Skip to main content

Ten Years of Hoops in the Hood: An Oral History

Eric Young Smith

This year marks the 10th anniversary of LISC Chicago’s Hoops in the Hood program, a network of community-run basketball games in 14 neighborhoods across the city. Designed to literally take back the streets from gangs and violence, the program sets up in public safety “hot spots” in parks and on blocks that most residents avoid on an average summer night.

Teams of neighborhood youth compete weekly June through August, capped by a cross-city championship with more than 400 participants. The program has grown to be about much more than summer basketball. The community-based lead agencies and their local partners have added soccer, face painting, barbeque, health screenings, live music, arts-and-crafts – whatever mix of activities will be the most fun for the most people.

Local control is a key part of the program. Communities pick their own name for the program, and they choose the activities. In some neighborhoods the location is always the same, while others move each week to a new block.

Over the years, more than 16,000 kids have participated in Hoops programs, learning leadership skills, social responsibility and teamwork, and thousands of other residents have coached, watched their kid play, danced, laughed or simply spent a night out with their neighbors. After a decade of Hoops in the Hood, some of the program’s architects and participants talked with us about how the program came together and what it has meant to their community.

For the last decade, young people from the Near North Side to Englewood have been facing off in street basketball games through Hoops in the Hood, a LISC Chicago-supported program that stresses physical exercise, leadership skills and community participation. The contest pictured here, in Englewood, is typical of the program's philosophy of transforming high crime intersections into playing fields.

Juan Francisco Hernandez

Meghan Harte, executive director of LISC Chicago

LISC Chicago saw a program that was working for one of our community partners in Pilsen and scaled it to the citywide level, meanwhile ensuring it was community-run and flexible to each neighborhood’s needs. That's a big part of why it's been so successful.


Julio Guerrero, vice president of institutional advancement at The Resurrection Project in Pilsen

The Resurrection Basketball League started in 1999 from community organizing efforts – the idea came from leaders in the community to work with local police. A lot of people stay inside on Friday nights when things heat up. There was an intentional focus to go directly to where there are issues and create safe spaces in the community for kids to do something productive and take stand against the violence taking place.

 At first it was a little bit ragtag. We had volunteers pulling up in trucks to set up. People donated hoops; they donated barbeque grills. We didn’t call it placemaking, but that’s what it was. You’re replacing something bad with something good.

Keri Blackwell, former deputy director of LISC Chicago, now assistant director for community affairs at Chicago Cubs Charities

A staffer from TRP moved to Little Village and approached us to fund a similar program, B-Ball on the Block. That was 2006.

When LISC sees a great idea underway in a neighborhood, there’s an interest in sharing the news. The first thing we did was provide a workshop for anyone who wanted to come and learn about it. The neighborhoods with a Quality-of-Life Plan that included a specific interest in programs for youth were especially interested. By 2008, the Hoops in the Hood program was in 10 Chicago neighborhoods.

Meghan Harte

With generous support from State Farm, we have enthusiastically supported Hoops in the Hood financially and logistically for the last 10 years.

Over the years, the weekly Hoops games have transcended basketball and morphed into full-blown street festivals, attracting a variety of neighborhood residents, vendors and service providers. The masked residents here are at a game in Little Village.

Eric Young Smith

Lisa L. Cooper, community relations specialist for State Farm

State Farm is committed to supporting innovative efforts that help make communities safe and stronger. Hoops in the Hood is an asset to neighborhoods across Chicago, and we have been proud to partner with LISC Chicago and its community-based partners on this shared mission.


Rob Castaneda, co-founder and executive director of Beyond the Ball, a community sports nonprofit based in Little Village, and tournament director for the Hoops in the Hood citywide tournament

Beyond the Ball started in 2000. We had been playing basketball within a controlled environment, a school gym or church gym. There was a fear of being outside in the neighborhood. But in 2006, we lost access to the gym we had been playing in. That was the first year of B-Ball on the Block in Little Village. It was being run by Enlace.


Originally, I was skeptical. Then when I was out at an event, I saw how vibrant a place can be where people were normally scared. Now they’re out there, happy and excited. A lot of what Beyond the Ball became was inspired by Hoops in the Hood. It changed my perception of what community sports can be. 

