*”Chi-Town” is a well-known reference to the city of Chicago, home of the Chicago Bulls with one of the unquestionably all-time greats of basketball, Michael Jordan.
Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Patrick Beverly, Anthony Davis, and countless other current NBA players pop up quickly when you think about Chicago, basketball, and NBA players who were born and bred in Chicago.
So, why does the “Chi-Town” documentary focus solely on Keifer Sykes who had an “improbable shot” but “meteoric rise” in the world of basketball?
Keifer Sykes asks that question himself.
Via Zoom, Sykes talked to me about his documentary “Chi-Town.” For five years, a filming crew followed Sykes as he completed his last year of high school and entered four years of college.
“[The documentary] covers me growing up in Chicago as a kid…wanting to reach these dreams, despite all the obstacles, different things we have to face each day in poverty. It was neat to have this movie because at first, you know, these were things that was normal to me, just my normal life, you know. Some of my friends not having the same opportunities…some of them getting shot. Some of them going to jail and also you know me graduating from high school. You know, being a teenage father…I was blessed to have a talent that got me a scholarship to go on to college and you know to get my degree and chase my dream of being a professional basketball player which I have accomplished.”
Sykes’ documentary is a platform that has allowed him to travel “the world” speaking to youth who have a similar dream. Sykes also uses the documentary “Chi-Town” to engage open conversations with people from all walks of life who can use his expertise.
“Chi-Town” the documentary reveals some of the complexities of poverty, violence, improbabilities, and a dream that basketball is an escape. All those topics are still on the table for discussion, and Sykes wants to talk about them to everyone he can.
Sykes says the documentary and his subsequent experiences of talking with people was “eye opening to me because a lot of people gravitated towards me…motivated and inspired you know just by my daily life so…I was blessed that…this crew was able to you know capture it and tell my story and that it’s just been so profound and just it’s had just an enormous impact on my life first and foremost, but now which is what I’m trying to do is just have an impact on the world with my Free 10 Foundation.”
When asked about obstacles and opportunities in the inner city, Sykes says his family and support system helped him to overcome the problems that get in the way for many inner city youth. The documentary features many scenes highlighting Sykes’ family dynamic.
Even though many inner city youth do not have that family support system, Sykes says “a lot of these athletes are fortunate enough to be blessed to have a lot more opportunities than just the normal kid that goes to a urban public high school, however, that comes with much more distractions and just more ways for them to get derailed and for them to be more self disciplined and focused. That’s something I’ve been through.”
Sykes applies his own experience in his Free 10 Foundation by creating the types of supports that he believes are most helpful to inner city youth, including mentoring, skills camps, building reading programs, computer programs. Another important topic for Sykes is teaching inner city youth how to handle both obstacles as well as success.
“Success for kids that come from poverty or from these urban communities…it looks different than…a normal American or white American that has that family structure…and that strong support system.” Sykes says those success stories don’t include having to bring along relatives, fight off gangs, friends, and fake friends like inner city youth have to do.
He talks about the metaphor of yoga as a way to help inner city youth accomplish balance.
“Everything you do on the yoga mat is metaphoric to what you do in life. If you don’t have your balance, if you don’t have your breath…if you don’t have presence…you will be off balance.”
Another area that Sykes sees as vital is the father and male figures that are absent in many inner city children’s lives. One of his priorities is to fill that gap through his Free 10 Foundation.
Sykes has a gym on the West side of Chicago where he is actively involved in impacting the lives of inner city youth. He highly values the work he has done with Chicago Bear, Matt Forte who has a What’s Your Forte foundation.
Asked who Sykes would like to additionally bring in, he wants yoga instructors, nutritionists, chefs, and people from all walks of life who can help youth have holistic growth.
Asked which Chicago celebrities he would like to involve, Sykes mentions President Barrack Obama, and cites that they are both from the Southeast side of Chicago, without mentioning that President Obama is also very much a basketball player himself. Sykes hopes that from a shared passion for helping inner city youth, other Chicagoans like Chance the Rapper, Patrick Beverly (who also attended Marshall high school) and Derrick Rose will work with him.
Sykes’ Free 10 Foundation has been active for 3 years. Now that they have achieved not for profit status, Sykes is getting some help, where he was previously funding the activities out of his own pocket. His website KeiferSykes.com features some of the many activities and camps and giveaways that Free 10 has done, including a coat giveaway at Thanksgiving. Sykes says it was important to give people something they would have for more than one day. At Christmas, Free 10 sponsored a bowling party.
Sykes talks about trying to fill the void many inner city youth experience. He cites the devastation that gun violence and mass incarceration create.
“A lot of people don’t understand…having hundreds of murder[s] per year that a lot of these murders are you know, a lot of our black fathers. And, they leave behind more than one child that…it’s really hard to fill that void and fill in the resources, the support and for them to be nurtured and…for them to just grow and blossom into the kid that they want to be.”
Sykes talks about how Free 10 tries to fill in the gap with “time, resources, financial stability, any connections” for youth who have lost a parent to death or prison, or any other complexities of poverty.
Sykes welcomes anyone who has a desire to contribute their knowledge or expertise to the youth he supports.
Concluding the interview, Sykes talks of the places basketball has taken him, and where he hopes it will take him. Sykes is currently an international basketball player who is working hard to get an NBA contract. Sykes and Beverly share both attending Marshall and international basketball careers, which was Beverly’s route before signing with the NBA.
Sykes says the theme of his life has been what he calls “The Journey.” He used to vlog and has begun vlogging again about his life as a journey. He feels blessed that his “journey” has taken him to places that he used to just see on a map. He talked about spinning a globe and seeing places that he thought had no one there. While playing internationally, he has found places and people that he never thought he would, including being on the Amalfi Coast and in Milan for Fashion Week.
“This journey has just opened up my life to realize that I have to be grateful in every day, every experience.”
“Now that I come to Chicago, you know, my eyes are up. I have a different lens on life…I enjoy every day…to enjoy a city that has the beach and metropolitan area downtown.”
Sykes says he’s had some highs and lows throughout the journey but considers himself blessed. He sees his experience and success through basketball and his documentary “Chi-Town” as a way to change the world around him.
You can also contact his publicist Cynthia Busby for media requests, inquiries or bookings at [email protected]
J. Jermayne (@JJermayne Writes) is the author of 6 published books; 3 are sports themed. Jermayne freelance writes and travels to cover sports, entertainment and cultural events.