Ill. cop buys gym membership for teen who kept sneaking in
A teen had been repeatedly warned about sneaking onto the gym basketball court, but one cop came up with an alternative to arresting him
By Mike Isaacs
Pioneer Press Newspapers
SKOKIE, Ill. — A Chicago teen had been repeatedly warned about sneaking onto the basketball court at a Skokie fitness facility, but one police officer came up with an alternative to arresting him for criminal trespassing.
In late August, X-Sport Fitness workers made good on a promise that police would be called in if they found the boy on the basketball court again.
"We had no choice but to contact police," said X-Sport Operations Manager Justin Pritchett.
He said only a day after being warned, the boy – who lives just over the Skokie border in Chicago – tried to sneak in yet again.
HEARTWARMING! Cop buys gym membership for teen who kept sneaking in: http://abc7.ws/2yvxVJnPosted by ABC 7 Chicago on Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Pritchett said the teenager — about age 15 — would repeatedly walk past the front desk and onto the court. At one point, he said, the boy hid in a bathroom stall to try to elude fitness center employees so he could play hoops with friends.
"He had had a membership, but his mother could not afford to pay for it anymore and it expired," Pritchett said. "All he wanted to do was play basketball."
Skokie police Officer Mario Valenti responded to the call for police that August day. What happened next surprised everyone at X-Sport, Pritchett said.
Valenti offered to pay $150 out of his own pocket, asking fitness center workers how much membership time that would buy for the boy.
The answer was three to four months, and Pritchett called the corporate office to report the situation, he said.
According to Pritchett, corporate was so taken with what the officer was doing that it made its own offer: The $150 would go toward a two-year membership with a total value of $718 and X-Sport Fitness would pick up the rest of the cost.
"We all were flabbergasted here," Pritchett said. "I know X-Sport takes care of our members so after we ran a background check and found out he had had no other trouble, we went ahead."
Valenti and Pritchett said they later learned that the boy, who attends a Chicago school, was an NBA hopeful, a skilled player who had received national attention for his on-court accomplishments.
Valenti said it's unusual for him to dip into his own pocket in cases, but police officers perform good deeds every day without the public necessarily knowing about them.
"At the end of the day, it's not about gratitude," Valenti said. "Most of us took this job to help people, not to hurt them. The job can be negative. For the most part, the job is dealing with good people having a very bad day so you're not seeing the best side of people."
Valenti said the teenager was especially appreciative after he initially didn't have a positive view of police. This made the teenager rethink his attitude about police in general, which was another positive about how the officer addressed the situation, the police officer said.
"It seems like all that's represented (in the news) with police is the bad stuff, and it's a shame, because when I took this job 23 years ago, I didn't think everyone was going to hate you, which is sometimes the feeling you get as a police officer," Valenti said.
Valenti said that during more than two decades on the Skokie force, he always remembers police trying to help people in need.
Earlier in his career, he said, a rabbi's mini van was parked on the wrong side of the street during a snowstorm. It had to be moved to the other side of the street for plowing or the driver would be subjected to a $35 ticket, he said.
Instead, Valenti said he asked for the vehicle's keys, scraped about an inch of ice off the vehicle and moved it to the other side of the street.
"Nobody makes a big deal out of that, but that stuff happens all the time with police officers," he said. "That's not just me. That's all of us."
In the case of the teenage basketball player, Valenti said there were many reasons to do a nice thing for the boy.
"I'd rather have him playing ball than being on the street and possibly getting into trouble," he said.
X-Sport's offer to add to his own generosity is an example that "doing a good thing can be contagious," Valenti said. "I see that all the time."
A spokesman for the Skokie Police Department said it's important that the public sees all of what police do.
"The good stories are not out there," said Officer Eric Swaback. "People don't always know about them. Police do good things all the time but, unfortunately, people have no way to hear about them."
©2017 Pioneer Press Newspapers (Suburban Chicago, Ill.)