Streets gives back with Meanstreets

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Streets gives back with Meanstreets

Tai Streets arrived at a crossroads in his life in 2005. One of the most accomplished three-sport athletes in state history, perhaps the best since Centralia's legendary Dike Eddleman in the 1940s, Streets' six-year career in the NFL was over. What direction was he going to take?

Would you believe basketball? He grew up in Matteson and joined coach Ron Newquist's Wolverines, a south suburban AAU team, while he was attending Rich South in Richton Park.

"It was a totally different experience," Streets said. "It was something to do in the summer. I loved competing and I loved playing basketball. We played against the best players in the country. Our goal was to go to the state and national AAU tournaments. The nationals were in New Orleans. I liked basketball more than football at that time."

After transferring to Thornton of Harvey as a senior, he earned All-State recognition while playing on the Wildcats' 1995 team that ousted top-ranked Farragut and Kevin Garnett in the state quarterfinals but lost to Peoria Manual in the state final.

But football punched his ticket to college and the NFL. He was an All-Big Ten receiver at Michigan and caught two touchdown passes in the 1998 Rose Bowl as the Wolverines clinched a share of the national championship. As a senior, he was voted MVP on a team that was quarterbacked by Tom Brady.

Streets played for five years with the San Francisco 49ers as the fourth receiver behind Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes. Released after the 2003 season, he signed with the Detroit Lions. After one season, he retired.

"In 2005, my knees were banged up. I couldn't do it anymore, too much pain," Streets said.

Fortunately, he had laid a foundation for his future in 2001 when he co-founded with best friend Carlton Debose an AAU team known as the Wildcats. He had been persuaded to launch the project by Newquist, who had too many 14-and-under players and was looking for a way to give them more playing time. "Are you interested in coaching? You should pursue this," Newquist told Streets.

They started their program under the Wolverines umbrella. A year later, they decided to go on their own. They changed the name from Wildcats to Meanstreets, not wanting to think it was a Thornton team. Since then, the program, sponsored by Nike, has grown to involve over 250 boys and girls and has earned a national reputation.

"I wanted to give back," Streets said. "I want to help kids from our area become better people and get to college. It's tough for kids from Harvey to go to college. I wanted to show them that there is a way. That's the reason we did it, why we started our program. We're not trying to get anything out of it except a 'Thank you. You helped me to be a better man and to get me to college.' In our first year, 11 of 12 kids went on to get college degrees."

Streets, who also serves as an assistant on coach Troy Jackson's basketball team at Thornton, admits he is thinking about applying for a head coaching position at the high school level. But he doesn't want to give up his involvement with Meanstreets.

At first, he paid for the club's expenses out of his own pocket. Then Nike came on board in 2005. The advantages are obvious. "The Nike logo helps to get kids. They want to play for a Nike team. They pay for equipment and travel. We still have to raise funds but it helps to have Nike behind you," Streets said.

He admits, however, that the association with Nike and competition with other shoe companies "gets messy at times. Travel basketball is crazy, so many programs, so many tournaments," he said.

"People always are badmouthing AAU basketball on TV. Sure, there are slimy people out there. But don't put everyone under the same umbrella. We're not about that. We're about making kids better people. We get kids off the streets. We deal with kids from Harvey, Gary (Indiana) and Chicago who don't have the best opportunities. We help them to get out of their situation. All of us are in it to help kids."

He fights the AAU stigma all the time. A disciplinarian, he won't tolerate kids who don't do their schoolwork or have bad attitudes or lack character. He won't badmouth other programs. His approach is to talk to parents and tell them what he does and how he can improve their child's game and get him to college.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "We produce guys. Many critics say kids who participate in AAU aren't instructed in fundamentals, that coaches just toss the ball on the floor and let the kids run up and down. High school is regimented so they just want to run in the summer, right?

"Well, we try to teach them the proper way of doing things, as in college. We want to get them ready for college. They have to be accountable, be on time, abide by curfews on the road, attend meetings. On the court, we teach the mental part of the game, how to handle certain situations. Why did you do this? This is what you should have done.

