CHICAGO — Early in the fourth quarter of an exhibition basketball game between two teams that’d never played before and never will again, a high school senior with little interest in the sport inched forward in her seat.
She peered through glasses in Section 106 of the United Center, head still, hands clasped at her chin. And had she looked around, she’d have seen 200 peers with nerves just like hers. Each had a different method for coping. There was the girl a few rows down in Section 107, standing with arms crossed, torso craned forward, focus on the court unflinching. There was the boy a few rows up whose limbs flailed in agony. There was the male staffer who swore his voice would be gone by morning, and the female staffer who turned around, eyes wide, to declare: “I need tequila. I can’t handle this.”
There was foot-stomping to distract free-throw shooters. There were claims of paid-off refs after controversial calls. There were shrill screams to meet every basket, every steal, every rebound. There were quieter “let’s go’s” that oozed tension.
Because here, behind the east basket, decked out in blue “TEAM LEBRON” shirts, were the Chicago Scholars — over 100 first-generation college hopefuls with more collectively riding on an NBA All-Star Game than any group in league history.
For 68 editions, the result of the league’s midseason extravaganza felt rather meaningless. On Sunday night in Chicago, the 69th felt like Game 5 of a conference finals. On the floor, and especially behind the east basket, it felt like lives hinged on the outcome. In part because they did.
The story behind Chicago Scholars
When Dominique Jordan Turner found out that LeBron James had selected Chicago Scholars, her Chicago Scholars, as his All-Star Game beneficiary, she was sitting in her car outside a TV station, completely unprepared for the moment or its magnitude. An NBA social responsibility staffer had called. Her league-office department, together with the NBPA, had presented a list of recommended Chicago charities to James. The King had chosen the Scholars.
And Turner, the organization’s CEO, for the first time in her life on a professional call, screamed.
James’ choice would give Chicago Scholars $100,000 minimum and a week of unprecedented publicity. And Turner quickly realized how transformative the money and exposure could be.
Turner was born in Chicago and raised in Niles, Michigan, a small town just across the Indiana border from South Bend. She was born to young parents who grew up in Chicago housing projects — and whose education, just like their ancestors’, ended in high school.
As a teenager, she became determined to chart a different course. With support from mentors, and despite what family history predicted, she made it to college, then into the corporate world. There, she admits, “I only wanted to make money, and be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.”
But her upbringing never left her. It pulled her from Deloitte into the non-profit world, into positions to help Gen-Z versions of herself. She sought to build organizations like Chicago Scholars, which shepherds first-generation college students from underserved communities to and through college.
She learned along the way, though, “that it takes more than just that degree.” That achieving professional success takes support systems and guidance and so much else that school curriculums don’t teach. So she has poured millions of Chicago Scholars dollars into providing all of that, for hundreds of local kids, many from the historically neglected South and West Sides.
And in part through her own experiences, she knows how massive an impact a six-figure NBA donation could have on those kids’ lives.
Rooting for Team LeBron
The NBA All-Star Game, for years, had been basketball’s version of a blowout concert or special-exhibit art show. It was less competition, more entertainment absent drama. Its crowds rose for dunks, golf-clapped threes, and didn’t react to much else. Sunday, for multiple reasons, was different.
“Team-Le-Bron!” chants, rhythmic and boundless, began early and continued often. In the Scholars sections, every point brought at least one student or organization employee out of his or her seat. They threw up three fingers to celebrate 3-pointers. They roared along with alley-oops.
The first and second quarters lacked suspense. The teams split them, $100,000 apiece. In the third, Team LeBron came back to take a late lead. Nikola Jokic’s go-ahead 3, under traditional formats, would have been forgettable. But with each quarter a mini-game worth 100 grand, it sent Scholars bouncing up and down, hands clapping overhead, erupting in delight.
Throughout the evening, some of the emoting was encouraged by game ops and contrived. By the fourth quarter, however, it seemed completely genuine. Basketball novices were gripped. Stares were intense. Faces wore worry. Fists punched air reflexively. Anxiety brought hands to cheeks.
“I’m so stressed,” one student said to a friend.
For the kids, the entire week had been borderline dreamlike. Pregame and during the first half, many continued to soak up the experience. They posed for photos. They captured celebrities strolling courtside for their Snapchat stories. They danced along with in-game entertainers. They chowed down on United Center delicacies.
