The Heat Is Off

More than an hour after sunset the temperature inside the gym at Booker T. Washington Middle School is still over 90 degrees. Trapped like most everything else in Overtown, the air is heavy and damp. On the floor, two dozen teenage boys race up and down the basketball court, running drills, shooting hoops, pretending they're Shaq and Michael and Zo. Dreaming of the NBA. In the bleachers a trio of girls whisper and giggle excitedly as the squeaky sound of sneakers on wood reverberates off faded paint.

Leaning against a padded wall at the far end of the gym is Warren Jabali, a former pro from the old American Basketball Association and now the commissioner and executive director of Miami's Midnight Basketball League. The padded wall is a standard safety feature in most gyms, but in this setting it also fittingly conjures up images of an insane man in a secure cell. Certainly what Jabali and a handful of others are trying to do here may someday qualify them for padded walls of their own.

Midnight Basketball, a concept that has taken root nationally, has been ridiculed as a foolish waste of time and money -- by Bob Dole, among others. "I don't understand what all the fuss is about," Jabali sighs. "It's a social-service program that uses basketball as a way of reaching out to these kids. It's not as if the only thing we do here is play basketball. We try to do a lot more."

The option of doing nothing at all is untenable, says league president Jason Murray. You can pass curfews and order these kids off the street, Murray argues, and you can warn them to stay away from drugs (or as Dole so artfully says, just don't do it), but unless a constructive alternative is provided, it's ludicrous to believe they are going to stay out of trouble. "Some of these kids have two or three felony convictions," he says, nodding toward the court. "Several of them have families."

You mean they have parents?
"No, I mean they have kids," he corrects. "They have girlfriends and children of their own." Murray watches as one of the players slips past two defenders and glides to the basket for an easy layup. "Some of them can really play," he notes. "They're stars on their high school teams -- at least the ones that are still in high school. Mostly these kids just lack motivation. They don't know what to do or where to go at night. And that's when they get into trouble."

Nothing attracts them, Murray explains. Nothing, that is, except basketball. "And that's where we get them," he says. The idea is simple. If they want to play in the league, they have to follow certain rules. At first the rules are easy, such as if you don't show up for practice, you can't participate in that week's games (played Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m.). But more responsibility is steadily added. For example, players are soon required to attend weekly league meetings in which the discussion topic is anything but basketball. "They are more like workshops," says Murray.

Each week different speakers address the players. There are seminars in anger control and the destructive nature of domestic violence. Forums are presented on tenant rights and resolving conflicts with landlords. Those who have dropped out of school receive information about how to earn a high school equivalence diploma. Motivational speakers provide inspiration. And most important, the players are encouraged to join the league's mentor program, which pairs them with men and women in the community willing to volunteer their time and energy. "That's how I first became involved, as a mentor," says the 29-year-old Murray, an attorney who grew up in Miami and whose parents own the Modern Fish and Seafood Market, a Coconut Grove institution.

Founded in 1991 by Jabali and Miami attorney George Knox, the league has been struggling financially since its inception. Operating costs amount to about $200,000 per year. The league's payroll includes a $28,000 salary for Jabali as executive director, as well as funds for a secretary and a family counselor who works with the mentors to identify state or federal social-service programs that might offer assistance to the kids and their families. The league also purchases uniforms and equipment, even basketball shoes for those who can't afford them. In addition, there is some pay for coaches, referees, and timekeepers -- jobs that go to people in the neighborhood. When the money is available, league officials award scholarships to a few teens who go on to college. Murray, Knox, the other members of the board of directors, and the mentors do not receive any money.

The primary efforts of Jabali and his volunteers are now aimed at kids under eighteen, but they also work with young adults in their twenties. "They kept me out of trouble," says 25-year-old Lewatha Junior. "If it weren't for the program, I'd probably be locked up right now. It was getting hard working odd jobs, never having enough money. Sooner or later you're going to have to find a way to pay the bills. But Debra -- she was my mentor -- she just kept talking to me, telling me I had to stay out of trouble. She even helped me get a job."

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.

The team's attitude has frustrated Knox, especially in light of the level of support Overtown residents have shown the Heat and the arena, even during riots. "I know that during the last disturbance in Overtown, some young men in the area stood in front of the arena and chided others not to harm the arena," he recalls. Knox also points out that in more than eight years there has never been any graffiti on the exterior of the building, a fact confirmed by the arena's general manager Robert Franklin.

"When that arena was built, they created a sanctuary in Overtown," says Knox. "The residents have treated the building like it was a sacred place; they've treated it with respect. And to date the Heat has not returned that respect to the community." Team officials often brag about how many free tickets they pass out to underprivileged kids, Knox adds, but free tickets and free Heat T-shirts and Heat bookmarks are not going to help change young lives. According to Knox, the team just doesn't seem to understand that fact.

Heat spokesman Mark Pray says the franchise has donated more than $400,000 to various charities over the past year, and he produced a list of programs and groups to prove it. Among the recipients are several AIDS-related organizations, including the Magic Johnson Foundation. Also on the list: the United States Olympic Committee, the United Way, the Special Olympics, the Miami Coalition for a Drug-Free Community, the Paralyzed Veterans Association of Florida, the Make-a-Wish Foundation of South Florida. And this doesn't include the millions of dollars donated each year through Carnival Cruise Lines and the Arison Foundation. This past June -- while the Midnight Basketball program was shut down -- the Arison family donated $40 million worth of Carnival Cruise Line stock to the New World Symphony.

The material Pray provided also lists as one of the Heat's "cash beneficiaries" the Overtown NET service center. NET stands for Neighborhood Enhancement Team, a city-operated office coordinating police and municipal services in the area. A spokesman for the NET office says the donation, which was made this past summer, totaled $550.

Forty million dollars for an elite orchestra.
Five hundred fifty dollars for Overtown.
The Heat claims they also distributed nearly $5000 in food last year during Thanksgiving and offered financial assistance to groups such as Camillus House and the Homeless Assistance Center. This, the team boasts, brought their cash commitment to the Overtown area to somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000.

Which is probably about as much money as the franchise spent producing the glossy, sixteen-page color booklet touting its civic generosity, titled "The Miami Heat: Reaching Out to the Community."

"The Miami Heat always talks good about their involvement in the Overtown community, but when it comes time to deliver they have a piss-poor track record," says Bill Perry, former executive director of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority. "It seems they are only willing to try to help this community when it somehow serves their own interests."

Arthemon Johnson, the principal at Booker T. Washington Middle School, which is about fifteen blocks from the arena, says that on occasion a Heat representative visits his school and talks to the students. "They pass out a lot of material, they hand out T-shirts and things like that, but it's a once or twice a year situation and I sort of doubt the effect it has on the kids," Johnson observes. "It's not a bad idea, but I still think the Midnight Basketball program helps more kids in a real and serious way.


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