Springfield will host an unusual basketball tournament later this month, designed to have a lasting effect on the players long after the games are over.
It’s an idea cooked up by former basketball coach Al Klunick. He came up with the notion about 10 years ago, when he was scrolling through YouTube, looking for videos about his hometown, and stumbled upon a documentary that shocked him: a four-part series about a race riot in Springfield.
“I can’t believe that I grew up on the North End, born and raised, lived here all my life, and didn’t know the true history,” Klunick says.
The riot was sparked by a white woman’s false claim that she had been raped by a black man. Two black men were lynched; more than a dozen people died; and scores of black-owned homes and businesses were burned to the ground by a white mob over a period of two days in the year 1908. At the time, it made national news, and inspired the establishment of the NAACP.
But in Springfield, the episode was kept quiet for decades. By the time Klunick found out about the riot a full century later, he realized that if something so horrible could have remained hidden, there were probably other things happening in Springfield that he knew nothing about. So Klunick began searching for a way to simply bring people together — the only way he knows how.
“I’m a basketball person,” he says. “It’s been basketball all my life, first as a player, and then, I wanted to play college ball, nobody wanted me, so I became a coach…”
His coaching gigs have included Lanphier High School, Sacred Heart-Griffin, and Rochester High. But that’s not enough basketball for Klunick. Twenty years ago, Al and his younger brother, Steve, opened The Gym — a basketball facility that’s home to various recreational leagues and the Springfield Predators travel teams.
So how does basketball intersect with racism? Well, Klunick says, it actually happens a lot. Traveling to tournaments all over the midwest, you see a lot of teams where all the players are the same color, even at street ball tourneys like the Gus Macker.
“I’ve gone to 3-on-3 tournaments for a long time when my son played, and I can remember going to Peoria. That used to be one of the biggest tournaments around for the Gus Macker,” Klunkick says. “And most of the teams were either black or white.”
Klunick has witnessed this phenomenon so many times, he now wants to try putting his own twist on it.
“How do you get people to get on a team with a person of a different race and want to play that way? Well, here’s a way to do it,” he says, “with our 2-on-2 tournament that you have to get a teammate of a different race.”
He’s calling it the Community Unity 2-on-2 Tournament. The brochure he’s handing out calls it “the most unique basketball tournament you’ll ever play in.”
“It’s our little bitty way of saying let’s be teammates instead of against each other, and have a good time doing it.”
Klunick started by recruiting Letitia Dewith Anderson to co-chair the tournament. Like Klunick, Anderson grew up in Springfield, but she comes from a politically active black family. She works as a lobbyist for small municipalities, and served as former Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin’s chief of staff during his first year in office. Anderson didn’t need YouTube to teach her about the Springfield race riot.
“Like Al said, people may differ — because Al and I differ a great deal on a lot of things — but we’re still very good friends and I think that’s what this tournament is about. I think it can change the way people perceive one other, just from one little basketball game.”
She has been recruiting sponsors and participants, and running into many players who don’t have a friend from another race they could play with. So she and Klunick are matching players up.
“They’ve never gone outside of their comfort zone, outside of their neighborhoods, outside of their churches. And so this brings them together,” Anderson says. “It then makes leaders — that are supposed to be leaders in our community — bring these kids together, bring the families together. To me, I think what makes a difference in our community is when there’s an open dialog and people are working together for a particular goal.”
Her experience as a mom whose daughter played on an AAU basketball team proved to Anderson how much sports can transform families.
“I mean, we played with kids from little bitty towns that were all homogeneous,’ she says. “But when you’re in a hotel room, and I’m sitting there braiding every little kid’s hair that’s on the team, I thought ok, this is a way to bring us together. And that’s what it did.”
She sees this tournament as a way to bring not only kids together but also their families.
“They’ll be sitting together, side by side, cheering on their children, their babies,” she says. “I see a wonderful ripple effect.”
After all, that’s pretty much how she became friends with Klunick. He trained Anderson’s daughter, Allison Anderson, who was Springfield High School’s star point guard in 2009. She has agreed to team up with Klunick for the “hotshot” competition at his Community Unity tournament. That’s the side contest designed to attract players who might be too old to play the game.
“What I’d like is if we could get everybody to be a friend with somebody else of a different race,” Klunick says. “That, to me, would be wonderful to have at the end of the day. Is that achievable? I don’t know. We’re gonna find out.”
The tournament is scheduled for July 27-28, and all proceeds will be divided between two charities — Compass for Kids and St. Martin de Porres. Klunick hopes this tournament will become an annual tradition.