Rudy Esteban, resident of Little Village, played in B-Ball on the Block from 2006 – 2009

I was 15 to 18 when I played. My friends from high school got together and we formed a team. I was on the same team with the same players every year. It was something we really looked forward to every week. When I got there, it was great people in the community, and I wanted to help out with the kids. There’s always art and a bunch of activities to do. With Rob, I saw what a good job he was doing for the community. I envisioned that I could do something positive like that for kids and teenagers. Now I’m a Park District instructor. I run programs for little kids to adults. We teach different skills for basketball and other sports too. 

Genesis Robinson, high school senior at Westinghouse College Prep, participant from 2010 – 2012 in East Garfield Park’s Homecourt program, run by Breakthrough Urban Ministries

We had an entrepreneurship program [for middle school students] in Breakthrough selling candy, chips, Gatorade, cold water. We had an adult over us, but we started from the ground up and expanded it. If I had to go out of town on a weekend I would say ‘Mom, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to miss Homecourt.’

I am too old to sell concessions now, but I still go to the games every week in the summer because it’s fun. Regularly when it’s hot out people get mad, but at Homecourt games there’s no fighting. It’s a happy time. You can tell people’s attitudes are way more positive.

In addition to engaging young people during the summer months, Hoops is a structure for local residents to take back their streets from criminal elements. Research has shown that crime goes down on blocks that have been closed off for Hoops games.

Alex Fledderjohn

Bill Curry, chief program officer of the Breakthrough Youth Network at Breakthrough Urban Ministries

We use sports as community building, not just teen building. Initially it felt like an outdoor basketball league, but now it’s also a community party. People are getting their face painted, grilling out, dancing with hula hoops.

When I pull back and look at it, what I see is tradition. Every neighborhood has traditions – some celebrated and some disastrous. For a 14- or 15-year-old kid in our neighborhood, it helps us create a new normal experience in East Garfield Park. Kids can come to have pretty high expectations of what they want in life if they have opportunities to see what a normal life can be. 

Walter Burnett, Jr., alderman of Chicago’s 27th ward, where Chicago Men in Action runs Hoops in the Hood

The Near North neighborhood is a changing community, with a lot of new residents. The Hoops in the Hood program is one of the initiatives my office supports because it provides a space for everyone to come out, to compete or watch the games or get something to eat. We need events like that – where people can see their neighbors and be part of the community. It’s really important that we offer positive options for teenagers and youth and a place they can get together that’s fun and safe.

Rob Castaneda

Since the inception, we’ve had the [Chicago Police Department] 10th District involved. For the first seven or eight years, it might have been a squad car stop by, and for the last few years, the bike patrol is involved. The kids see them walking around, and they see the police in their neighborhood in another light. The police officers will shoot around on the basketball court between games and play soccer, too. These are the interactions with the police I value more than a photo op.

Eric Washington, the Chicago Police Department’s deputy chief of community policing, former commander of the 11th District, which includes East Garfield Park

I see the value in Hoops in the Hood and the officers participating or coming by the event see the value in it. It’s an opportunity to see people at a different level and an opportunity for the residents to see the police differently, as well. I heard in the 12th District they have some officers play in some of the games. That’s a good situation, too. That’s how you bridge any divide that’s there – you get to know each other. 

Jackie Samuel, senior program director at Claretian Associates, which runs Hoops in the Hood Classic in South Chicago

Each year we go twice to Germano Millgate, [a public housing project in the community]. It’s so isolated, and the kids there really can’t go to the parks in the area. These kids, there’s a good 500 to 600 of them in the complex, they have no place to play, so this is what they look forward to every year. Leading up to this year it was a really stressful because there’s a gang war going on right now. It’s rumored that until one gang member is dealt with, it won’t be safe for anybody.

We had a meeting beforehand with other organizations and residents and the [Chicago Police Department] district commander about the safety issues. The fourth district, they were very present and in the end, it turned out to be the most wonderful event. The parking lot and the street were just filled. People just came over and thanked us for giving them a chance to come out and play.

Hoops culminates each summer with the cross-city championship in Seward Park, where about 400 players who've participated in games throughout the 14 participating neighborhoods square off to see who has the best stuff.

