In the paint and beyond the arc:  Behind the scenes of Chicago’s elite 50-and-Over basketball community 

Much is written and reported about violence and poverty on Chicago's South and West sides, but these men playing basketball in this basketball city every weekend in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, is a testament to community, competition and love.
Photo Credit: Erin Branning
Photo Credit: Erin Branning /

For the past 14 years, just as the NBA Finals tip off in early June, another basketball tournament begins on Chicago’s South Side – the Annual Jordan Brand (Yes, that Jordan) 50-and-Over Summer League. The tournament is run by Tony McCoy, a long-time fixture within the Chicago basketball scene, and an hour before the first game begins he arrives at the gym wearing an orange, pink, and purple swirled Nike hoodie, black joggers, and Jordan Low Dunks in the same colors as his sweatshirt.

He and his guys carry in cases of Gatorade and towels imprinted with the drink’s logo (the same towels used by the NBA). Dwayne Draine, who runs his Chi Town Cats 50-and-Over Tournaments in the fall, winter, and spring, stands on a ladder at one end of the court replacing a net. He’s sporting an orange Jordan hoodie and matching black sweatpants with an orange pocket on the side. His shoes, white and orange Jordans, coordinate with his clothes.  

DJ Dion, at center stage, starts the music and men start to trickle in with their backpacks, carrying basketball shoes and knee braces, foam rollers and calf sleeves, resistance bands and muscle cream. They dap each other up, exchange hugs, perhaps start talking trash. They stretch, jog up and down the court to get loose, start getting up shots, rebounding for one another, passing the ball in a wordless dance, perfectly choreographed though years and years of playing the game.  

Eight teams compete every weekend for eight weeks, through the end of July, for the championship of what many of the men, tongue in cheek, call The OG Ghetto League or the GBA — the Ghetto Basketball Association. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, if you didn’t hear the ref’s whistle, the shouts of men trash-talking and calling plays, the bouncing balls echoing off the gym walls, if you didn’t notice the cars parked up and down Halsted and in the empty lot across the street, you’d never know the tournament was happening. While much is written and reported about Chicago’s violence and the poverty on the South and West sides, these men playing basketball in this basketball city every weekend in Englewood, one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, is a testament to community, competition, and love.  

Recent Breakfast Club with some of the “Young Fellas." Photo Credit: Erin Branning /

McCoy sits at the scorer’s table on the stage at center court, overseeing the floor. One gets the sense watching him that he knows everyone in the gym, knows allegiances, sources of possible conflict, sees everything. He is a quiet commanding presence and there is a sweetness about him — one can see the little boy he once was at six years old with his housekey around his neck, riding the bus with his super transfer pass to play basketball all over the city, the little boy who loved the game and credits it with keeping him alive, the man who wants these men, most of whom he’s known since his 20s, still be able to play competitive basketball in a place of joy and safety. He watches as his guys set up chairs along the wall across from the stage, the chairs on the floor on either side of the stage that serve as each team’s bench, as they sweep the court; he acknowledges Eddie Chapman and Pastor Shank, who run security, with a nod.  

I ask McCoy how it came to be that Michael Jordan sponsors his tournament.  

“One morning we were in the gym, at Foster Park, and Mike was in there. And I had always been doin’ tournaments and there were a lot of guys in the gym wearing my shirts from over the years that said, Tony McCoy Classic. And Mike said, ‘Why’s everybody in here with these shirts with your name on them?’ and I said, ‘Because I throw tournaments, I do leagues and camps.’ I said, ‘You should sponsor me,’ just talking shit. And he said, ‘You should give me a proposal.’ So, we all played that day, and the next weekend I brought a proposal to the gym and he told me to come to his office. So I went to his office and we had a conversation and the rest is history. It’s that simple. Every year I send the proposal and every guy gets shoes, uniforms, Gatorade, towels. The winning team gets five k.”  

Through his non-profit, The Sports Factory, which Jordan helped fund, McCoy runs not only the Fifty-and-Over summer tournament but also summer sports programs and camps for kids. He says, “I want to help try to stop the violence in Chicago. I lost my son to violence so I want to try to give back, I wanna try to stop this violence, it’s crazy. These kids just don’t have nothing to do, they just need some love. We got to start them younger. The guns aren’t going anywhere. It has to start at home. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids don’t have a stable home life. They have one meal a day. It’s up to us, the village, to help them with that, you know?” 

