Late-night hoops offer lifeline to young men

June 3, 2009 (CHICAGO) In the 1980s, midnight basketball became an alternative for young men at risk of becoming involved in violence or becoming the victim of violence.

Now there's another late night alternative from the Illinois Department of Human Services and some say it can be a life line.

They aren't professionals, but they love the game.

"We don't like to slow down for nothing 'cause we don't like to lose," said

Welcome to the Safety Nets late night basketball league. Four nights a week, hundreds of young men are either practicing or playing from 9 p.m. to midnight.

The league drafts young men ages 18-26 in six different communities around the state: including four Chicago neighborhoods. They can play if they attend practice and workshops about real life: like keeping a job, parenting, relationships and being role models.

"Some of the guys who are disenfranchised...unemployed underemployed...guys who are out there looking for something positive out there," said Gil Walker, Safety Nets Basketball League commissioner.

Gil Walker is the league commissioner. He says basketball is the hook, but the league is about nurturing productive young men.

"These guys are what we call our ambassadors now and they need to spread the good word that you got to be a good person," said Walker.

Some players say the league keeps them away from dangerous influences and situations.

"The people being killed are people I'm kin to so it's motivating me to do something good and stay off the streets so it won't ever happen to me," said Marvin Skyes, player.

"It's giving everybody something to do instead of being out on the street this late night at this time you're in here among friends and family," said Craig Franklin, player.

Researchers at the University of Chicago are studying ways to reduce violence in the Crime Lab.

Professor Harold Pollack says there is value in rewarding positive behavior and keeping young people busy that time of night.

"Giving young people opportunities for recreation at the times of days that are they are most at risk is important and making sure that those recreational opportunities are attractive and are run in a way that promotes the right values," said Prof. Harold Pollack, University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Keith Sanders said it worked for him. He played in the midnight basketball league in the eighties. Sanders says he was heading down a dark path, but basketball gave him a way out.

"The excitement was in the gym that took all the attention away from the streets ...just come in here and play basketball," said Keith Sanders, Safety Nets coordinator.

Now Sanders is a coordinator for the league and the girls basketball coach at Crane High School, showing a new generation of players possibilities both on and off the court.

Researchers says programs like late night basketball need to be monitored to determine their success rates.

Commissioner Walker says he thinks the program works every time a young man stops by to thank him for the opportunity.

Playoffs start next week. They hope to offer a league this summer and fall if there is funding.

For more information on Safety Nets Late Night Basketball, please call the Illinois Department of Human Services at 312-793-1547 (between 9am -5pm). Also, click here to read their press release.

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