Urban Youths Say Night Ball Is `a Way Out'

IT'S close to midnight, and the final buzzer sounds inside a crowded gym located in Prince George's County, Md. Jeyone Muhammad's team, sponsored by a local bridge club, has lost by four points in the final game of the season for the Midnight Basketball League (MBL).

Just three years ago, the 21-year-old black man was suffering a bigger loss. He had just come out of jail after serving time for selling drugs. Wanting to avoid a return to that lifestyle, he discovered the MBL. He recalls thinking, ``This is the way out, man.''

Now a skilled plumber, Mr. Muhammad credits much of his turnaround to the MBL offering him an alternative to the tough street life of Glenarden, Md. In addition to basketball, the MBL also provides players with workshops on everything from AIDS prevention to writing resumes.

In the debate over President Clinton's $33 billion crime bill, which includes $40 million for midnight basketball programs in 44 cities across the country, Republicans have lambasted the spending on this innovative program, labeling it a symbol of liberal social engineering.

This criticism has brought a parade of Democrats to the Maryland gym - where the MBL first started in 1986. They retort that the so-called ``soft spending'' in the crime bill, such as on midnight basketball, is aimed at preventing crime in order to avoid building more prisons.

On the night that Muhammad's team lost, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland gives a speech to the crowd. He is wearing a gray suit in a sea of gold chains, Nike T-shirts, and sideways baseball caps. The clangorous crowd quiets just long enough to hear Mr. Hoyer's first few words. The congressman tries to convince the fans and players of something they already know: that midnight basketball pulls young men off the streets at the time of night they are most tempted to commit crimes.

Meanwhile, in the bleachers, Martha Standifer, wife of the late founder of MBL, G. Van Standifer, is also commenting to a listener about the debate in Congress. ``It's not going to stop us if that bill doesn't pass,'' she says. ``This idea is just too good.''

FOUR weeks ago, the Midnight Education and Sports League in the District of Columbia had its first night of basketball, Ping-Pong, pool, and food - all for free. Organizers expected 100 youths; 200 came.

Founded by a government-backed community development organization in the wake of 15 violent teen deaths in the last three months, the program serves four government housing projects. ``We have created a safe haven,'' says community organizer Greg Rhett, who reports the number of gunshots heard nightly in the area is down since the program started.

Even though the program has received $1,000 grants from Bell Atlantic and PepsiCo, donations from local merchants, and even $10 from an individual police officer, Mr. Rhett says that if the crime bill doesn't pass, ``We will have to suspend our operations to seek other funders.''

Rhett and others around the nation who are starting midnight basketball programs may find hope in how the community is responding to the MBL in Prince George's County.

In Muhammad's game, for instance, one staunch supporter, Mary Dresser, cheers with other fans as she watches a player draw a foul on a missed reverse dunk. ``Does that mean he gets a free throw?'' Mrs. Dresser asks.

Although she doesn't know much about the game, Dresser organizes regular fundraisers at the Laurel Bridge Club - one of eight county businesses and organizations that sponsor MBL teams. Muhammad's team is named after the bridge club.

The benefits of MBL seem clear when, late in the fourth quarter, Mrs. Standifer - who has been cheering for both teams - is interrupted by Prince George's County Police Chief David Mitchell. ``We love you,'' Mr. Mitchell says, giving her a hug. Mitchell attributes a hefty part of the county's 12 percent drop in violent crime this year, and a 60 percent decline in overall crime since the program began, to the MBL.

Says another ardent supporter, Samuel Saxton, director of Prince George's County Department of Corrections, ``If we don't fill the hours of 3 p.m. to midnight with something positive, the hoods will - with their own terrible activities.''

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