He tells me how he hands out shoes to kids in the surrounding neighborhood, and about feeding families for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He says it’s up to the village but he has created a village in his own right – the men who help him with the 50-and-Over also help with the kids’ camps and his other Sports Factory outreach- DJ Dion, Chapman, and Shanks, alongside McCoy’s close friends Fred Shepard and Ike White. 

McCoy doesn’t play anymore but he is a legend himself, winning a Pro-Am in 1995 against Randy Brown, Antoine Walker, Tony Brown, and Pete Myers — all NBA players. Not only did McCoy’s team win, but he was named MVP. He says it was the highlight of his basketball career, a career that was impressive from a young age. As an eighth grader and freshman at Hirsch High School, McCoy played varsity until the coach from Simeon High School recruited him. McCoy transferred schools without telling his mother, who only found out when a colleague of hers at G.E. showed her McCoy’s stats in the newspaper. McCoy says Simeon’s legendary basketball success (NBA players Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker all attended school there) began with his team which went to the state championship his junior year but lost by three points. Recently, McCoy was inducted into the Hall of Fame at his alma mater, Pittsburgh State University.  

I ask him if he misses playing and he says he does but that he can’t play in his own tournament because it would be a conflict of interest and he’s “too OCD” to play in anyone else’s. He tells me about the pick-up games they used to have around the city in the 80s and 90s that were invitation only. “We could make the run anywhere. Once you have the real foundation of basketball in the city, we can take it anywhere. We played at Margate, at Foster, at Avalon [Chicago Park District gyms]. We played everywhere. Wherever the real basketball players are, that’s where the run is. Real players meaning the people who can actually play.” 

He surveys the gym, the guys warming up, and I ask if all these guys can “actually play.” 

“At one time or another,” he says.  

Ian Mahoney and Arne Duncan shooting around. Photo Credit: Erin Branning /

Just over two years ago, a year into the pandemic, Ian Mahoney and Arne Duncan were looking for a gym. Mahoney and Duncan are known as two of the best shooters in Chicago, even now at 65 and 58 years old, respectively. They also, almost always, play on the same team in McCoy and Draine’s tournaments. They met at Margate Park almost 40 years ago, when Mahoney moved to Chicago from New York City where he grew up in Stuyvesant Town. He and his mother and brother were one of the first Black families to have an apartment there. 

Mahoney’s basketball cred comes from his shooting ability, from winning the legendary Rucker Park Tournament in Harlem in 1981, and from a plethora of tournaments won through the years in Chicago. Mahoney, being one of the older guys — a “big brother” — was someone other players looked up to and wanted to emulate. Duncan played at Harvard University but grew up in Hyde Park playing with many of the guys who he still plays with now in Chicago, including McCoy whom he’s known since high school. After college, he played professionally in Australia and when he came back to the States he never stopped. That’s one thing all of these men have in common, they’ve never stopped.

Duncan was head of Chicago Public Schools when Richard Daley was mayor, and Education Secretary under Obama. He now runs Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny), an anti-gun violence organization that does street outreach in neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence and provides therapy, life coaching, and education to ex-offenders.  

For nearly two decades, ever since he’d coached his son’s high school team in the early 2000s, Mahoney had access to the gym at The University of Chicago Laboratory School in Hyde Park (Lab, for short), where Tuesday and Thursday nights and Sunday mornings he held invitation-only runs. The pick-up games were legendary and a continuation of those overseen by McCoy in the 90s at Margate Park in Chicago’s uptown neighborhood. On any given day at both Margate and Lab, pros who’d grown up in Chicago might show up to get a run in (Michael Jordan, Tim Hardaway, Ricky Greene, Sonny Parker, Jeff Sanders, Kendall Gill, Charles Oakley, to name a few). Lab was also where Mahoney organized the Election Day runs for Barack Obama, who, before he was president, also sometimes played at Margate and Lab with his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson.  

But in 2021, because of Covid restrictions, Lab was not allowing anyone in the gym. One morning Mahoney got a call that there was a new Park District gym opening in Pilsen on Chicago’s West Side. After nearly a year’s hiatus, Mahoney and Duncan started meeting there in the mornings to get their legs and shooting form back. A few months later, in the fall of 2021, they started inviting a few other guys to play. A new run was born. 

Now, over two years later, every weekday morning at 7:00 a.m., the cars start rolling into the gym parking lot in Pilsen for The Breakfast Club — invitation only pick-up games and camaraderie and competition. Most of the men in the “BC” play in McCoy and Draine’s tournaments, but not all on the same team.  

