By Yifan Wu
What a day.
I exhausted my knowledge of the English language, yet still failed to find a proper adjective to describe a Friday in late August, a day with realized sports nerd dreams, botched lunch plans and chilled Uber discussions.
“Why would you want to be there?”
My Uber driver was surprised by the address of my destination. I explained that ESPN2’s “First Take” was filming a special at the South Side YMCA. It was the continuation of a conversation that started with a town hall hosted by ESPN’s website The Undefeated the day before. Waiting on a red light at the intersection of East 63rd Street and South Stony Island Avenue, he ended the trip with a warning: “You be careful, Northwestern — I know I don’t want to pick people up from around here.” His insistence to avoid this half of Chicago was nothing new, and reminded me how often Uber requests were rejected when I was living on the South Side.
Typically, 7:30 a.m. on Friday is not a busy time at the Y, yet on this Friday dozens of people lined up at the entrance and the parking lot was jammed. Though the proceedings were orderly, the crowd caught the Y staff a bit off guard. I spotted a police car circling the parking lot. Friends from the South Side have told me one too many stories about the unnecessary roughness from Chicago’s Finest, and an uneasy feeling suddenly kicked in by default.
Thirty minutes and a wristband and security check later, we were greeted by Antoine Lewis (BSJ89, MSJ90) in the gym-turned-makeshift-studio. Lewis is a coordinating producer for “First Take” and the fairy godfather who gave us front row seats for the taping.
Lewis took the stage to announce the basic things one would expect at a live show taping — no cellphone, filming or overly animated expressions on camera. Between the cold open shooting and the show going live, he returned to address the audience reiterating the rules. “You don’t want no problem, want no problem with me,” he jokingly mumbled. The reference to Chicago’s favorite son, Chance The Rapper, earned him some loud cheering among a group of Perspectives Charter School students.
In a passionate pre-show speech, Stephen A. Smith cautioned of a bleak future for African Americans. Based on the current Census,, African Americans currently make up 14 percent of the US population, yet it is expected to grow by a only mere one percent in the next 34 years, according to the Census Bureau’s “National Population Projections”. Smith read that as a prediction that Black Americans would suffer from violence inflicted by their own and mass incarceration. He would later carry on the hardline stance on Black-on-Black crime and cite the report numerous times throughout the show.
Toward the end of a somber open, host Molly Qerim announced that representatives of the Chicago Police Department declined to join the show to tell their side of the story. The decision was disappointing, but hardly surprised anyone. It did leave me wondering whether the officers at the parking lot were planning to participate, or were simply on patrol duty.
Three former and current NBA players were invited to discuss their efforts in community involvement. Rajon Rondo, the new-in-town point guard, talked about his initiatives and the support he got from the Bulls. Jabari Parker, a Chicago native, shared his experience working with the Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Public School System.
Hall of Famer and Chicago native Isiah Thomas stressed the importance of play and recreation, and how on-the-court bonding triumphed over senseless violence. But the former Detroit Pistons star did not stop there — he dug deeper into the topic of athletes as activists, praising the black athletes who stand up for social justice and noting the silence adopted by most of their white peers. His plea for an “equal playground for everybody” ignited the crowd.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, joined the roundtable. Smith continued to emphasize individual efforts to put a stop to Black-on-Black crime, a narrative that Dyson rejected. Dyson brought up the well-observed trends that people tend to commit crime in their own communities, citing the data from the FBI that 82 percent of the murders of whites were committed by whites. Dyson also traced the violence epidemic to an institutional and systemic failures that have left African American communities bereft of resources and opportunities. His rapid-fire references of statistics earned him the show’s biggest round of applause and echoes of “Preach!” as if we were in a Bronzeville church.
The sports nerd in me was completely lost in amazement and fully immersed in the experience of a live broadcast. If it weren’t for a scary amount of missed calls on my phone, I probably would have forgotten about the world outside the gym/studio. Even my stomach forgot to protest my decision to skip breakfast until the show concluded at noon. It suddenly hit me that Daley’s, my favorite diner in Chicago, was only a mile away, near Cottage Grove Avenue on 63rd Street. I called my friend, a South Side native, to meet up for lunch. I asked whether I should walk or take the bus there, but both options were quickly shut down. The only reason given was “You are not from around here, so you don’t even know what to be on the lookout for.”
“What is the worst that could happen?” I thought to myself.
Frustrated by the questioning of my ability to walk 20 minutes in Woodlawn, I quit on my lunch plans and requested an Uber ride home instead.
Hours later, I received a breaking news alert from the Chicago Tribune and realized the worst had happened. A woman walking her baby in a stroller was shot near the 6300 block of South King Drive, four blocks from Daley’s.
As if the circumstance were not tragic enough, updates emerged that the victim was Nykea Aldridge, cousin of Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade. Wade spoke about the senseless violence the night before as part of ESPN’s “An Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility and Violence,” and his mother, Pastor Jolinda Wade, participated in a panel on combating the epidemic as well. The thought of their family suffering such a sudden loss hit me hard. And the proximity of the shooting to my canceled plans left me wondering what if I had stuck with my lunch plan.
On the way home, my Uber driver marveled at how nice the streets of Hyde Park looked and was more taken aback when he learned that we were blocks from President Obama’s home. Like a lot of people from the North Side or the suburbs, he didn’t hear often about the South Side except for the gun violence. We were running down a list of hidden gems in Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods when a fellow rider chimed in. She added that Chicago can be a very different city depending on who you are asking. People with different skin colors, from different neighborhoods or tax brackets can give very different answers.
Chicago is one of the most diverse and segregated cities in the nation. Having lived on both sides of town, I have friends that will not cross Roosevelt Road unless it is a trip to Soldier Field, and I know lifelong Southsiders who never travel beyond The Loop.
I could talk to a worried mother after the closing of her son’s school and then listen to someone justifying it for budget reasons at a dinner party.
I could spend the day after Thanksgiving on Michigan Avenue in protest of an unarmed teenager being shot 16 times, only to hear my colleagues complain how “these people with no lives” ruined their Black Friday shopping plans on Monday morning.
The list goes on and makes me wonder what can bridge the gap. For the Chicagoans physically removed from the South and West sides of the city, maybe a conversation on sports and social issues on ESPN makes it harder to be emotionally removed. Maybe after the cameras are gone, this special edition of “First Take” can spark an uncomfortable yet necessary conversation among the people who came only for a hot take.
Yifan Wu is a writer and MSJ Sports Media student from Tieling, China. Her sports writing career started with unsolicited fantasy league newsletters, and being an insufferable Ohio State alumna during college football season.