I recognized Jonathan Mills as soon as I walked into the beach house set up at Jackson Park on Friday night. He looked shorter than I remembered.
The last time I saw Mills, I was working in the high school sports department of the Chicago Sun-Times and he was one of the best players in the city as a star big man for North Lawndale. On Friday night, Mills was the starting power forward for the home team in a Chicago vs. New York Pro-Am game that served as just one of many events associated with the Nike World Basketball Festival going on around the city this weekend.
In a way, the 24-year-old Mills personified the spirit of the festival. This was a celebration of what basketball means to Chicago, but it was also a party with a message. You might remember the North Lawndale neighborhood Mills came out of as the starting point for Ta-Nehisi Coates' amazing piece on reparations for The Atlantic earlier this year. It remains one of the most dangerous areas of the city. Watching Mills grab rebound after rebound from my courtside seat got me thinking about a night more than five years ago when his high school team was leading the evening news.
Mills had just led North Lawndale to a victory over ACT Charter on a freezing January night in 2009 when an altercation broke out after the game. It ended with one of Mills' best teammates, forward Jermaine Winfield, getting shot in the leg.
"Jermaine is like a hero," Mills told the Chicago Tribune at the time. "When we were running back to the building Tuesday night, Jermaine shoved me out of the way and the bullet hit him. Otherwise, it would have gotten me."
That was, unfortunately, not the last bullet Winfield would take. He's paralyzed from the waist down now after getting shot three times in 2011. It makes Winfield just another reminder of the senseless danger so many people in this city have to live with every day, even if it's out of sight and out of mind for those of us on the north side or in the suburbs.
Derrick Rose wasn't hiding from it either, bringing up the violence unprompted at USA Basketball practice on Thursday, and again when he opened Saturday night's exhibition game against Brazil with a few moments on the microphone.
"I know that it's basketball but what's going on here is bigger than basketball," Rose said after the game. "It's bigger than one person trying to do something. It's kind of messed up because it's kind of a system. The only way we can change is if all of us change and people change their mindsets and try to keep busy. They got too much time on their hands."
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Team USA's exhibition opener against Brazil was the centerpiece of a weekend that shined a spotlight on Chicago basketball at every level. I made a full day of it on Friday, going from far south side for Chi Talks in the morning to the near west side for USA Basketball practice in the afternoon, up a few blocks northeast to Whitney Young for the Nike Global Challenge after that and back to Jackson Park at night.
The Global Challenge at Young featured some of the best high school players in the country competing against teams from Canada, China, Pan-Africa and Brazil. Doug McDermott walked into the gym as the best player in the state, point guard Jalen Brunson, threw a transition alley-oop to the human highlight reel that is top 2016 recruit Malik Monk. Jahlil Okafor was there watching too, as were high school and AAU coaches from around the city like Nick Irvin, Ty Slaughter and Robert Smith. There were a lot of authentic Chicagoans in that room.
"We grindin'. That's one word I can say: grinding," That's what Irvin, who has recently coached Jabari, Jahlil and Cliff Alexander on the Mac Irvin Fire, told me when I asked him what makes Chicago basketball special.
"We get after it. We don't care if it's ugly basketball or whatever. That cute basketball is out the window. That's what separates us from a lot of people. We tough, we grinding, we physical. We just get after it and don't care about how it looks. We just get the job done."
By the time Friday night's Chicago vs. New York game rolled around, it felt momentous even if nothing more than civic pride was tangibly on the line.
Taj Gibson was sitting five seats down from me, wearing skinny sweatpants and a Yankees cap and dapping up everyone that came his way. Joakim Noah walked in during halftime and sat close to Bears cornerback Tim Jennings.
This might have happened 30 times in the last 10 minutes. https://t.co/4pz38CfvpD— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) August 16, 2014
The Chicago team featured some players you might remember. Jerome Randle, the pride of Hales Franciscan, was clearly the best player on the team. That's no surprise for a guy who was named Pac-12 Player of the Year at Cal two years ago even though he's only about 5'8. Osiris Eldridge, a star at Phillips High School and then Illinois State, was lighting it up, too. Randle and Eldridge were awesome, but there was no denying who was the night's biggest star.
Mills is undersized for a big man even in a Pro-Am game at 6'5, but the New York team (featuring former Seton Hall point guard Andre Barrett, among others) had no chance of stopping him. Chicago kept missing and Mills kept grabbing the rebound, pump faking once and putting it back in.
The play that iced the game for Team Chicago was strangely powerful to me. Chicago was leading by one when Randle missed a shot. Mills soared for the offensive rebound, scored and was fouled. The lights started flashing inside the beach house and the MC began running across the sideline.
"J. Mills, the best rebounder in the world!"
The best rebounder in the world! The best rebounder in the world.
In that moment, it was hard not to swell up with pride for Chicago hoops. Mills might be long past his high school heyday at this point. He's a few years removed from his two seasons at Southern Mississippi, where he played after JuCo. It didn't matter. In a weekend meant to celebrate Chicago basketball, Mills felt like the perfect hero.
That same bit of emotion hit me even harder on Saturday night during the introductions for USA vs. Brazil.
D. Rose was lined up in the wrong spot at first, standing in the front quarter of the line while Team USA was being announced. He was shown on the jumbotron for a second before sneaking to the back of the line. When the announcer finally got to him, the United Center exploded. I was sitting in an otherwise empty press box and allowed myself a few understated golf claps. It was chilling, and it felt like the crowd could have gone on forever. The UC exploded again when Rose addressed the crowd before tip:
"Here is Chicago, it's kind of like basketball is everything," Rose said after the game. "You go down South and football is everything, but here, you go to a high school game and you won't be able to get in because it's so packed. So for this event to be here, you saw with Jabari, all the young players, the players that were in town, they made an appearance, they showed they love the game."
Rose has been through so much in these last two years, but he's done a great job of keeping everything in perspective. He knows how lucky he is. If the last two seasons took a toll on him, you can't tell from his enthusiasm for the game or the city.
There were people walking around Jackson Park on Friday night with shirts that read "Basketball needs Chicago". Hang around with enough of the people that make this such a incredible spot for hoops long enough and you realize the opposite is true, too.