Jeff Sanders Gurading “Escalade." Photo Credit: Erin Branning /

On the first Sunday of the tournament, I ask McCoy who out of the eight teams he thinks will win. “Well, yesterday Solid Gold looked good but they always start off good. Yeah, they look good,” he says, drawing out the “oo” in good. 

Solid Gold, a West Side team managed by Kenneth “Cuzo” Wade, won the Jordan in 2021, coming out of the pandemic, with former NBA player, Randy Brown.  McCoy continues, “Also, Block Party, Sterling Finlay’s team, looked good as well.  

Kenny Redfield, who used to play for Michigan state, is with them. They looked good.”  

He rounds out the list, saying Jobba Maxey’s team, Vistria Group, could win “if they don’t cry too much.” Maxey (also a Breakfast Club member) currently oversees the Chi-League 

Summer Pro-Am and works with youth in violence prevention at St. Sabina Church in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. McCoy thinks that the defending champions from last summer, the Cool Cats, with ex-NBA players Jeff Sanders and Nate Driggers alongside Mahoney and Duncan, coached by Dwayne Draine, could also win.  

He says, “I’m 60 so a lot of these guys grew up after me but these are still my peers — 50, 60, 70 – they’re my peers, so I do this tournament for them.”  

Arne Duncan and “Wood.” Photo Credit: Erin Branning /

Unlike McCoy, Dwayne Draine came to basketball late, in his 20s, and says meeting Ian “The Shot Mechanic” Mahoney and Arne “The Mayor” Duncan at Fernwood Park on Chicago’s far south side at 104th and Wallace changed his life.  

Draine leans forward on the table as he talks, peering over the top of his glasses, his salt and pepper hair cropped flat. Every so often, he pushes his glasses back up his nose and he’s prone to chuckling softly as he tells stories or sitting back in his chair and exhaling “whooo whee,” when I ask him about his earlier days.   

He says, “When I met Arne and Ian back in the 80s, let me tell you, I was wilding out. I was in the gang life. But I saw Arne and Ian and I wanted to be like them, they inspired me to get out of the street life I was living.”  

Draine says, “Ian drafted me when I was at Newberry (a park district gym in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood) when the 35-and-over tournament started, but I was a year younger and Ian asked Rick (who ran the tournament) if I could play with them and he said yes. So, I started hanging around those guys, but I was like kinda in the streets back then,”  he chuckles. “Doin like, stuff. And, watching them, observing them as men, how they would talk to each other in the huddles, it was kinda life-changing for me. And I was like, I wanna be like those guys. They were intelligent, they spoke well. Where I came from everybody spoke incorrectly and there was a lot of foolishness. I was never really that type of person but I was a little bit wild. I got a lot more refined when I got with Ian and Arne and those guys.” 

He says that for many years Mahoney and his teams kind of led Chicago basketball.  

“They always had the better players, the pros, the D1 players. Those guys always gravitated towards Ian. So he’s really the GOAT in my opinion. I’ve been with him ever since then, in some kind of form or fashion,” he says.  

“So all these guys now who play, you’ve known them since the 90s?” I ask. 

“Yeah, some since the 90s, some since I was a little boy. It all comes full circle.”  

The tournaments Draine runs now in the winter, spring, and fall fill a void left by “Sweet” Charley Brown, who had been running the 50-and-Over Windy City Basketball League since the 80s. Brown attended DuSable High School in the early 1950s and in 1954 was a member of the first all-Black basketball team to make the state finals, which they lost 72-70. Brown passed away in August 2022 at the age of 86 and Draine honors him by dedicating his Chi Town Cats tournaments to Brown’s memory.  

Draine is also the reason both his and McCoy’s tournaments are held in this gym in Englewood — the Bishop Shepard Little Memorial Center built by the Liberty Temple Church of God in Christ. For most of its 14-year history, until the pandemic, McCoy’s Jordan tournament was held at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, but in the wake of 

Covid, in addition to not allowing Mahoney’s runs to continue, the school wanted to charge McCoy $18,000 for use of the gym, as opposed to the previous $3,000. The increased cost was prohibitive and perhaps a signal the tournament was no longer welcome at the prestigious school. Park District gyms were difficult to get space at because of Covid restrictions and time constraints, but Draine knew the pastor at this church and for the past two years the Jordan and the Chi Town Cats tournaments have been held here, in the heart of Englewood, one of Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods and most impacted by gun violence. Both Draine and McCoy have relationships with the police and the local alderman, in addition to the neighborhood guys in charge of the area. In other words, they make sure this gym and church are protected.   

