Ballin’ on the South Side

Produced for ABC 7 Chicago. Chicago’s blacktops may not draw the crowds they did in the ’90s, and the Bulls may be the worst team in the NBA, but at the city’s legendary outdoor courts, you can still find a great game of streetball.

“The hardest playing people in the world are in Chicago. We put our soul into basketball,” said Dre, who grew up playing at Nat King Cole Park in the Chatham neighborhood.

Throughout the city, and especially on the courts of Chicago’s South Side, ballers emerge with the summer sun to play pickup games while the neighborhood comes out to watch.

The Blacktop. The Cages. Hayes Park. Many of the same courts that made NBA legends like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose are still the best places to find a great game today.

Lakefront courts draw the most players during summer weekends. At Rainbow Beach or Hayes, right next to the 63rd Street Beach, you might even catch two players squashing a beef through a game of one-on-one.

“This is like our safe haven. We come up here to get away from all the garbage that’s in the neighborhoods,” said Keith Whittmon. “There’s no shooting, no gang-banging.”

Every generation congregates at Hayes, from high schoolers getting in an offseason workout to old school ballers like Ethel White – who, in 1978, played on the New York Stars, one of the earliest women’s professional basketball teams.

Patrick Tramble, who grew up playing ball in Washington Park, said basketball is central to the city’s identity.

“Basketball and Chicago are intertwined. You can’t separate ’em. Not just because of the game itself, but because of the lessons that you learn from basketball,” Tramble said. “You learn how to play your role, to be a role player, just like in life.”

Back when Tramble was growing up, he says the game was different. The courts at Washington Park, known simply as “The Blacktop,” used to draw crowds in the hundreds. Violence has intensified in Washington Park, and the Blacktop remained mostly empty all summer.

At Cole Park in Chatham, where current NBA players Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor once played, the courts are often nearly empty as well.

“It’s way different now. The tournaments was packed years ago, 10, 15 years ago,” said Dre, a Cole Park regular.

Many say that violence is the reason for diminishing crowds. Some blame video games for keeping kids indoors. Others say it’s the city’s fault for poor upkeep at some parks.

But none of that stops the Chicagoans who live for the game. Take a weekend trip down to the lakeside courts, and you’ll still find great ball.

“The only downside of this city would be taxes. But there’s one thing you can do that’s tax-free, and that’s basketball. Nobody can take that away from you. Nobody,” Tramble said.

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