Playing for Their Lives: How a Chicago Basketball Coach Works to Keep Kids Safe From Violence

Violence has touched nearly every student at the school and all the players on the team

For the high schoolers on Orr Academy’s standout basketball team, they aren’t just playing for the game, they’re playing for their lives.

Coach Lou Adams knows that for many of his players, getting a scholarship is their chance at a better life – a life outside the city’s violence-plagued neighborhoods.

The high school known for producing standout players sits in the center of some of Chicago’s deadliest gun violence. But in a recent interview with NBC News’ Craig Melvin on “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly,” the team’s coach is hailed as a hero by the school, its players and their parents, with many saying he saves lives.

In the interview, players describe their homes as “worse than a war zone” and residents say you can’t walk outside without hearing bullets fly.

This weekend alone, 36 people were shot, including a 4-year-old boy, in a series of shootings that largely took place on the city's South and West Sides. 

Violence has touched nearly every student at the school and all the players on Adams’ team.

“People say, ‘I know you how you feel,’ well, I don’t know how you feel,” Adams said he tells the kids. “I never lost my friend at 16 so I don’t know how you feel. But I can tell you this - we gotta do this so this doesn’t happen to you.”

Each time a high schooler is reported shot, Adams faces the “normal nightmare” of questioning whether it’s one of his players.

“Did he die? That’s the first thing you ask. Did he die?” Adams told NBC News.

The team can’t play outside in the summer months anymore because it’s too dangerous, Adams said. But that only makes them work harder.

“This round ball can get you wherever you want to go,” Adams said.

Adams works with the school’s principal to mentor and help children across the school, not just on his team. Parents have said they sent their kids to Orr Academy because of him.

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“We have students in this building who beat all odds,” said Principal Dr. Shanele Andrews, who calls the school a “diamond in the rough.” “They come in every day with a heavy lift on their back and they come in and they do exactly what they’re supposed to do.”

The school was among 10 Chicago Public Schools to receive thousands of dollars in funding from local icon and hit artist Chance the Rapper.

While school officials can’t always keep the violence away, Adams said basketball helps his players overcome.

In 2014, a star player at the school was shot in the leg when a gunman opened fire at a house party in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.

"When I heard he had a gun, I got down on the ground and I just heard shots rang out -- multiple shots. My leg started to feel funny after that, and once I got up, that's when I knew I got shot," Tyquone Greer told NBC5 days later.

Greer says the first thing he thought about after he was shot, was basketball. Somehow, he managed to recuperate in time to hit a game-winning three-point shot for his Spartans basketball team, punching a ticket to the state basketball tournament for the second year in a row.

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Adams has continued to coach his players with every ounce of passion he has in him.

“I just think that I have the know-how and the will for the kids to understand that there’s more life than that,” he told NBC News.

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