I ask Draine if he ever gets tired of running his league.  

“I’m tired now,” he laughs. “It gets draining after a while, all the organization, chasing guys, financially, it gets a little tiresome, but I still love it. The summer is my break now with Tony running the Jordan.” He continues, “A lot of people depend on me too for their income. The table guy, the referees, the lady selling the salads. I enjoy giving the guys something to look forward to at least once or twice a week and I do it for health reasons for everybody as well. It’s so much bigger than me and that’s why I have to sacrifice myself because it’s stress reliever for these guys, you know? Guys who are the leader of their households, they get a little break. They can treat their wives better, their kids a little bit better. It’s so much bigger (than just basketball) because they’re gonna find something (else to fill their time). If it’s not this it’s gonna be something.” 

I ask him if it was hard to get out of the street life.  

“A lot of people were praying for me. They got me out of it. I got scared to the Lord and I never left Him. It was the biggest experience and I wouldn’t change it because I learned so much. I learned people. I learned the value of money. It’s why I am like I am. If you have a horrific experience in your life, you use that to bring you back to center. You know you might think things are so bad now but then you think about that time you almost went to jail or almost died. What I’m going through becomes nothing so it always brings me back to center,” he says. “That’s why I can take the hit from all these different personalities and people and it doesn’t faze me. Because I’ve done seen worse.  I thank God for the road I took to get here and I love it.”  

I ask him how he was able to get out without repercussions. 

“I was a strong-willed guy. I was a loyal guy, but I wasn’t one to play with either. I was quiet and no one would ever think I did some of the things I did. A lot of these guys know,” he laughs, gesturing towards the court, “and that’s why they don’t bother me. Having had that lifestyle keeps me from having to get into it with people now. Now people done fell in love with me,” he says and leans back in his chair, smiling.  

I ask him who he thinks is the best player in the tournament. He answers immediately, “Nate Driggers.” 

Nate Driggers shooting a free throw in the semifinal game. Photo Credit: Erin Branning /

In the fall of 2021, Mahoney got a call from his teammate in Draine’s Chi Town Cats tournament, Rodney Hull. “I’ve got the acquisition of the century,” Hull said, then waited a beat. 

“Nate Driggers.” 

“Oh. My. God.” Mahoney said, shimmying his shoulders in excitement. “It’s a wrap!” Meaning, with Nate on their team, the championship would again be theirs. The previous summer, Mahoney’s team, The Shot Mechanics, had lost in McCoy’s Jordan to Cuzo’s Solid Gold, and they wanted the title back. Driggers, who’d played briefly for the Boston Celtics and for several years overseas, would give them a good chance.  

Driggers had recently been released from federal prison where he’d spent five years on charges of selling stolen guns, charges he maintains were manufactured. In prison, basketball saved his life. It was not the first time and would not be the last.  

As a child in Chicago’s foster care system, basketball was how Nate Driggers avoided going home. He would spend hours after school playing in the alley behind where he was staying, shooting a ball into a hoop made out of a tire and a net made of shoelaces. He’d watch games on TV and copy what he saw — James Worthy was his favorite player and he’d try to emulate his running hook. He tells me, “I remember coming back to school from spring break or summer break or whatever and you’d have to write about what you did over break and I would just make stuff up because I didn’t do nothing but I would just write these stories and try to believe them.” 

He wasn’t ever coached until he attended Corliss High School on Chicago’s far South Side. In high school, basketball became the reason for him to attend school and keep his grades up. By then, he’d moved out of foster care and into an apartment he shared with his older brother, a brother who was in the business of selling drugs and would be gone for long stretches of time. As a teenager, Driggers largely lived alone, fending for himself, trying to survive. If you’re a basketball person I will tell you Driggers looks like Vernon Maxwell. If you aren’t, I’ll say he has a smile like Magic Johnson, an impeccably lined up goatee, thickly lashed eyes and a smile that lights up the gym. His playing does too. He plays harder than almost anyone else and has a quick release on his shot which, when it’s going, it’s going.  

Georgetown, Ball State, and Tulane all offered Driggers scholarships to play ball but no one told him he had to take the ACT in order to get into those schools. When he finally found out, he went in cold and scored a 17 rather than the required 18. He gave up on the idea of college and figured he’d just survive in the streets as he’d learned to do. But somehow, the coach at The University of Montevallo in Alabama knew about Driggers and sent him airplane tickets to come south. When they’d arrive in the mail, Driggers would tear them up, not knowing who was sending them or anything about the school. One day, he came home to where he was staying with his brother and the coach from Montevallo was there waiting with Driggers’ bags packed. He would go on to become the all-time leading scorer at Montevallo and NAIA player of the year in 1995.  

