back to high school gymnasiums and parks on the south and west sides where players gather year-round in what feels like an underground network of pickup and organized games.
I attended the games alone, sitting courtside and never leaving my seat for the three-plus hours there so as to not miss a thing. Basketball players from years past cycle in and out of the gym. No one is moved by the presence of a pro on the court because this is their home too. Their neighborhood uncles stand along the baseline to offer handshakes and hugs and tell them the last time they’ve seen their moms. It’s not about the game, but about the community.
“Basketball is a life lesson for Black Chicagoans. It means everything,” said Eugene McIntosh, co-founder of The Bigs and former Mt. Carmel basketball player. “I’ve seen guys die on the court, some of the best players never make it and hoop save guys from the streets. If you hooped, it was a safe passage. Growing up in the ’80s and ‘90s, it was a way of life.”
Elders are heard encouraging the young players to bring their NBA friends back home. To them, this is how you keep the pipeline alive.
This is how the mecca remains the mecca. It is tended to by those who benefited from it in the past like a garden shared by generations. The key to strong roots is in the soil.
“You know a tree by the fruit it bears. You know something has taken a hold of the city when you see the residual effects,” Gill said. “The number of professional basketball players from here, No. 1 picks from here, those are the fruits of a city that loves the game.”
The tree doesn’t just include men. Women with a variety of playing experience participate in the tournaments as well. There are rules here, but regardless of gender, everyone plays the same: as hard as possible. The tournament is single elimination and each week counts.
“Whereas before we weren’t even a thought and now to be included in discussions as a point of emphasis means so much to our culture and the young girls growing up trying to find their own voice in Chicago,” Jenkins explained. “Just like the men, there are complete legends stepping on the floor, even some whom I used to look up to while playing at a young age.”
In the final game of Chi-League semifinals weekend, Terry suited up to play. People with cameras lined the walls as he tossed a lob to himself off the backboard. The commentator reminded us “a Chicago Bull will be playing in the next game.”
In the first half, Terry hit a three from the corner and landed directly on my left foot, scuffing my retro Air Jordan 1 Lost and Found. He continued running down the court at full speed as I quickly surveyed the “damage” to my sneaker. I turned to my seat neighbor to see if he’d also been stepped on. He had. The marks on our shoes were minimal, but the memory of being stepped on by an NBA player would be a story we could tell forever. “He definitely makes enough money to replace our shoes,” we joked.
The game continued at a fast pace. There were high-flying dunks and aggressive defense, with everyone on the court fighting to make it to the championship games on Aug. 13.
The basketball played could be an embodiment of the city’s personality. It’s a blue-collar game where your name doesn’t matter. It’s physical. The fouls are hard and you’ll get knocked on your ass. The fans yell from the stands, demanding you “look up the court!” and “wake up!” when they feel you’re lacking in some way.
And while players are at different levels of their basketball career, there’s no difference in the gym. Your contract, or lack thereof, doesn’t matter here. Respect is earned, not given, on the hardwood.
“There’s a certain swagger about us when it comes to hoopin’,” Jenkins said.
That’s Chicago. The mecca.