THERE are more than 8 million people in New York City, and practically none of them know about this basketball game tonight. The gym is at the Mitchell Houses, a low-income project in the gloomy South Bronx. It's late, and the place feels as empty as a movie theater after the midnight show. Yet Bobby Hunter is pacing the sideline, exhorting his players as though college basketball's ``Final Four'' tournament were on the line. ``Man to man,'' he shouts, in an outburst of strategic frenzy. ``MAN TO MAN.''
During a brief lull in the action, Mr. Hunter says, ``This is the Final Four. They are playing to win and the bonus that they may get is part of their life back. That's a pretty great trophy.''
The players seem no different from ones that frequent playgrounds throughout the city. Except for this: They all live in shelters for homeless men. They have drug problems and legal problems, and many have other problems. But for these two hours, they are out of that world.
Hunter started this league with his friend Nate ``Tiny'' Archibald, the former Boston Celtics guard who grew up in the Mitchell Houses. There are three teams so far. They play one another as well as church teams and the like. Tonight Mr. Archibald is serving as referee, and his mere presence seems to charge up the players the way high school players respond when a college scout is in the stands. And there's Hunter, formerly of the Harlem Globetrotters, eyeing every move, dispensing his lyric blend of jock discipline and hip ghetto banter.
This game matters. Somebody cares. ``Basketball reminds them of their life when things were better,'' Hunter wrote in the newsletter of the Fort Washington Men's Shelter, where he works. ``And when you do something that you're good at, it returns the good feeling to you.''
In his Black Muslim-style cap and sunglasses, Hunter looks more like a side man for Theolonious Monk than someone who has spent much of his life in gyms. His short beard is speckled with gray, but he still has a mischievous gleam and a teenager's big-footed stride. Last Friday, he was up all night with a man on the verge of suicide. Then he gathered the team into a van for a game in a bombed-out section of the Bronx. ``Bobby gives us tips - stretching, how to eat,'' says a member of the team. ``It really helps a lot of us stay away from harmful substances.''
The Fort Washington Shelter is a grim barracks with a metal detector at the entrance. Hunter's office, which serves also as library, chapel, and all-purpose counseling center, is locked with a combination lock and chain. Time here does not proceed in the ordered segments of the workaday world. Tonight's game was supposed to begin at 7:30, for example. Yet it's 7:25 and the van is still sitting outside the shelter, half-full.
They are waiting for the team's power forward, a fellow they call ``Big Guy.'' A half hour ago, Big Guy was meandering through the corridors, smoking. Now somebody says he's taking a nap. Hunter probably planned for such delays. Wait until 8:30 or 9:00 to assemble and the team would have dispersed into the night. The coach has a lot of little tricks like this. He schedules games on Saturday morning for example, and practices are on Sunday. ``It knocks out a guy's potential of going to the [party],'' he says. ``And these guys, they go to the party.''
Big Guy finally appears, and the van is off through neighborhoods known mainly through crime stories.in the Daily News. ``Hey, there's the 38th precinct,'' somebody says from the back. ``That's the 39th,'' another voice rejoins. ``I seen that place on the inside.''
At a stoplight, Hunter notices a player from the night's opposing team. ``How'd you see me?'' the man asks, climbing into the van. ``Because you're the ugliest man on the street,'' Hunter replies.
FOR a housing project, the Mitchell Gym isn't half bad. The side baskets are missing or bent, but the main court has glass backboards and is regulation size. A high school all-star team is practicing for a charity tournament, and the shelter team sits watching on the sidelines. They are quiet and a little pensive, watching these young men with bright futures before them.
``You can always keep learning. Right, Bobby,'' says a spindly player who couldn't be much more than 20. ``Sure, you can keep learning,'' Big Guy says back, more reflective than bitter. ``But after a while what good is it? All you can do is pass it along to the younger guys.''
Hunter, meanwhile, is watching the practice intently. He doubles as an assistant coach at Long Island University, where he played as an undergraduate, and out of the blur of sweating bodies he seizes quickly upon one he likes. ``He's MEAN,'' he exclaims of a surly forward.
Hunter grew up in Harlem, and after college he kicked around various pro tryout camps. including the Boston Celtics. He never stuck because of what he once described as an ``inability to conform.'' He played with the Globetrotters from 1966 to 1974, and to this day he has an exaggerated, theatrical quality that helps him slip past the formidable defenses of these young men. ``You have to fake to the left and go to the right,'' he says. ``Otherwise they'll react to it and go the opposite way.''
For all his gregarious charm, Hunter reveals little about himself. He deflects personal questions with an ambiguous monosyllable or a bit of homey philosophy, and he parries questions about the players the same way. Asked if one of them is in trouble he replies, ``All of us on this earth are in trouble.''
``He gets a lot of respect, but he doesn't get close to them,'' says Eddie Manes, a local businessman who helps Hunter as a volunteer.
Finally, the homeless teams take the floor. They are wearing pickup gear, though a few have classy new basketball shoes. (One suspects that a question about the source of these would not be appreciated.) Last Saturday, the Fort Washington team seemed scattered and out of sorts. But tonight, with a former NBA scoring champ serving as referee, the players are focused and intense.
A squat, balding guard they call ``Muscles'' drives the lane like a 14-year-old, and the spindly fellow turns out to have an uncanny jump shot. Hunter runs the team hard and substitutes freely. ``You have to be reasonably sober to play this game the way I make them play it,'' he says.
Big Guy is especially impressive. Though not that tall, he has sledgehammer shoulders and he works for rebounds with a relentless fury. Big Guy looks like he could have been a college prospect. But even in the course of two games, problems are apparent. Like several of the others he has a short emotional fuse. A missed shot, a bad call by the referee, and he'll mope instead of hustling back into the play. The previous Saturday, he stalked off the court in anger at the ref's calls.
Mistakes become defeats instead of occasions for improvement, Hunter says. Countering this habit is his continual refrain. ``You nix the negative and compound on the positive,'' he tells the team at one point, obviously pleased at the new turn of phrase.
There is a brief moment at half time when it appears such urgings have found a few receptive ears. The game is close, and the players are trying to diagnose their mistakes. Big Guy is disgusted that the team is moving the ball too slowly, giving the other team time to set its defense. ``We saw the young kids doing it, but we aren't,'' Muscles says.
Towards the end of the game there is a heated scramble under the basket, and an opposing player falls to the floor. ``Help him up. Help him UP,'' Hunter shouts, as though it were the most important thing in the city of New York at that moment.
``And then knock him down again,'' he adds, more to a visitor than to the players. ``The Lord has to be very tricky these days. He's got some very hard cases.''