After Driggers graduated, Kevin McHale called to invite him to the Minnesota Timberwolves training camp, but that camp visit never materialized because of the 1995 NBA strike. Eventually, he played one season with the Boston Celtics but hurt his knee and ended up overseas, playing in Poland, France, and Spain.  

When Driggers returned to Chicago, he found his basketball community in McCoy’s park district runs and played in 30-and-over and 35-and-over tournaments. He’d go to Vegas with McCoy and others to play in a $50,000 tournament which they won every time they went.  

Back in Chicago, he’d found his basketball home but also found himself drawn back into the street life he’d witnessed while growing up. He tells me, “I was searching for a family but I was searching sometimes in the wrong people because the people I was around was from the street. And they were around me because they liked me but also they were benefitting off of being around me and I didn’t realize they were just using me. And not ever knowing what family felt like, I gravitated towards that.”   

I ask him about deciding to play with Mahoney’s team when he got out of prison rather than Cuzo’s Solid Gold, the West Side team he used to play with. He says, “I knew Draine and all of them as hustlers. When I met Ian all those years ago I knew he was different but I also knew what I was doing so I stayed away from him. Once I got out, I knew he was the person I wanted to be with. I’ve known Arne since I was 18. I watched them (Mahoney and Duncan) over the years and I can honestly say I have so much peace. Now it’s just dealing with the trauma part.”  

In April 2015, not far from the gym where the tournaments are played, over 100 guns were stolen off a railcar by gang members and resold. Around that same time, Driggers started noticing cars parked in front of the shop he owned and knew something wasn’t right. He says, “They came into my shop one day and say they want to talk to the tall dark-skinned guy who plays ball. They just want me to come in and have a conversation. So, coming from where I come from, I think if the Feds want you they’re gonna get you, they’re not gonna ask you to just come talk. 

 “They had wrote up a document with 17 people’s names on it and they say, ‘All you got to do is sign this and we’ll leave you alone. We give you two weeks to decide what you want to do.’ But I already knew what I was gonna do. I was taught, right or wrong, that’s not my job. So I went home and I knew to get my affairs in order. I probably slept like two hours. I know what was going to happen because I wasn’t gonna tell. That’s not my job.  

“So I told these guys [on the list]: I’ll pay your $5000 lawyer retainer fees but you all got to go down and tell the grand jury what happened and I’m not a part of it. If they did that, I’d go free, that’s all I needed. But they all went down there and pleaded the fifth. After that, I went to trial. I had my daughter drop me off in 2015 and I didn’t come home until 2021. I went through so much hell.” 

Driggers ultimately was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for receiving and reselling stolen guns. The judge in the case overruled the jury, which had only found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a single firearm [Years before, Driggers had been brought up on charges of selling marijuana and counterfeit goods.] Driggers maintains he never sold or received any stolen guns, the only thing he did was to not rat out any of the 17 people on the list the Feds presented to him.  

The government’s star witness changed his testimony multiple times, asserting Driggers was in the store and gave him $14,000 for guns; this, despite the fact that phone records showed Driggers’ phone was two hours away when the witness was in his store. “Everyone at the Dirksen Building (the Federal Court in Chicago) was clapping when the trial finished because they said nobody ever beats a federal case but I was going home. Even the warden thought I was going home. But the judge overruled the jury.” 

When the judge’s sentence came down, Driggers was immediately flown to federal prison in Minnesota. He was transferred often during his sentence — to Kentucky, Wisconsin, Tennessee — so that reporters couldn’t easily find him to talk to him about what many saw as an unjust trial and sentence. He says about the system, “They want to control the narrative. If anything, I thought the federal agents were gonna do right but they will destroy your life. The judge never looked me the face.” 

He says, “I have this guy now, a deacon that I talk to to help me deal with this anger because it still bothers me that they did this to me. You know I wasn’t there. You know I had nothing to do with no firearm, you make it sound like it was all these firearms when it wasn’t nothing but two guns and the guns weren’t even in my possession.”  

He continues, “These same guns that they get off the train tracks — they just now found 200 some guns in Englewood — they put these guns in our neighborhoods then come back and arrest us. They don’t care about the guns,” he shakes his head. “They care about the business of penitentiary. They get $36.5 thousand for each inmate. Prisons are businesses. Privately owned businesses.” 

