Before Michael Jordan won the first of his many NBA MVPs and the Chicago Bulls their first of many Championships, an interesting thing happened when you told people around the world that you were from Chicago.
"Al Capone! Bang bang!" people said to us when traveling in Europe in the early '90s; quite a bit after the St Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929.
When visiting Mexico, I would hear, "Oh, Chicago? Mafia! Shootings!"
But soon, Michael Jordan came along and replaced that knee jerk reflex. Now that he's retired, we're back to being world reknown for living in a Mad Max hellscape.
Obviously, you and I know the perception isn't even remotely close to reality. Just a product of journalistic laziness and media over-sensationalism. Nevertheless here we are, Chicago regarded as the place for gang related shooting and also some guys with high shooting percentages on the basketball court. And as I'll show you, basketball supremacy and gang related shooting are not related to each other. At all. Don't bring up Ben Wilson either, that homicide was not gang related.
Still I have to address this exact topic because it came up at the recent 2014 McDonald's All-American game.
"I'm proud to represent Chicago and show 'em that there's a little more to it than just the violence you see on tv, so it's great to bring something positive," Tyler Ulis said.
Ulis, a Marian Catholic student destined to be the next great John Calipari coached point guard next year, is rated among the very best prep basketball players in the nation. The MCDAAG is the nation's premier showcase of prep basketball talent. The event used to move to a different city each year, but now seems to have found a more permanent home in Chicago.
I asked Duke bound and Whitney Young product Jahlil Okafor, the nation's #1 overall recruit, also a Chicagoan, what he thought about Ulis' comment.
"It's a great feeling to shed some positive limelight on the city of Chicago," Okafor said."There's a lot of talent coming out of Chicago and a lot of positive things, not just basketball."
Okafor presented a similar message to the press a few days prior, when accepting his player of the year award.
In 2013, another Chicago product, and Simeon high school graduate, Jabari Parker won the national player of the year awards. Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time, led the greatest team and the greatest dynasty in basketball history to glory in the very same building where Ulis, Parker and Okafor began trying to build their own legacies.
You can partially thank the CNN
documentary series Pro Rahm Emanuel political infomercial "Chicagoland," directed by people connected to the Mayor's brother, for further perpetuating the gang related shooting stereotypes about the city of Chicago. If you can stomach Mark Konkol's "voice fit for the print medium" narration of the series, and if CNN can tear themselves away from whatever BREAKING NEWS! EXCLUSIVE!!!! they have on the search for MH370, which is almost always in reality some minutia that we've realized isn't all that significant days ago, I suggest you check out one episode of Chicagoland, if only for irony's sake.
Rahm is the program's protagonist, with the Roseland neighborhood and the infamous Wild 100s within it, the setting. I actually grew up about 20 minutes away from the Wild 100s. (Ridgeland and 127th, not very far at all from say, 114th and Racine) Yet, I had never even heard the term Wild 100s until last summer when Bart Scott told me about it at an event at CBS headquarters in Manhattan. Yes, that Bart Scott of "CAN'T WAIT!" fame. When I said I was from Chicago, the Wild 100s was the first thing he thought of.
The gang-related warfare of this neighborhood is light years, and I mean light years, away from where I grew up, despite it geographically being just a short drive.
My high school, Amos Alonzo Stagg (not trying to load every Chicago stereotype into this column, seriously I'm not) did have some gangs: Satan Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, Vice Lords, Two-Six (or Two-Sixers, depending on who you talk to). By junior year even the dorks in the Advanced Placement courses such as myself had learned the gang signs for many of the former Blackstone Rangers splinter gangs and related groups. Even with this presence I never once worried about even the remote possibility of a gang related shooting happening in my community.
Still, my knowledge of gang related shooting, as well as gangbangin', rock-slangin', set trippin', thuggin', straight-bangin', throwin' your set in the air and a bunch of other words that I have heard but have zero clue what they actually mean is pretty minimal. It's on par with someone who's watched the 1994 drama about gang related shooting and AAU basketball, "Above the Rim," way too many times. At least I've seen the real version of the film, not the watered down, censored beyond recognition version that TNT airs EVERY FOUR NIGHTS DURING NBA SEASON!
So I turned to a very close friend of mine, and a Chicago city official for some true information. I now give you Paul Sajovec, 32nd Ward Chief of Staff.
Paul M. Banks: National and international media perception of Chicago over-sensationalizes the violent homicides; especially gangland shooting deaths. What's the reality from a numbers standpoint? How has the murder rate been trending lately?
Paul Sajovec: the number of murders in Chicago spiked to 503 in 2012, up from 435 in 2011, but declined in 2013 to 415. Chicago leads the nation in total murders, but on a per capita basis isn't anywhere near the top, ranking 21st in 2012 in murders per capita.
Many criminologists consider the 2012 rise in murders to be an aberration. However, police officers and other observers point to the Mayor and his police chief's decision to eliminate tactical teams that were employed on an as needed basis as a contributing factor in the increase.
Banks: How do we compare versus other cities with similarly violent reputations: D.C., Baltimore, Detroit etc.?
Sajovec: In total murders Chicago is on top, but people generally focus on the murder rate. In the same year Chicago blew past the 500 mark, Flint, MI led the US in murders per capita followed by Detroit. Flint's number that year equated to one in every 1,613 residents being murdered. I think that Mayors get too much credit when things are trending positively and too much blame when they are not.
There has been a national trend of declining rates of violent crime. This trend made the spike in murders in 2012 all the more noteworthy.
Banks: Is the prevalence of gang related shooting mostly concentrated in certain neighborhoods or diffuse across the city?
Sajovec: They are concentrated in certain neighborhoods. This is why the City has used these tactical teams to produce a significant street presence in areas where violence flares up. Most of the City is and has been pretty safe. However, you need to keep in mind that crime statistics overall are often flawed and can be easily manipulated.
One example is that the Chicago Police Department, under extreme pressure to demonstrate reductions in crime rates, recently began classifying smartphones pick pocketed on CTA buses and trains as being lost rather than stolen. A small change such as this can have major implications for the data.
Yes, most of Chicago is pretty safe. It's not a de facto war zone where a potential gang related shooting looms at every corner.
Much like during the roaring '20s, the chances of being tommy-gunned in everyday daily life were actually extremely low. Before my grandmother passed, she was one of my favorite story-tellers. She was also a speak-easy frequenting flapper, who remembered taking the Clark bus to work on the morning of the St. Valentine's Massacre as clear as any memory in her remarkable 104 year life. She would often say that the gangs only really shot each other. Unless you were in a rival gang, they totally stayed out of your way.
In other words, Chicago was much safer than 1920s mass media would have you believe. Same is true today. Yes, this city has some serious problems with the murder rate. But let's not let the gang related shootings that do occur completely take over the total reputation of the entire city.
Let's follow the advice of Ulis, Okafor, Parker etc. They're good kids and good role models.
Paul M. Banks owns The Sports Bank.net, an affiliate of Fox Sports. He’s also a frequent guest on national talk radio. Banks is a former contributor to NBC Chicago and the Washington Times, who’s been featured on the History Channel. President Obama follows him on Twitter (@paulmbanks)