Stuart Epperson

For three-year-old Deonta Howard of Chicago basketball has made an early impression on his young life. But unlike LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, he was shot in the head at a basketball game by drive-by gangbangers Sept. 19.

He was with his mother at 10:15 p.m. when it happened at a park on the city’s Southwest Side. It’s in an area labeled a "high gang-conflict zone" by police. Miraculously, “Little Tay-man” is expected to recover. Gang violence is so widespread some are asking for the National Guard step in.

Who would think that life and death could revolve around a basketball? Yet ask many African American boys what they want to be in life and they’ll tell you an “NBA pro.” It’s their ticket out of hopelessness. The reality of course is that few are chosen, but who has the courage to look into their bright faces and tell them otherwise. For the cost of a basketball a kid can dream big.

Indeed, African Americans make up the majority of players in the NBA. Many African American players are successful far beyond the court, from financial to personal to professional. A little more than a month has passed since the 50th celebration of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. A good many African Americans have moved into the realm of King’s dream that people “will be judged by the content of their character and not the color their skin.” So where does the nightmare of a three-year-old African American boy being shot in the head by drive-by shooters fit into King’s dream? Are there larger issues beyond color?

Perhaps comments made this summer by LeBron James after his team, the Miami Heat, won the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs shed light on a bigger picture. I will never forget the words of the two-time NBA champion and a two-time Finals MVP as he held his trophies and responded to a comment about his rise to stardom in the midst of career controversies.

“"Listen, I can't worry about what everybody says about me," he said. "I'm LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I'm not even supposed to be here. That's enough. Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a No. 6 with James on the back. I'm blessed."

His statement was so potent that it begs for deeper scrutiny far beyond the pale of a fleeting afterthought, uttered secondarily to the importance of the game. Perhaps it answers deeper questions about the roots of senseless gang violence and the epidemic number of murders plaguing our inner cities, representing indicators of a much larger societal problem.

Stuart Epperson

Stuart Epperson, Chairman of Salem Communications Corporation.

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