He keeps talking as if he will never stop, there is too much to say, too much to try and make sense of. “I had a warden in Minnesota and a warden in Kentucky sit and cry saying, ‘We look at your case and we look at the person you are, how did they do this to you?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know. The only thing I can do is do my time.’”  

His time included months spent in solitary confinement. Driggers says, “The thing is, people think you just go in prison and do your time. But no. You have to become a different type of person to be able to survive.  

“Guards done look up your case and see you played ball and have nice things and they’re gonna feel some kind of way about it. I had guards tell me, ‘Yeah I’m racist, what you gonna do next?’  

“And I’m lookin at him like, what? And he makes a mess and is like, ‘Now go over there and clean that up.’ A mess that he made.  I say, ‘no.’  

“They say, ‘You goin’ to the hole.’  

“And I hold out my arms and say, ‘What you waitin’ on? I’m already in prison.’ 

“So now they put you in a tiny room that’s dark. I just did push-ups and when a little bit of light came in I just read the Bible. I stayed in there for like five months ‘cause I wouldn’t do what they said. I said, ‘Before I let you break me, I’ll die in that hole.’  

“The warden had come down himself and get me up out of there because I would’ve stayed in there the whole time before I let them break me. I’m not a slave. You’re not treating me like a man. You trying to belittle me because you found out I played ball and all this.”  

He says he’s learning life all over again right now. “Like how to, I don’t know, just deal with my emotions. That’s why when I play basketball, this is my outlet. This actually keeps me livin’.”  

He tells me about the basketball tournaments in prison and how, when he would arrive at a new facility, he would have basketball shoes and warm-ups waiting for him in his cell. The tournaments were huge — 20 teams playing every day — and everyone, guards included, gambled on the games and put money on Driggers’ books if he won them money. In Memphis, he set the scoring record at 72 points in a game. In Wisconsin, he won five championships.  

For him, it wasn’t about the money though. “Playing was the only way I was gonna make it. I read, I played basketball, and I lifted weights. Basketball was a means of keeping me alive. I met some guys and we have a bond now that’s closer than my family because we met at a time when we were at our worst. And we protected each other so we could get back to our families. They’re my real brothers.” 

I ask him how he can reconcile what he’s been through and he tells me how one day, lying on his cot, “I heard Him call my name. God called my name and I started crying. This was my third year in prison and I heard Him say, I’m gonna take care of you. I heard Him as clear as we’re talking now. When I went to the hole for those five months, I prayed and said, I don’t understand these words, just show me, and I can read a Bible now like I’m watching a show on TV. I can read any part of the Bible and tell you what every story is about. No one taught me to read a Bible. No one ever took me to church. He did this,” he says and points upwards. He feels it’s God now who has been leading him on the right path since he left prison. A few weeks after he got out, he asked Mahoney if he could help him get a job and Mahoney suggested he talk to Duncan. Driggers says as soon as he heard about Duncan’s organization he knew that was what he was supposed to do.  

He is now a case manager at Chicago CRED, Duncan’s anti-violence organization, helping kids and young men who have been to prison get clothing, housing, and hopefully keep them off the streets. He’s also started teaching them basketball three evenings a week when the “workday” is over. “Some of them live in abandoned houses,” he says, “I come from that. From the earliest time I can remember, until I was 17, I didn’t even know about Christmas. I wasn’t getting anything so Christmas didn’t mean nothing to me.” He continues, “[Working at CRED] is a way of paying back because in some way I contributed to some of this. People looked up to me and what I had and all my jewelry and chains and they wanted to be like me without knowing what is was I was doing. God put me in this position to give back and I feel like I owe it. Did I get the bad end of a couple situations? Yeah I did, but that doesn’t negate the part I’m supposed to give back.”  

The work can be rewarding and heartbreaking at the same time. In the year and a half Driggers has been working at CRED they’ve lost five kids, one recently shot right in front of his office on 95th street.   

I ask him if he thinks he’ll keep working there given how emotionally taxing it is. “I think it’ll be hard to walk away because, like I said, those kids was me.  I always want to work with kids in some type of capacity. In 50 years this is the first real job I’ve ever had. Basketball was more like a hobby, I never thought of it as a job. 

“People want to know all the glamorous stuff but I want you to know all the hardship I want through. All the cars and jewelry, they took all that, all that’s gone. So what’s left now? Me building my life back. Showing you pitfalls and how when you’re trying to have some type of life, and you’re trying to be a good person, how people can destroy you. How they can turn you into something else. There’s a lot of good guys I know that turned out to be killers because they were hurt so much, and all they knew was to inflict pain on other people. And these were good people at one time. People say, oh well, he’s an animal. But he got turned into an animal.”  