Gordon Walek

Bill Curry

We stay at the same spot, a playground and park at St. Louis and Carroll that had been not very accessible to families because of the high rates of violence for several decades. We wanted to see if we could rebrand it. I think it’s worked in a lot of ways. LISC did a report that looked at violent crime rates within a one block radius of the park on the actual days of the event but also all through the warm months. And they found a 52 percent reduction in crime in that radius. That’s 28 or 29 families every year that don’t have a violent crime attached to them. 

Julio Guerrero

The first thing in community organizing is building relationships. You bring people together and then you all figure out the actions. Folks see the kids annually when they stay in the program year to year, so they become connected to a network. It’s a place for people to begin their journey of interest and engagement of what’s happening in the neighborhood.

Fred McGee, father and grandfather living in East Garfield Park who volunteers to coach, cook and clean up at Homecourt games

It’s for everyone – young and old. I’m retired so it gave me something to do and a chance to give back a little. I have a grandson also. He’s not only a player but helps me with the set up and breakdown as well. There are a lot of volunteers from different churches, too. When you see the interest from other people looking out for you – it makes a tremendous difference as far as the impact in the community. You see a little more structure and involvement with the kids, and brings the community a little closer.

Keri Blackwell

The model is an easy, low-touch way to organize residents and stakeholders, a great way to get people to come to the table. And it provides a nice platform to build capacity within the neighborhood – for the volunteers, churches, block club leaders there’s the organizing aspect to running an event. Those are skills that translate to other issues and efforts in the community.

For LISC, Hoops has helped explore what sports with community development can look like. It’s opened up and built partnerships with the NFL, the Cubs, the Bulls, and it provided the experience to implement other programs. When the City of Chicago put out a request for proposal for its PlayStreets program, we mobilized our partners on the South Side immediately.

More than 16,000 kids have participated in Hoops programs, learning leadership skills, social responsibility and teamwork, and thousands of other residents have coached, watched their kid play, or simply spent a night out with their neighbors. 

Juan Francisco Hernandez

Rob Castaneda

With the Hoops in the Hood network we’ve built a real community of practice: A network with ten years of practical experience and dedicated organizations at the neighborhood level. Chicago by its very nature is a city of neighborhoods and it’s hard to go in with just one plan and have it work out in every neighborhood. We’ve had conversations among the neighborhoods about keeping it going. We’re prepared and ready to move on and continue to grow this work. 

Bill Curry

One thing I love about the Hoops in the Hood network is the friendships I’ve built across neighborhoods with other leaders. Sometimes I’d be a trainer [at the LISC workshops to start each summer] and present how we do things, and sometimes I’d be the one learning and growing. We’re all working and seeing what works. It’s never done.

Keri Blackwell

This is a community-owned experience. It’s highly labor intensive but, people do it because they believe in their youth and they believe in the neighborhood. It’s magical to see people feeling comfortable and happy and safe and joyful out in their community. I’m super excited to see how it’s going to go over the next 10 years. 

Meghan Harte

We are proud of the impact Hoops in the Hood has made over the last decade. The program’s capacity has grown immensely, and we’re excited to see the program take a life of its own as our support comes to an end. On our end, LISC Chicago is going to continue to innovate new programs and help bring them to scale.

The following neighborhoods/community partners are participating in Hoops: Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (Back of the Yards); Beyond the Ball (Little Village); Breakthrough Urban Ministries (East Garfield Park); Build, Inc. (Austin and Humboldt Park); Chicago Men in Action (Near North); Claretian Associates (South Chicago); Near West Side CDC (West Haven); Northwest Side Housing Center (Belmont-Cragin); Saint Anthony Hospital Foundation (North Lawndale); Southwest Organizing Project (Chicago Lawn); Teamwork Englewood (Englewood); The Community Builders (Quad Communities); and, The Resurrection Project (Pilsen).

Here's when and where Hoops games are happening this summer.

The 2016 Hoops in the Hood Cross-City Tournament and Celebration will take place on August 20, 2016 at Seward Park in the Near North community.

Additional reporting by Rachel Lieberman.

Posted in Health, Placemaking


Stay up to date with the the latest news and events related to LISC Chicago.




About LISC Chicago

Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

More about LISC Chicago »
Contact our staff »