A foot-stompin', hand-pumpin' crowd of 3,000 is shaking the rafters at Malcolm X College just west of the Loop in Chicago on this November night. Stirring up the fans is an all-star basketball game matching the best players from the Henry Horner public-housing project against those from the Rockwell Gardens project. The point guard for Horner, 20-year-old Dyonne Bowman, pounds downcourt and executes a flawless head fake and blind pass to his power forward beneath the basket. Two points. Bowman's neighbors jump to their feet and do Arsenio Hall's "Woof! Woof!" cheer or jeer at the crowd from Rockwell. "You were used," screams one girl, pointing her finger at the opposition. An infant barely four months old sleeps through the din on his mother's lap.
Welcome to the Midnight Basketball League, a six-year-old program whose aim is to keep black inner-city males off the streets by keeping them in the gym during some of the hours when they would most likely get into trouble. The league has taken hold in 20 cities across the country, but nowhere is the need for such a program more acute than in Chicago, where the school dropout rate for black males hovers around 50%, and where it is likely that this year alone at least a quarter of black males between the ages of 20 and 29 will spend time in Chicago-area jails. But the Midnight League is providing a glimmer of hope.
"When he was a kid, I used to hate basketball," says Bowman's stepmother, Bernadine Pointer. "He would never go to school. He was always playing that damn game. But this Midnight League is keeping him away from the gangs. It gives him a goal and exposes him to people with ambition. Dyonne wants to go to college now. He even paid the $15 out of his own pocket to take the GED [General Equivalency Diploma]."
Games are played two nights a week, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.—peak crime hours—and each of the 32 10-man teams has a coach. Games are officiated by high school and college referees, and the players, who range in age from 18 to 25, have uniforms. The program is sponsored by the Chicago Housing Authority, and private investors pay $2,000 apiece to be "team owners."
Apart from the basketball, league players are required to attend seminars on alternatives to the game. "We bring in black lawyers, small businessmen, even bus drivers," says Gil Walker, the commissioner of the Midnight League's Chicago program. If a player misses a seminar, he sits out the next game. Of the 160 players who participated in Chicago last season, 49 have found full-time jobs through the league. For example, Burtrell Selph, a forward from Horner, is an arbitrage clerk on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange who works there during his school vacations. He attends college full-time and has been promised a job on the exchange when he graduates.
"I was watching the Financial News Network one night and saw Burtrell interviewed for a story on Midnight Basketball," says Mark Metzger, who is a futures broker on the exchange. "Burtrell handled himself so well. I was impressed. So I tracked him down, and now he's here and doing quite well. But I did tell him that I wouldn't help him unless he finished his college education."
This year, for the first time, the Midnight League has two seasons: December-May and July-November. Both have tryouts, weekly practices, a seven-game regular-season schedule and a championship playoff series. Last year there was even a black-tie awards dinner, but the premiere event, which fell toward the end of the season in November, was the all-star game.
"Not only are the players into this game," says Walker. "Look in the stands. Here are two communities in desperate need of a rallying point cheering their teams with pride."
Rockwell's ball. Anthony Patty, who won a slam dunk contest earlier in the evening, takes control just past midcourt, powers through traffic and then soars off the floor, cradling the ball before hammering it into the basket with Jordanesque flair. "Michael! Michael!" roars the crowd, in reference to the Bulls' superstar.
Patty is in his early 20's and jobless. "This league keeps people out of trouble," he says. "There's not much to do around here but stick up and shoot people. Now people can come and watch us play ball."