He tells me at CRED he doesn’t talk about his basketball career, he tells the young men about how he was the same as they are. “What about the person who was left as a child? What about the person who grew up in a house with no lights and no gas and never knew what Christmas was? What about the person who just left seven years in prison? That’s the person I want you to know about. I want people to know that you can go through that and still come out and get your life back together.” 

Jeff Sanders shooting over Solid Gold. (Nate Driggers in background). Photo Credit: Erin Branning /

 It’s finals weekend, the last weekend in July — semifinal’s on Saturday, the final is on Sunday. In the semis it’s Cuzo’s Solid Gold versus Draine’s Cool Cats, and Jobba Maxey’s Vistria Group (the only undefeated team in the “regular season”) versus Sterling Finley’s Block Party.  

I ask Cuzo, the “GM” of Solid Gold, who he thinks is going to win. The first tournament after the pandemic, in summer 2021, Solid Gold beat Mahoney’s team in the finals in overtime. In 2022, Mahoney’s team, led by Driggers, Duncan, and Jeff Sanders, beat Solid Gold in McCoy’s tournament; but, since then, Cuzo’s team has won every one of Draine’s Chi Town Cats tournaments over the last year.  

Cuzo says, “We gonna win today. We gonna try to get this game over by the third quarter. They’re hyped to play us. We never hyped to play nobody. The whole gym be hyped to play us. Everybody in the gym goes against us.” 

Everybody in the gym might go against him, but Cuzo holds court. He walks in and makes the rounds, dapping up every guy in the thirty or so chairs lined up against the wall, then making his way to the bleachers at one end of the court, having quick conversations, talking trash, a smile on his face the whole time.  

I ask if he has any ex-NBA guys on his team. “Nah, Nah we don’t have ‘em. We don’t need ‘em. I can call and get some if I need some but we be all right. We can match up to anybody. We play everybody man on man but everybody plays us on the zone. They’re more scared of us so we don’t worry about it. We never play zone. Even when we go out of town we don’t play zone. We can adjust to different mismatches.” 

I ask him if he misses having Driggers on Solid Gold. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Nate’s a good player. Nate worked well with us. Me and Nate cool. I don’t have a beef with nobody in this whole tournament,” he says. “I always played against Ian. We only started beating them recently. I don’t know why they never picked me up,” he says and laughs and I see how the trash talking is maybe what he loves most about the game, about these guys, the history they all share.   

It’s five minutes to the first game — Vistria versus Block Party — and Cuzo tells me he thinks Block Party will win. “Jobba ain’t got no answer to Escalade.” Escalade is Block Party’s big man. “It’s gonna be very interesting. I don’t know about anyone else, but we play at 1 p.m. tomorrow. Solid Gold against somebody.” 

Cuzo is right about Block Party beating Vistria; they win by two points —  by converting fouls into points and fast breaks, by forcing turnovers.  

Driggers says to Mahoney after the game, “You know I wasn’t gonna let them win.” He shakes his head. “No, no no.” And he breaks into a smile, his face full of joy.  

The next day for the final, Cool Cats versus Block Party, the gym is packed with around a 100 people, nearly all Black men, talking and laughing, perhaps betting. These games provide community for the players but also the spectators, many of whom used to play, most of whom have been coming to watch these guys play for years. 

The stories are countless and legendary — the most repeated one being about one day at Newberry (an old park district gym on the West Side that has since been torn down). It was Duncan and Mahoney’s team, down a man and playing with only four guys, beating a West Side team. A fight broke out over a loose ball foul and when Duncan went over to try to break it up, one of the West Side guys, Ghetto, turned around and hit him. (Duncan says it was an accident, others didn’t think so). Duncan, the only white guy in the gym, let alone playing. Duncan, was beloved because he’d played with so many of the guys since they were teenagers but, most importantly, because he was and is, back to McCoy’s words, a real player. By real player I mean that the day after the Nuggets won the NBA Championship, Tim Hardaway, on The Carton Show on FS1, compared Jokic to Duncan — for his pace of play (he can’t be sped up), his no-look passes, his shooting, and his basketball IQ. 

