Bulls’ Boylen, pros urge ‘Unity’ at GR basketball clinic

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Jim Boylen says he feels comfortable at Grand Rapids’ Martin Luther King Jr. Park. He has for a long time.

The coach of the Chicago Bulls grew up in East Grand Rapids and made the court at the park, then named Franklin, his home. When he first started showing up to play basketball there, he was close to being the last pick. Originally, he recalls not getting picked for some games at all. Then when the games got going, he got a chance to shine. The next time he went back, he was getting talked about as a first pick.

“Everybody wants to win, so it changes,” Boylen said, laughing. “It was just a learning thing for me. It gave me confidence to go out in the world and compete to be the best you can be.”

Fast forward to July 15, 2020. Boylen made his way back to the park he used to play basketball at every day. After getting his temperature checked, answering health screening questions for COVID-19 and saying hello to people, he saw the things he knows best — dribbles, whistles and nets.

The basketball clinic at MLK park was called “Unity in the Community.” Its goal was to bring together law enforcement and the youth of Grand Rapids. The event was put on by former pros Pop Sims and Dennis Bell.

When Boylen dribbled the court as a teenager — like the many he was looking eye-to-eye with Wednesday — he felt togetherness.

“I wanted to be here because I was accepted here,” Boylen said. “There was no racism here, there was no this guy is this or this guy is that. It was can you or can’t you play and compete; do you care about the game?

“That’s what this park means to me, and that’s what it still does.”

Considering the current national outcry for police reform and reckoning with racism, Boylen said he wouldn’t have missed the event for the world.

While the small gathering of a few hours won’t change history, it was a step in the right direction for Grand Rapids, said Bell, who attended Drake University and played professionally for the New York Knicks. He said he thinks sports bring people together better than anything else.

“Our whole mission statement is getting the police to know the community and the community to know the police,” Bell said. “When you pool everyone together from all walks of life, you see what you have today. 

“I am truly honored to see the diversity out here today all working towards being a better community.”

Plenty of animosity toward law enforcement still exists as people protest daily all over the country, calling for police reform and justice in the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Grand Rapids native Breonna Taylor in Lousiville, Kentucky, as well as other people of color who died at the hands of police.

Sgt. John Wittkowski and his team at the Grand Rapids Police Department said being invited to the event was huge during the current climate.

“We really need to humanize the badge and make sure that we are more approachable,” Wittkowski said. “We need to get out of cars and just talk to people. Engage with children and don’t lose them over time and be there for them not just when we have crime, but when there’s something positive like this going on. We have to heal this fractured community.”

Healing is what the court did for Boylen. Any problems he had washed away when he stepped between the lines. It was a place he felt comfortable and a community he wanted to be a part of.

Now he hopes events like Unity in the Community continue bringing people of every race together.

“I think this gives you respect and you learn more about who people were and where they are from,” Boylen said. “We didn’t judge and I think that’s really important for us as we go forward. 

“I’m here to be a part of a movement, not just a moment.”