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Welcome to Night Court
Lisa Twyman Bessone
December 02, 1991
Chicago's Midnight Basketball League provides young inner-city males with a brief respite from urban violence
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December 02, 1991

Welcome To Night Court

Chicago's Midnight Basketball League provides young inner-city males with a brief respite from urban violence

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Rockwell's John McQueen, the league's leading scorer, buries one from 20 feet on the next trip downcourt. In the stands, his nine-year-old nephew beams with pride, telling anyone who cares to listen about his uncle. With 1:56 to play, the score is tied 105-105.

The Midnight League was conceived in 1985 by G. Van Standifer, then the town manager for Glen Arden, Md., outside Washington, D.C. "We were seeing a dramatic upsurge in drug-related crimes like house break-ins, muggings and vandalism by 17- to 25-year-olds," says Standifer. "It scared me to death. This was December. I was wondering how we were ever going to make it through the hot summer nights ahead."

Standifer started the league in '86 with 60 players; last year he had 216 at three facilities in Prince Georges county. That program has a three-month season (June through August) because funding for it is scarce. Standifer quit his job to administer the program full-time. "The Chicago Housing Authority heard about our program and asked for information," says Standifer. "Then I was in touch with Gil Walker. It didn't take him long to get things rolling."

Walker, tall and fit, is plowing through the all-star game crowd, pressing flesh with sponsors from KFC ( Kentucky Fried Chicken), providing a sound bite for a local news crew, dashing off to bandage a player's cut hand. "I worked for the CHA for 10 years, coordinating its youth programs," says Walker. "And I've never seen anything that's as popular as Midnight Basketball. We've hit on something here that will make these guys lay down their guns and play in the gym."

Chicago has 40 organized gangs. "You can't live in Henry Horner or Rockwell and not be a member of a gang," says Walker. "The gangs won't let you."

However, players and fans at Midnight League games can't wear baseball caps that identify them as gang members, smoke or fight. As a further deterrent, the city police are present at all games.

The league distributes talented players evenly among the teams through a preseason draft, and as a result, rival gang members inevitably find themselves playing on the same team. "It's good," says Patty. "We play ball together. That starts up a friendship. After games we all hang out and talk."

The players take one other rule seriously: no arrests. "We don't use that as a condition to play," says Walker. "But if they're picked up once they're involved in the program, they're out."

"I'm not going to do anything stupid to get in trouble," says Bowman. "I want to play. Everybody wants to play."

On the floor, seven seconds remain, and Horner leads 110-109. McQueen is fouled and goes to the line. He buries the two free throws to win the game for Rockwell, and as high scorer, he is named MVP. The crowd slowly disperses.

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