Midnight basketball program returns to Oakland

Midnight basketball has returned to Oakland, with more than 100 young athletes participating.

The summer youth program disappeared for about a decade. It was resurrected on a small scale last year, but now has 16 teams playing on Friday nights.

"It's made a difference with me, staying out of trouble," player Daydrien Lee told KTVU, happy for the opportunity to play again.

"I look forward to it, couldn't wait for it to come back, every Friday night this is where we're at."

The league provides uniforms, referees, and two games an hour until 1 a.m. on Friday nights. And beyond hoops, help is offered.

Job fairs and resource fairs will be available at some games, and players with children are offered free zoo tickets.

Players can be as old as 25.

"It's taking people off the streets and bringing friends together," said player Savon Crawley.

"It's a lot of positive energy to cancel out the negatives we would usually do on a Friday night, partying."

The league also has a motto: "no workshop, no jump shot."

"Who in here lost loved ones, in the town, keep your hands up if you lost more than five people," called out Kevin Grant, one of the league leaders, addressing a room-full of players before they suited up.

Pre-game workshops with guest speakers are mandatory, in order to participate in the league.

Over the 8-week program, sessions will cover life skills, jobs, finances, parenting, conflict resolution and relationships.

"When I see you guys come in, I want you to speak to each other," urged Grant, "because we are not different, if I speak to you, I recognize you, and you recognize me, that's a big thing."

Players are also reminded whatever history they may have outside has no home in the gym.

"Some of us grew up in the penitentiary and this ain't it," Grant exclaimed, "so I want you guys to relax."

The league is spearheaded by the Alameda County Probation Department, with assists from Oakland Police and Oakland Human Services.

On the sidelines, some volunteer coaches wear badges identifying them as juvenile probation officers.

Some young players are in custody or on probation.

But the hardwood is the only court that matters on Friday night.

"This is their fifteen minutes to shine," Grant told KTVU, "and we want to keep that going because in our neighborhoods, a little bit of hope goes a long way."

More than athletics, midnight basketball is anti-violence, as one in three shootings in Oakland happen between 9 pm and 1 am.

With families in the bleachers cheering on the contests, it's a safe, positive environment for everyone.

"I had two parents call me and say you let me know my son made it here tonight," noted Grant, "and guess what, I was able to call both and say "they're here."

Some of the younger players are enthused to see how their skills match up.

"I want to meet new people, and I want to see if I can beat them," said Malik Simpson, 16.

"Some kids like playing basketball, but in their areas, it's dangerous" observed Simpson, " but here, there's good competition, you have a good team, and they also try to help you."

If competition concludes August with new bonds replacing old animosities, organizers will consider it a success.

"Our goal is to merge, mix, and see each other- let them humanize each other," said Grant.

It's advice many players take to heart.

"Just shake their hand, ask how they're doing, instead of just mugging somebody," said player Lee, "that's what we need to see, communication, positivity."

For more information, and to donate to the program, go to www.oaklandmidnightbasketball.com.