Within a block of Homan Square Park, Google Maps becomes unnecessary: all you need to do to find Project sWish is follow the small herds of sweaty-shirted teenagers in gym shorts and stuffing their faces with Beggars pizza, forming a spotty trail to the gymnasium inside the field house. Barely a block southeast of the park, on the corner of Homan and Fillmore, sits the infamous CPD evidence and interrogation facility that made headlines around the world after the Guardian reported it was being used by the department to unlawfully detain, torture, and disappear more than 7,000 people.
The black mark that that story left on this neighborhood is being cleansed by what’s going on inside this field house. The sounds of gym shoes squeaking and balls hitting the hardwood can be heard throughout the halls. In front of the entrance to the gym are two adjacent tables, one with a stack of black and a stack of white jerseys and a sign-up sheet, the other piled high with pizza boxes. Inside the gym, two teams are in the heat of a close game, 38-41. The modest set of bleachers is filled with spectators and players waiting for their chance to get in on a game. This is Project sWish.
In Chicago, basketball is more than just a game. It’s an institution, the sport of choice for thousands of teens. In Chicago Public Schools, there are 192 high school varsity boys and girls basketball programs, more than any other sport except track and field.
When the school year ends, the accessibility of organized versions of the game drastically decreases. The CPS leagues are replaced by and large by AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) travel teams that, while regarded as the pinnacle of youth sports training, often require exorbitant amounts of money and resources. Furthermore, due to Chicago’s reputation for fostering renowned basketball talents, players from all across the country compete for spots on these teams. Of the 12 roster spots on the epochal Mac Irvin Fire basketball team—boasting alumni such as NBA players Jabari Parker, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Jahlil Okafor—only five are occupied by Chicagoans.
McKinley Nelson, 22, founded Project sWish last August with an understanding that access to basketball programs means more than simply giving young people ages 14 to 24 on the south and west sides a court to play on between 5 and 9 PM Thursdays through Sundays. According to the National Archive of Criminal Justice data, juvenile violent crimes peak between the hours of 7 and 9 PM on days when there’s no school. “The goal is to provoke change and provide resources in the community,” Nelson says. “We want to provide an opportunity for these kids to be off the streets during these times, in these neighborhoods.”
Ultimately, though, Project sWish came to life as a method for Nelson to cope with loss, and to reduce the number of youth Chicago loses to violence. “Basically everyone in my life that I have a meaningful friendship with is through basketball in some way or another,” Nelson says. “Growing up I’ve lost too many of those people I met through basketball to violence in the city. Mainly because they didn’t have the opportunity to be on the court and ended up on the streets.”
Project sWish launched last summer at Whitney Young High School, Nelson’s alma mater, with a charity basketball game and a backpack drive where it gave away 1,300 book bags filled with school supplies. Today at Homan Square Park, the team is launching its second session of free summer open runs, or open gyms.
Sylvia Nelson Jordan, Nelson’s mother, says his love of basketball began when he was a toddler in Auburn Gresham. “He was three years old when he started playing ball,” she says. “We would always run into problems getting him into some of the programs because he was too young.” Nelson Jordan, who raised McKinley as a single mother while working for CPS managing extracurricular programs, continued to do everything in her power to get her son into various camps and workouts, not only because he loved the game but because she saw the values he could learn from it.
“The time management, the structure, the discipline are all things that I feel like basketball provides for kids,” she says. “He would often benefit from someone reaching back to help him, so he was imbued with that spirit of philanthropy growing up as well. He was a passionate and caring child. . . . To see him pour [that kindness] into young people warms my heart.”
Nelson played basketball all four years at Whitney Young before going on to attend Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he studies sports management; he expects to graduate next year.
Running a nonprofit at 22 is a challenge. There are venue rental costs, apparel costs, food costs, and travel costs, not to mention payroll, recruiting, marketing, event planning, and PR. “I’m not very financially secure right now, so I rely a lot on my mom for financial and donations from our supporters,” Nelson says. “I’m not certain if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, but I know I want this foundation to exist long after I’m gone.” Nelson is in the process of having Project sWish verified as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. He declined to reveal more specific financial information. “The funds have been committed to us but not yet received,” he says. “Until it is official we are keeping things in-house.”
