Shooting Hoops, Not Each Other -- Midnight Basketball League Takes Gang Members Off Street

CHICAGO - It is only a slight exaggeration to say that playing basketball Tuesday night afforded Sam Adams a better chance to see this morning alive.

``As long as these guys are out here shooting basketballs,'' Adams said with a sweep of his arm toward the polished hardwood floor, ``they won't be shooting at each other.

``And they've got to be pretty happy about it, too,'' he added, gesturing back over his shoulder at a group of uniformed policeman and Chicago Housing Authority guards. ``Because a lot of the gangbangers . . . almost everybody they'd be looking for out on the streets tonight is right here.

``So in a way,'' said Adams, a guard for the Hawks, ``everybody wins.''

Welcome to the Chicago stop of the Midnight Basketball League, the brainchild of a Maryland city manager who reasoned that one way to cut into street crime was to bring young men from inner-city neighborhoods out of the cold and into a gym between the prime-time crime hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

G. Van Standifer began the nation's first such program in Glenarden, Md., in 1986. And after successful runs in Atlanta and Hartford, the MBL was launched Tuesday night in the toughest part of Chicago by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who played some hoops in high school, and Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who went on to become secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The federal government contributed $25,000 to the program, a figure matched by the housing authority. An additional $32,000 was kicked in by the ``owners'' of the 16 teams to cover the costs of uniforms, warmups and basketball shoes in exchange for publicity and a pair of seats for the four-month season.

``I'm not saying it's a panacea, it's not that simple'' Kemp said. ``But it's another opportunity for people to realize their dreams and aspirations.

``My kids grew up in the suburbs shooting baskets and there's no reason that kids in inner-city shouldn't have the same ability to dream as kids growing up in the suburbs.''

Kemp, nearly as trim as in his playing days, showed up with a pair of ``Air Jordan'' sneakers slung over one shoulder of a gray wool suit and a crew from the CBS' ``60 Minutes'' in tow. After brief remarks before the evening's first game, he coaxed ``Ooohs'' and ``Aaahs'' from a crowd of about 1,500 by removing his jacket and banking in a short jumper (on his second try) from the left side.

Indeed, Kemp's only misstep all night was to refer to the participants as ``kids.''

In reality, the 160 players divided into 16 teams for the pilot program range in age from 17 to 25 and come from two West Side public-housing developments, the Henry Horner Homes and Rockwell Gardens, where gangs like the Vice Lords and the Disciples hold sway and intimidation and violence are a fact of life.

The gangs, the dominant two in a city in which police say more than 100 divide the turf, begin recruiting members as young as 12 to maintain elaborate and highly profitable drug rings. And it is through programs like the MBL that authorities and housing officials hope to break that cycle of despair - or at least pull a few drowning young men out.

According to several of the players, as well as the few cops watching from the sidelines and housing officials themselves, as many as half of the 160 players are ``gangbangers'' or former members whose involvement with the gangs is only now waning slightly.

``Let's be realistic,'' said Gil Walker, a CHA official and the MBL commissioner. ``The bottom line is to keep these guys off the street during the hours we know crime is at a peak.''

Walker, a trim black man with intense eyes, is nobody's fool. He played semiprofessional basketball in Mexico after graduating from Pan American, and knows full well the game will only hook a small percentage of the players long enough to channel their interests into returning to work on a high school degree, or the job counseling and skill-training programs he is pushing ever so subtly.

``Most of them have got to be gang-affiliated just to survive where they live, so the game is just a start. What we'd like to do is shift the emphasis by exposing them to other things . . . convincing them that manhood is not putting a gun to somebody's head and stealing their `Starter' jacket.

``Getting your degree, that's being a man. Getting milk for your baby, that's being a man. That's why we're getting them all haircuts,'' he said, ``and manicures.

``I never had one until I was grown, and I remember even now how much I liked it. We've got to expose them to things like that, and then the more important things. We're trying to shift values, so we don't expect it to be easy. Basketball, at least, gets them in here. The next step is going to be tougher.''

Walker envisions the league expanding by next summer to include all 19 public-housing developments in the city, but he is willing to make the first planting small.

Already, though, some success has been harvested. Bernard Kelly, 29, came from his apartment at the Dearborn Homes development to see the quality of play, and watching the Hornets' pre-game drill, he picked out members from three competing gangs in the same layup line.

``Henry Horner and Rockwell Gardens are a five-minute drive apart,'' he said, ``and these guys see each other all the time. Maybe this will be enough to settle who's better or who's tougher.

``Maybe the next time those guys run into each other, it'll be, `Hey, man, how's it going in the league?' instead of cursing each other out and going after each other.''

Walker, breathing deeper, more relaxing breaths as the first night winds toward a successful conclusion, is counting on just that.

``We just had an argument in the locker room over a pair of shoes, and we handled it with nothing more than some yelling back and forth. That's progress.

``Because these guys,'' he said, with a grin, ``are used to settling things with a pistol or a knife.''