Smallish NBA Dreamer Has European Career but Giant Impact on Chicago’s Forgotten Communities

Keifer Sykes plays professional basketball in Turkey, not Los Angeles or New York. He hasn’t yet made his NBA dream fit inside his 6-foot frame. And life off the court has been pock-marked with losses and tragedies tied to the gun violence that has riddled the streets of Chicago for a century.

The former University of Wisconsin-Green Bay star had his successes and heartbreaks documented in the award-winning 2018 documentary “Chi-Town.” Audiences saw Sykes become the first college graduate in his family’s history. they watched as he led Green Bay to a Horizon League Championship for the first time in more than a decade.

The low points, though, made the gritty film touch millions. Incarcerations, shootings and death visited his family and friends back in Chicago, and he hasn’t forgotten any of what his talents allowed him to escape. Sykes’s strong will has now turned him into a philanthropic brand, not a sneaker brand. His Free10Foundation provides mentorship to inner-city kids, holds clothing drives and Christmas parties for Chicago’s poorest, and assists children who have been victims of trauma.

The 26-year-old Sykes is wise beyond his years and skilled beyond his size. Although he is an active pro basketball player overseas, he continues to find time to give back to the community that raised him up.

Percy Crawford interviewed Keifer Sykes for Zenger News (Photo courtesy of Percy Crawford)

Percy Crawford interviewed Keifer Sykes for Zenger News.

Zenger News: How are you doing, bro?

Keifer Sykes: I’m living good, man. This Covid gives people a lot of reason to be negative right now, but my family is good. I was able to spend a lot of time with family. Covid made us look at the world different. We’re going through a lot of things with inequality right now. I was just happy to be home and helping my city.

I left out for a little bit right now, for three weeks. I was blessed to get a deal because a lot of people aren’t getting deals right now. But it’s a deal where I can get right back home next month. It’s unique times, but I’m blessed right now for sure.

Zenger: You’re playing ball in Turkey right now. Are they in a basketball bubble out there right now as well?

Sykes: So, right now I signed this deal to play … they’re finishing the Champions League from last year. I don’t know how familiar you are with Champions League, like soccer. They have a basketball Champions League as well overseas. When we go to this tournament, yes, we will be in a bubble-like setting. They have a bubble-type situation over here to keep us safe. It will be in Athens, Greece. I’ve never been to Greece during the couple of years I played over here. We haven’t had any Greek teams in our bracket, and I’ve always wanted to go to Greece, so it’s going to be fun to go there.

But yeah, we’re going to be in a bubble situation because as you know, with the world, this Covid thing, sports is taking a big hit. I hope it’s made a lot of us athletes realize that we have to do more and … be more diverse, and use our influence and our talent to be able to do different things in the world. If they stop sports, a lot of us don’t have a job.

Zenger: “Chi-Town” was so well put together. That’s a movie/documentary that follows your life from 17 years old through your journey through college, and ultimately chasing your NBA dream. Did you think basketball would take you this far?

Sykes: I appreciate you for supporting the film, my family and the city of Chicago. As you see in the film, I was real naïve. I wouldn’t say not confident, but when you’re living in a situation where a lot of things are happening, you’re living in violence, it’s kind of one of those things where you hope for the best but expect the worse.

I was naïve, just not knowing, and at the time I didn’t know that basketball would take me this far—basketball, that film and the impact that those two things would do for my life. I’ve just been blessed to have these opportunities, to have that film playing all over the world. I just want to use these experiences to teach the next generation to continue to hone their talents. Because, like you said, basketball can take you around the world. It can change a lot for your family.

Former University of Wisconsin-Green Bay standout Keifer Sykes has escaped the gun violence and gang culture of Chicago but hasn’t forgotten where he came from (courtesyof Cynthia Busby)

Zenger: One part of the film that was disturbing and unfortunately your reality, when you were away at college you were hesitant to answer phone calls from a Chicago number because you assumed it was bad news on the other end.

Sykes: That was hard. Even now. Just being away and knowing what my people going through and America in general is going through. I turned down a lot of deals this summer just to stay at home. I think that comes from just growing up in poverty, growing up in inequality.

We are oppressed. It’s difficult for a lot of us. We have a lot of trauma and PTSD, and getting phone calls about my coach getting shot and my dad passing away, that trauma just builds up. A lot of our youth face that.

I knew that I was blessed with this talent to play basketball, so I was able to elude different things and circumstances. But having that film in place and me seeing …  at first, I just thought this was regular life. For me and my friends, it’s the life we grew up in. but when I went to Green Bay, I was like, “Wow! This is a good life.”

And when the movie comes out, those people have never seen someone get shot, they’ve never seen anyone go to jail. I realized how much we had to do to help those less fortunate. Those that don’t have a talent. Those that won’t be able to have basketball or some type of talent as a vehicle to get them out of poverty. And that’s the reason I started my non-profit organization, The Keifer Sykes Free10Foundation.

Zenger: How important is it for you to not forget Chicago and to give back and help the youth keep their dreams alive, and not just give back but be visible and there in the flesh?

Sykes: It’s turned into something that is probably top priority for me. It’s always been my passion. My father, as you saw in the film, he helped the community a lot. He was my coach. A lot of us in the neighborhood weren’t blessed to grow up with a mother and a father. I was blessed to have my father in my life. He was real active with my basketball teams, coached a lot of my teams. And with a father figure for a lot of young boys in Chicago, that right there just made this thing of me giving back top priority and a passion of mine. I kind of found my purpose in it.

With me playing overseas the last couple of years and not being at home a lot, and getting this chance with Covid to be home for 6–7 months and actually be available and help these kids on a day-in and day-out basis, I had to set up a program to connect with these kids. And to see the impact of being available? It’s a lot of work, but it’s the work that someone has to do, and it needs to be done. I realized it needed to be done and I’m blessed to be in a position where I’m able to have kids even listen to me.