To make things run smoothly, he’s enlisted the help of a team of six of his close friends, all of whom he met during his early educational and athletic careers. All of them are under the age of 25, and each has his or her own obligations and commitments besides Project sWish.
“I didn’t even start until late May because I was at school, and even now I have to spend a lot of time training,” says Miles Baggett, 21, who plays football at Northern Illinois University and is currently manning the registration table. Baggett has known Nelson since the fifth grade; they were also teammates at Whitney Young. “I remember seeing him posting on Instagram about the program and what they were doing, so I reached out to ask McKinley how I could get involved.”
Morgan Dean has been working with the foundation since May of this year, when she graduated from college. She also works for the Los Angeles-based sports marketing agency Game Seven, hiring and managing staff for the company’s Chicago-based events. “McKinley and I have had a friendship since third grade,” she says. “I try to use the experience I have from organizing basketball-related events to help out with coordinating our events.” Darrell Ivy and Omarr Gilbert, both 23, and Stephen Williams, 22, also assist in managing the different open runs across the city in three different locations on the south and west sides: Homan Square Park, Ogden Park in Englewood, and Dunbar High School in Bronzeville. The number of participants varies, but Project sWish expects 50 to 60 kids weekly per site over the course of the summer.
Placing their open runs in these locations has been no coincidence. “The reason we’re at these gyms, in these neighborhoods, at these times, is because we recognize that these are high-crime areas and high-crime hours,” Gilbert says. “If we can lower the crime rate by even half of 1 percent, then we’re reaching our goal.”
“These people are also showing up for the training. We’re helping them get better at basketball,” Ivy adds. “We have coaches that are well-known across the city who come here to coach the teams.” Dex Pierce, head coach of Dunbar’s varsity team, coaches open-run teams there, while renowned basketball trainer Angie Foster, known simply as Ms. Foster, coaches at Homan Square.
“A lot of these kids have never had the opportunity to play AAU or even high school ball, so it’s their first time wearing a jersey,” Williams says. “They get turned away from these other gyms because they want to charge them ten dollars to hoop, and that’s their money for, like, the next five days. They come here and it’s free, you get food, you get a jersey, we’ll give you hooping shoes if you need them. That’s huge.”
“Basketball is just a way to gain their trust. It’s a way to get them to see that we relate to them,” adds 24-year-old Kenny Doss Jr., another volunteer. “At the end of the day, when they have their issues outside of the game, we want them to feel comfortable coming here.” In addition to working with Project sWish, Doss runs his own nonprofit organization, called Bridging the Gap Globally, that focuses on the Englewood community, running basketball events, prom dress giveaways, and more.
Both Doss and Nelson emphasize the mental and emotional impact that Project sWish can have. In February, they collaborated on Englewood Invasion, an event that featured a mental health-focused Q&A with professional basketball players Linnae Harper of the Chicago Sky and Jahlil Okafor of the New Orleans Pelicans. “We want to make [discussions of mental health] more common than just that one-stop shop,” Nelson says. “We want to have roundtable discussions and panels during our runs for the people waiting on the sidelines to play. We would like to have people come and talk to them about things that are bothering them, even just a place for them to check in. We want this to be restorative justice [for the historic disenfranchisement of the communities we’re serving].”
While the team admits that they sometimes butt heads on things when it comes to organizing the events in a way that feasibly accommodates the needs of the players, they understand they must put their egos aside to get the job done. They all share the common goal of making the city a safer place to grow up.
This afternoon is 16-year-old Kesean White’s first time at one of Project sWish’s open runs. “I saw and heard about everything they were doing through [Instagram],” he says. “To me it was just another opportunity to get in the gym and hoop.” Kesean lives in Woodlawn. He’d just finished playing at the Dunbar location and was on his way out to Ogden Park field house, where Project sWish was going to be running even later. “We used to hoop in alleys growing up,” he says. “[There were] no open gyms that’s like this, that let us play this late.”
“It’s impossible to really see it, but we know it’s saving lives,” Williams says. “We’ve all been through the cycle before. When I see these kids hooping, I think about the friends that I had that, if they were in the gym instead of outside looking for something to do, they’d still be alive. Those four hours that these kids are with us, anything could be happening outside.” v
Project sWish Thu-Sun 5-9 PM, locations vary, projectswishchicago.com. F