The Heat Is Off

Junior works as a custodian for the public school system. "I still come by to see how everyone is doing, to try to be an example for others," he says while watching the action on the court. In Overtown, if you're still alive, out of jail, and employed by the time you're Junior's age, you qualify as a role model. "He's off the streets, he's productive," says Arthemon Johnson, the principal at Booker T. Washington. "Midnight basketball focused him. What more can you ask for?"

Six months ago the program -- which at the time was helping more than 100 people four nights a week -- shut down because it ran out of money. "Before we closed, we kept it going for a month with everyone volunteering their time, and then finally we realized it wasn't fair to continue that way," Murray recalls. "So we closed in March. And once we did that, a whole bunch of these kids got into trouble."

Eleanor Wilson's son and nephew, both nineteen, had been part of the league; they were arrested a few weeks later for allegedly committing a strong-arm robbery. If the program had been operating, the boys might have been playing ball instead. "Most of the young people in Overtown have nothing to do but hang out on the street," says Wilson. "Gibson Park closes at a certain time, and even when it's open it's not very safe. You have to worry about getting shot. And so if you are just hanging out on the street, your mind starts thinking of things to do, and somebody has an idea to do something crazy. And since you don't have anything else to do, you think, 'Why not?'"

Murray says his group used the down time to develop long-term goals and to reorganize the league. He and the other board members also did some emergency fundraising and came up with a mix of grants from private groups such as the Blank Family Foundation, which contributed $12,000, and the Pittman Hall Foundation, which donated $6000. The league was also eligible for funding from Dade County, which came through in early September with $37,000, enabling the league to reopen its doors.

"We have enough money now to stay open into the beginning of next year," says Murray, "and we're still looking for a permanent funding source, a corporate sponsor or something. I believe we are at the point where we can really do some good things throughout this community. We'd like to be able to expand and have leagues in the Grove and in Liberty City. All we need now is money."

Conspicuous by their absence on the list of financial contributors are the Miami Heat and its billionaire owner Micky Arison. Team officials claim they were never asked to support the program, an assertion disputed by George Knox and others who say the Heat rebuffed repeated requests for assistance, even though such an alliance would seem natural. Murray, still holding out hope that the team might change its mind, refuses to criticize the pro franchise. "We've made some overtures, but they seem to have gotten lost," he says diplomatically. "Obviously we'd like the opportunity to discuss our program at length with Heat officials."

But why should the Miami Heat -- which as of last week had spent more than $900,000 on commercials urging voters to subsidize a proposed new arena -- begin now to support a community it has consistently betrayed? Before the Heat played their inaugural game in 1988, team owners promised to build a five-million-dollar community center in Overtown. Now, eight years later, the Heat, having reneged on that promise, is hoping to abandon Overtown entirely by moving a few blocks east, into a new waterfront venue that will cost taxpayers at least $110 million, possibly several times that amount.

When city and county officials suggested they could meet the Heat's demands for skyboxes and luxury seats by renovating the existing arena, the team immediately rejected the idea, lending credence to speculation that one of the unspoken goals of the Heat was to get the hell out of Overtown and away from all those dangerous black people whose proximity scares off potential season-ticket holders. Critics charge that rather than making an effort to improve their community by contributing to programs such as Midnight Basketball, team officials are content to just leave it behind.

"The Miami Heat has never fulfilled any of its early promises regarding its citizenship in Overtown," says Knox. "And there are people in the community -- some might call them cynics -- who feel that the Heat said whatever they needed to in order to get a new franchise in Miami and the arena built on a fast-track schedule. And once they got those things, they backed out of every commitment they ever made."

Knox claims the community center was never built because the Heat kept placing unreasonable conditions on the donation, including a requirement that the center be built in Gibson Park. The City of Miami balked at that stipulation because it did not want to sacrifice land in one of the few parks in Overtown. Given all the empty lots and vacant buildings in the area, plenty of other sites have always been available. But the Heat -- which at the time was being run by Lewis Schaffel -- refused, and over time the promise just faded away, Knox says.

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