I take that very seriously. And I would hope other athletes, entrepreneurs, and just successful people would help out and make that a priority as well. It’s definitely worthwhile and meaningful.

At 6 feet tall, Keifer Sykes would be dwarfed by many of the NBA’s stars, but his legacy may be more about philanthropy than athletic legend (Courtesy of Keifer Sykes)

Zenger: Tell us more about Free10Foundation.

Sykes: Yeah, The Keifer Sykes Free10Foundation. The idea was born from the film. When I went to that first film festival, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and I saw the reaction after everyone watched the film, they were saying how strong I am, and how they weren’t aware of all of the things that were going on.

I wanted to do something. I just continued to pray to God and just asked him—much is given, much expected—for him to give me the ability to fulfill everything that he wanted me to do with this instrument and vehicle that I had. Like I said, my dad always gave back, so I wanted to just bring awareness to what’s going on.

So I started this Free10Foundation. Free10 just stands for the offerings, the generosity and the service that every human being should give to the world. Kind of like our tithes. We came up with the number 10 as the numerical identity for the foundation because 10 represents our tithing.

I’m big in my faith. I’m a Christian. That’s just an equal percentage that everyone can give back to the world. Like I was just saying, I wish more successful people would give back in their own means. I just came up with 10% because if it’s $10,000 or $100, that 10% is $1,000 or $10, and even if you got $10, you could always give back that $1. I believe if we use this service to give back to the world, we can make it a better place.

We have been active for two years with the Free10Foundation, but I just received my 501(c)(3) certification this fall. For the last two or three years we have done coat drives, basketball camps—because basketball is a way for me to relate to the kids and mentor them. We have done different Christmas parties, sponsoring families that don’t have enough.

Our focus is targeting kids who are suffering from trauma, gun violence, mass incarceration. Losing a parent—people don’t understand, we have a lot of murders and gangs in Chicago, and when these black males get killed, they leave behind two or three children, and they don’t have that support from that parent, which hurts their self-esteem with going to school.

It’s a lot of different things. They have a lot of trauma. The system puts a lot of our black men and women in jail and they lose that support and it hurts their self-esteem. Life gets really hard for them and that’s the cycle that we live in when we get behind. Free10Foundation is where we step in and try to fill that void for these kids and for these families.

Zenger: That film started when you were 17 years old and it followed you up until your overseas pro career. How did you become the subject of that film at such a young age?

Sykes: It was a blessing, actually. This film crew from New York was following Oprah while she was doing her shows at the Oprah Studios in Chicago. But they love basketball in New York like they do in Chicago. Basketball in the inner city of New York is very popular. So they started to film some of the best seniors. And I just so happened to be a senior in high school that year.

At the end of the basketball season, they didn’t have the project they wanted to tell the story about Chicago and basketball that they were trying to tell. They spent time coming to my house, filming me and my family. And as we all went on to college as basketball players, you know I went to a smaller school, Green Bay. Which gave me the opportunity to play a lot as a freshman.

I was doing really well on the court, and I was also keeping in touch with them. They were seeing things that were going on with me off the court. Me losing my friend to jail that same summer when I went to college. And then that next summer losing my father. And then the next season, I flourished on the basketball court.

It just seemed like Chicago was always coming back into play, or something with some type of violence or negativity that was affecting my life or my friends and family’s life back home. With me just being personable, they just decided to make this film a documentary. They thought that was the best way to tell the story.

It was really God’s blessing. He wanted this story to be told through me. To say that we have great players from Chicago like Anthony Davis who is in the Western Conference Finals right now. Me and him were in the same grade. We had Jabari Parker, we had Derrick Rose. As far as Chicago, Kevin Garnett, Isiah Thomas—we had plenty of players in terms of basketball, but the movie, “Chi-Town,” they wanted to tell this story through me, and I haven’t played an official NBA game yet.

I just felt like, God chose me to tell this story. I will continue to pray that I fulfill everything that he wants me to do with this film.

Sykes says his Free10Foundation aims to persuade people to ‘tithe’ 10 percent of their earnings to help people in their communities (Courtesy of Keifer Sykes)

Zenger: You were called the James Harden of China. You can obviously play your ass off. You are now in Turkey hooping. You have been all over the world, how does basketball differ all over the world, yet bring people together the same way everywhere it’s played?

Sykes: I think basketball, as you can see now, is becoming one of the more popular sports. It used to be football. Just with the times we’re going through with social injustice and things like that, basketball is a way for us to express ourselves creatively in a unique way, more than any other sport. We’re just more visible. We don’t wear helmets and shoulder pads. It’s just how it’s structured.

Our game is continuing to flourish. We are able to make more money but also acquire more endorsements and be creative in tackling different problems in the world while trying to find a solution. With basketball being a majority African-American-dominated sport, we have a lot of impact on the culture. Our style of play, how we dress, the way we carry ourselves and our attitudes.

All that is expressed in the game of basketball which has given us opportunities to go across the world, and as African Americans we can shine no matter what the culture is, no matter what country or city that you’re playing in. I try to tell the youth and other athletes that we have to continue to hone our talents and continue to be creative and find ways to change the world with this influence that we have. Basketball allows us to express and uplift different communities and change and impact the world.

Zenger: I love your story. Continue to do what you have been doing and I wish you the best, man. Is there anything else you would like to say?

Sykes: I just want to say thank you, man. I appreciate your patience. I hope everything is getting better with the hurricanes that hit you all, the wildfires out in L.A. and just bless all the people.

(Edited by David Martosko.)

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