On the court, off the streets

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Andre Pratcher always dreamed of leaving the savage streets of Chicago for a chance to play basketball. A basketball scholarship to Grand Rapids Community College has given him the chance to make the move.

Growing up on Chicago’s west side in the area of Cicero and Jackson, Andre, 23, was raised on some of Chicago’s toughest streets.

It is an area known for its gang activity and turf wars, where playgrounds are used for gang meetings and drug dealing. It’s an area where an innocent bystander can get hit by a stray a bullet. Several people Andre knew died this way.

“It was rough growing up, you had to know certain things living in Chicago, like what streets to walk down and what streets not to walk down,” Andre said. “Who’s out there, who’s not. What colors to wear and not to wear. Where to be at a certain time and where not to be. It was like that my entire life.”

Growing up, Andre had to wear his brother’s hand-me-downs. Never having a room or a bed for himself, he would sleep on the floor in the hallway.

“Part of my motivation growing up was to get my own room and bed,” Andre said.

When staying at his cousin’s house in the Rockwell Projects they had to sit on the floor and could not sit on the couch or the bed because of the fear of bullets coming through the windows.

There was no pizza delivery because drivers would often get robbed. The police would not come unless they arrived in multiple cars for fear they would get shot at.

The youngest son of Wanda Pratcher, Andre lived with his mother and two siblings, brother Cornelius Brown and sister Juanita Pratcher.

Cornelius took to the street life, rising up in the ranks of a local gang. He has now served 10 years of a 50-year prison sentence for homicide.

”My brother always told me not to follow in his footsteps,” Andre said.

With a mother who knew how dangerous the city was, she protected him as much as possible.

“Mom kind of overprotected me,” Andre said. “I wanted to go to a party one time and my mom would not let me go. I heard the next day it got shot up.”

With his mother insisting that he go to school every day, Andre would ride the Chicago Transit Authority 45 minutes each way to get to Roberto Clemente High School, where he also played basketball.

“Basketball kept me out of trouble in high school,” Andre said, “It was go to school and then basketball practice.”

Roberto Clemente High School not only gave Andre an athletic opportunity and a solid education, it also introduced him to his history teacher and mentor, Ozni Torres.

“I want to tell Ozni Torres thank you,” Andre said. “He is the person that changed me.”

Torres was the first person to take Andre outside of his neighborhood and show him what life was like outside of the “hood.” This included a trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois.

“He was never too proud to take and listened carefully to what was told to him,” Torres said. “He was no wide-eyed fool either, having grown up on some mean streets in his northwest-side neighborhood. It is that rare combination that made me gravitate toward him and attempt to expose him to what his city had to offer.”

That exposure, along with the life-changing moment of seeing his friend shot in front of him, fall to the ground and lie there with blood coming out of his mouth, had Andre dreaming of leaving the city even more.

“It made me look at life,” Andre said. “Live it every day, you never know when it will be taken from you.”

Andre and his cousin Elton Buie would always talk about leaving Chicago and playing basketball somewhere. Buie would leave but not the way he wanted to.

On Aug. 1, 2015, a week before Andre was to leave Chicago and head to GRCC, Elton was shot in the head. He died two days later.

“He wanted to leave so bad to play basketball,” Andre said. “I am living his legacy.”

That legacy and dream has taken him to Grand Rapids. Former GRCC student and basketball player, Greg Fleming, a friend of Andre’s, told him about the city of Grand Rapids and GRCC.

“It sounded real nice,” Andre said. “I came to visit the city and school and fell in love with it. Grand Rapids is a different vibe than the city of Chicago.”

Living just outside the city in Comstock Park, Andre shares a sparsely furnished apartment with teammates Myles Ervin and Abdul McGraw.

“All I have is an air mattress and my clothes,” Andre said. “I don’t need a TV or a Playstation, I am down about school and basketball.”

School and basketball keep Andre busy. His typical day consists of getting up at 5 a.m. so he can catch the bus to be at GRCC by 7 a.m. A part-time on-campus job, classes, practice and library study time keep him on campus until 10 p.m.

“The number one motivation is not being in Chicago,” Andre said. “I am a strong person mentally because of the things I have been through.”

In Chicago they say to keep everybody close to you because you don’t know when that last moment with someone is going to be.

Andre has had a lot of last moments and has lost count of how many people he has lost and is unsure of how many more he will lose.

“When I get on Facebook I see a lot of rest in peace for so and so,” Andre said. “I am getting tired of seeing that.”

Although he’s not sure exactly what he wants to do after college, Andre knows that he wants to help inner-city children.

“I want to show them how big the world really is and not how big their block is,” Andre said. “I want to change their perspective of how everything is in this world.”

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John Rothwell - Photo Editor | The Collegiate