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."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede