By Lauren Victory

CHICAGO (CBS) — Basketball is back.

One of the biggest games in Chicago returns this weekend at St. Sabina Church in the Auburn Gresham community. NBA stars will coach local players in a famous face-off known as the Peace Games.

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CBS 2’s Lauren Victory got an exclusive look behind the scenes.

The Saint Sabina gym is ready to welcome a packed and pumped house this weekend for the 9th Chicago Peace Games.

“We speak to the young men before they play and it’s like the Final Four,” said NBA referee James Capers, laughing. He’s been a Peace Games staple since its 2012 beginnings and is ready for anything at Saturday’s event.

The annual basketball showdown features four teams from sometimes warring neighborhoods.

“That first game, we had to bus the members in because of the gang lines or territories,” recalled Lauren Gillian, director of partnership for Connor Sports. The company helped found the tournament almost ten years ago and it’s evolved ever since. https://connorsports.com/

“From busing in year one to carpooling in year two to having a mixed team in year three,” said Gillian.

“It’s the realest thing that I’ve done since I’ve got to the NBA,” Joakim Noah told NBA TV in a 2013 interview. Noah is just one of the big names who has brought the games big notoriety over the years.

Other famous participants include Derrick Rose, Isiah Thomas, and Jabari Parker.

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For 2021, pros like Bobby Simmons will coach.

“First, I have to see what talent I have and now I have to figure out how to put the pieces together,” Simmons told CBS 2 in a Zoom interview about his strategy ahead of Saturday. https://www.instagram.com/succezz_/?hl=en

All-Star Antoine Walker is also excited to lead a team both on and off the court. Pre-game mentoring is a huge part of the event.

“I’m an inner-city kid from Chicago. Obviously, I was very blessed to make it to the NBA and play ball and everybody is not afforded that opportunity so just reiterating to them that there’s other avenues in life, there’s other things you can be great at you don’t necessarily have to focus in on just playing basketball,” said Walker of his message to the youth.

“When the [professional] players speak to them, when the dignitaries speak to them, they’re listening to everybody’s story because everybody has a story,” said Capers, the NBA ref, talking about the power of sports icons taking time to connect with the community.

The pandemic canceled last year’s Peace Games and Gillian from Connor Sports feels the pre-game roundtable discussion needs to make up for lost time.

“From a social justice point of it, obviously to the isolation of COVID. A lot of frustration, a lot of conversations have been had around, what should we do next?” he said.

Actor Bentley Green tackles some of those tough topics in the TV show he’s currently filming in Chicago. He’ll play basketball alongside some of the local guys and isn’t worried about keeping up. He looks forward to the discussion on the sidelines and domination on the court.

“Bring great energy because the energy is going to be here already,” said Green.

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Anyone from the public can watch the Peace Games starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18 at St. Sabina, 1210 W. 78th Pl. Admission is free, but come early – the event always draws a big crowd.

Lauren Victory