Youth from Austin squared off Aug. 23 in the 8th Annual Cross-City Hoops in the Hood Tournament.

Austin was one of 14 neighborhoods competing at the Saturday basketball tournament at Seward Park on the North Side. West Side participants included youth from North Lawndale and Garfield Park. The prize: a championship trophy and bragging rights for a whole year.

The tournament, sponsored by State Farm, closed out this summer’s Hoops in the Hood program put on by LISC Chicago.

Throughout the summer, residential blocks are closed to traffic weekly for street basketball and other recreational activities. All are designed to teach leadership skills, social responsibility and teamwork to youth, while also nurturing civic engagement and community building.

North Lawndale ballers won in the tournament’s minor division Saturday. Near North Side youth won in the major and pee-wee divisions. 

Thirty-one teams participated, representing neighborhoods across the city, including Little Village, Englewood, and Back of the Yards.

The purpose of the program, according to Keri Blackwell, deputy director of LISC, is to reclaim the streets for the children and provide a safe environment for “kids to be kids.”

“It’s really intended to provide safe spaces for kids to be together, but to also bring neighbors out of their homes to get to know each other; to get to know the youth and activate these public spaces for public purpose,” Blackwell said.

The program started in 2007 with four neighborhoods. It’s since expanded to 14 neighborhoods serving 12,000 youth. This year, about 2,500 children participated in the program.

Blackwell said the program has had an impact on the participants, teaching them that the streets belong to them, and how to interact with their neighbors and others in the area.

“The streets become, safe and they become sacred,” Blackwell said.

Austin’s been involved with the programs for a few years now, and it hosted the event last year, according to Roslind Blasingame-Buford, executive director of BUILD, one of the participating organizations.

On Fridays this summer, the nonprofit closed off local blocks in Austin to set up portable hoops, card and domino games, music and grills. Empowering residents to reclaim their streets and promote peace, Buford says, is the goal.

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) and the 15th District Police helped identify street corners of high crime and gang activity. Buford said programs like Hoops in the Hood can give communities hope.

“They’re extremely important, especially with so much violence happening; especially youth violence throughout our communities. These types of programs are set up to offer that sense of hope, while allowing people to have fun and be safe,” she said, adding that she hopes to expand the program.

Youth participants were also honored Saturday; those who demonstrate a knowledge and respect for teamwork, and who present themselves as leaders.

Rob Castaneda, tournament manager for Hoops in the Hoods, said he’s a firm believer in doing things that kids are passionate about — like basketball and sports — and using those activities as vehicles to teach life lessons and build positive relationships.

“There’s a lot of amazing energy around the idea of using sports and playing to bring people together,” Casteneda said.