"College coaches complain that high school kids aren't prepared, that they lack fundamentals. Our kids are college-ready, more than most programs. They won't be surprised at what happens in college."

Morning Update: Bears beat 49ers; Blackhawks' offense struggles in loss to Jets

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bears beat 49ers; Blackhawks' offense struggles in loss to Jets

Here are some of the top stories from Sunday in Chicago sports:

Five Things to Watch: Bulls back in action against Trail Blazers

Tune in tonight for Chicago Bulls Charities Night

Blackhawks score late but can't get past Jets

Bears offense finds groove in win over 49ers

Winter meetings preview: Why teams will find trying to copy a ‘Cubs Way’ rebuild is easier said than done

White Sox revamp would mean fewer 'stopgaps' and 'half-measures'

Significance of Bears win over 49ers lies beyond records and score

Five Things from Blackhawks-Jets: Offense still anemic

Bears' Matt Barkley 'showing the world' he can be a starting QB in the NFL

Lars Johansson excited for Blackhawks call-up

Bulls pass out Christmas gifts to Chicago youth on Sunday

Bulls pass out Christmas gifts to Chicago youth on Sunday

It was hard to tell who was more excited Sunday afternoon: the Bulls players or the 400 kids who stopped by the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry as the team passed out Christmas gifts for kids who reside in the Chicago family housing development.

Robin Lopez was carrying about Benny the Bull, much to the surprise and delight of many kids who were in attendance, while Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo took photos and passed out gifts to every child.

Rondo established roots in Chicago long before becoming a Bull, but has become entrenched in the months since signing with the franchise, being a part of the 17th annual holiday party.

“It’s definitely an honor. An honor to be a Bull,” Rondo said. “Since Day 1 when I got here I thought they were the best organization as far as giving back to the community, and it shows. They do it without hesitation.

“Very welcoming. The people have been great. The kids have been here since Day 1 supporting us as well. It’s very exciting.”

Bulls volunteers served lunch provided by Papa John’s, Coca-Cola and Edy’s Ice Cream, as the holiday party is one of the 30 events the Bulls are organizing as part of the team and NBA Cares’ “Season of Giving.”

“It’s no problem for any of us,” Lopez said. “Look at Raj, look at Jimmy, they’re having a blast out there. They’re having as good of a time as the kids out there.”

Being a California native, the newfound snowfall added to the atmosphere for Lopez.

“This really feels like Christmas,” Lopez said. “I can feel the spirit inside with the kids and the looks on their faces when they walk in and see the toys, they see Jimmy Butler and they’re so excited to be a part of it.”

Whether it was Barbie Dreamhouses, or Nerf basketball rims, the kids were ecstatic to see the Bulls and to pick out the toys being distributed by the Bulls’ stars.

“Very humbling. Over 400 kids. And every kid comes through all smiling and excited,” Rondo said. “Some of them don’t get toys all year and this time of year is about giving. I’m very humbled.”

Butler has been around Bulls Charities since being drafted in 2011, so although this is old hat, he hasn’t lost any of the spirit that comes with doing events like this year after year.

He posed with kids for photos and cracked jokes to the younger basketball fans.

“Feels good. I just like being here. It’s what this time of year is all about, seeing these kids smile,” Butler said. “I love kids, I love this city, I want everybody to be happy all the time. However I can make that happen, especially around Christmas and the holidays, I’ll do.”

Lopez is quiet to many who see him on the floor, but his eyes lit up around the kids and made Benny the Bull his personal prop by picking him up and carrying him through the museum.

“Every time I see it, it’s a wonderful feeling. To think I’m a small part of it, I can’t begin to describe it,” Lopez said. “Any opportunity I get to work with kids, that’s always easy yes in my book. I’m a big kid at heart. Any time I can go play, I’m in.

“It’s indescribable. I got so many great gifts as a kid, and blessed in so many ways. Just to be able to give back in any facet, that’s an easy yes.”

Sunday's event leads up to Monday's Chicago Bulls Charities Night at the United Center. The Bulls host the Portland Trailblazers at 7 p.m. on CSN.