Then the fourth-quarter rolled around. A third-quarter tie put $300,000 on the line. And the entire section’s emotions seemed to hang on every possession. Because they, like the adults running their program, knew how potent $300,000 could be.
Where the NBA All-Star money will go
Many early-decision college applications are due on Nov. 1. On Oct. 30, 2019, Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers marched through the city’s streets, bellowing into megaphones and brandishing signs at passersby. It was Day 14 of a strike that shut down the city’s notoriously underfunded public schools. Among the many consequences: High school seniors looking for application guidance were left in the dark, their futures at stake, no school counselors to help out.
Kiara Vega, a senior at Whitney Young High School, remembers that week vividly. Because some of her friends, she says, “were unable to complete their letters of recommendation, or send in their transcripts [to colleges]. It was really tough.”
“But me?” she continues. “Since Chicago Scholars helped me, I was just sitting there, like, all my stuff is turned in.”
In the months since, Vega has been accepted by Illinois, Wisconsin and Miami (Ohio). She’s waiting on a decision from Washington University in St. Louis. But “all the time,” she thinks about where she would have been without Chicago Scholars. “One of those last-minute kids,” she assumes she would’ve been.
She is ambitious and driven. But so often in Chicago, as in other American cities, zip codes go further to determining success than ambition or drive. It’s what Dimarvin Puerto, another Chicago Scholar and a senior at Lane Tech High School, calls “the same cycle,” one he sees everywhere in low-income neighborhoods, where scarce money and scarce educational resources lead to scarce hope. It’s a cycle he felt himself slipping into last year. “I felt like the world was closing in on me,” he says. That is, until he applied to Chicago Scholars and was accepted. Now he’ll be off to Wake Forest next fall to major in political science.
But there are thousands of bright 18-year-olds like him and Vega throughout Chicago who do get trapped. Others go off to college but come back without a degree. Around half of the CPS students who enroll in college don’t graduate in six years. Not all Chicago Scholars do, either.
Which is why a program that offers continued support throughout college is one of Turner’s main initiatives. “People don’t realize how difficult it is when you’re the first [in your family],” she says. “Most of them are on financial aid. Some of them don’t have cash for books.” They don’t have disposable income. They can’t fly home if a parent gets sick. “First-generation, low-income students often drop out for micro dollars,” Turner explains, referring to the smaller expenses. And Chicago Scholars, via an emergency fund, can help.
They can also help students build networks and land internships. They can fund trips to conferences and workshops. That’s what the money from the NBA will go toward. The question was how much it would be. Turner says the true long-term value of the week, regardless of outcome, is the publicity and exposure it brought. But still: the difference between $100,000 and $400,000 is significant.
The $300,000 moment
Everybody was standing. Or at least five-sixths of the blue-clad section was as the target score, the magic number, 157, neared. They chanted “Defense!” They applauded every stop. They booed or complained about every adverse call, high-schoolers and administrators in unison, wrapped up in the same moment.
“Oh my God,” they groaned quietly after misses.
“I love you LeBron!” one shrieked after a James bucket.
During a pair of late Team Giannis free throws, James turned to them and motioned for noise. They gleefully obliged.
From 20 feet away, the on-court intensity was palpable. It was all over James’ face, and in all 10 players’ defensive stances, and the playoff-like collisions. The six potentially game-deciding possessions felt like Game 7s. “Take a three!” a few Scholars pleaded when the score was at 154-153. James Harden did and connected, and for five seconds, until they realized Harden had been called for an offensive foul, they jumped for joy.
Then Anthony Davis, once a kid from Chicago’s South Side just like many of them, stepped to the free-throw line. They gathered in the aisle. They wailed at his back-rim miss. Then they flowed down that aisle, past the stanchion, grabbing streamers as they went. They galloped toward players, high-fiving them, hopping around at center court.
“LET’S GOOOOO!” one Scholar exclaimed while flexing.
And then, after catching his breath, again: “LET’S GOOOO!”
When the students returned, two collapsed into each other’s arms, almost in disbelief. Others couldn’t stop squealing or uttering, “Oh, my God.” Several joined Turner on the court for a postgame presentation. Those in the section rushed to the railing. James was exiting, stage left.
But they didn’t want autographs, or selfies, or even high-fives. Their message was summed up by a homemade sign that one student had brought. Scrawled on a bright yellow surface were three simple words.
“THANK YOU LEBRON.”
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