Rock, who was running security at the gym, immediately locked the building down and called his guys, ready to do whatever was needed make sure Ghetto knew he’d crossed a line. The tensions were diffused and order restored, but later that night Duncan got a phone call from someone, “Basically asking if I wanted Ghetto killed,” Duncan says. “And at the time, though no one knew, I was being vetted to be Secretary of Education and I was thinking, my phone might be tapped by the FBI and here’s this guy asking me this, and I, of course, was like no, no, no, absolutely not.” Still, hitting “The Mayor” was inexcusable and Ghetto was black-balled from the league for years.  

As Draine says, “Basketball will reveal. If you’re a bad personality person, basketball is gonna highlight that. Who you are is gonna show when you’re upset. We’ve been blessed in that area. We don’t have a lot of guys who get out of control. But we set the playing field back in the Fernwood days. If you took a swing you got put out the tournament no questions asked, no talking about it, no nothing. It’s zero tolerance. There have been no fights at any of the tournaments I’ve thrown. They just respect the leader because I respect all of them and I try to have a relationship with everybody that walks in the door, you know? That’s how I’ve learned to combat it.” 

The final game is close and nerve-wracking, the lead going back and forth. Cool Cat’s Sanders keeps coming out of the game because of a pulled groin. As a former NBA player, Sanders rarely comes out of the game, so he’s clearly in pain. Woodrow, one of Drigger’s best friends, someone who always stayed close to him even when he was in prison, subs in for Sanders. Maxey’s team didn’t have an answer to Escalade in the semis but “Wood” is a big body and unafraid to take a hit. He’s the Cool Cat’s answer under the basket. Still, the game is tied at 34 going into the fourth quarter and tied at 38 with 4:27 to go when Driggers is fouled. He makes one of two free throws and punches his hand in frustration. With 1:30 to play, Juan “Big Guard” comes in for the Cool Cats and makes a needed 3–pointer to go up 43-40. Back at the other end of the court, Rob “Robocop” Coleman misses a jumpshot. Driggers gets the rebound, takes it back up court. He pulls up in the paint and scores, it’s 45-40 with 26 seconds to go. Cool Cats end up winning after “Big Guard” makes two free throws, 47-40.  

It’s all smiles and hugs and relief for the Cool Cats. Cuzo crosses the gym, a smile on his face and his head hung like a child who’s been punished, and congratulates the new champs of the GBA. One by one, everyone on Cool Cats gets called into an office off the side of the court where Draine gives them their share of the $5,000 in prize money.  

Championship won. Mission Accomplished.  

The Monday morning after the finals, at 7:00 a.m., cars start rolling into the parking lot of the Pilsen gym where Mahoney and Duncan started the Breakfast Club two years ago. 

Mahoney, Duncan, and Maxey are there alongside Attorney General Kwame Raoul, DePaul Men’s coach Paris Parham, sports agent Reggie Brown, and several other men whose relationships go back decades.  Those quiet mornings of Mahoney and Duncan shooting and playing one on one are long past, filled now with the sound of bouncing balls and trash talking and laughter. Also, a heavy dose of empathy when its needed.  

There’s been much handwringing in the media about an epidemic of loneliness among men and their lack of close friendships, but these men have been in fellowship for decades – at weekend basketball tournaments but also playing pick-up during the week. Hooping together over so many years they’ve learned how to forgive, how to repair relationships, how to be responsible men, how to care for community and family and children who are not their own but still need love.  

Basketball has kept them alive, grounded — Driggers, McCoy, and Draine all echoed this sentiment. What an incredible thing for a game to do —  in the face of poverty, inequality, violence, and fear — to affirm life, connection, and love for a generation of Black men born in the midst and in the wake of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s — struggles that are clearly far from won.  

I think of Driggers as a little boy in foster care and his basketball hoop made of a tire and shoelaces; I think about privilege and community and how far talent can get you and how far luck and opportunity can, and what circumstances out of a person’s control can do to their life. I think of all the other Nate’s who never got to the other side of poverty and life on the streets.   

In a few weeks, Cuzo is taking Solid Gold, along with Mahoney and Driggers, on the road to Memphis, Tennessee  for a 50-and-Over police tournament. “The fellowship is always what it’s about for me,” Cuzo says. He says he’s gotta bring “The Legend” (Mahoney), and perhaps on the road he needs an NBA guy (Driggers) after all.  

As McCoy said about the kids he serves in his Sports Factory camps, these kids need love. These men from all walks of life, from all over the city, have it with one another. Once, after noticing that no one in the gym talks about work or their jobs, I asked Mahoney why that was. He said, Because we’re all rich, meaning, in love, in community, in fellowship. In ball.  

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