First Jack Kemp tossed the ball up. The two centers leaped for it, but other than that nothing happened. Nothing athletic, that is. A whole lot of cameras clicked and whirred. Next it was Mayor Daley’s turn. Same thing. No jostling or running for the ball, but lots of flashes and snaps.

“Can we do it for real now?” shouted someone in the stands. But Vince Lane hadn’t had his photo opportunity yet, so the answer, implicit but definite, was no. Finally, after Lane had gone through the motions, a genuine referee in regulation stripes rather than pinstripes tossed up the ball. This time hardly any cameras recorded the moment. As far as the media were concerned, the game was over before it began.

Long before last week’s opener at Malcolm X College, the Midnight Basketball League, the Chicago Housing Authority’s new program to keep gangbangers’ shooting and stealing confined to the gym, had attracted a full-court media press, including two stories in the New York Times. Before the tip-offs, ten television cameras recorded Kemp strutting out to the microphone with a pair of Air Jordans slung over his shoulder. They taped him talking, sometimes in mock jive, about everything from Michael Jordan’s hang time to how Midnight Basketball was linked to the peaceful revolution in Eastern Europe. The league, Kemp proclaimed, was an example of making “democracy work right here at home.”

The next day the Sun-Times covered the game by putting Mayor Daley on page one. As for the basketball game itself, the paper’s story inside got both the score and the winner wrong.

Steve Jefferson, 24, came to the league after hearing about it from a friend. But he left gang life in 1986, long before Midnight Basketball came around, when his brother and fellow gang member was shot dead.

Steve is married with three kids–a set of one-year-old twin girls, Katrina and Katrice, and a newborn named Kiara. He and his wife are unemployed, but, Steve says, “My wife’s on aid.” I ask Steve to spell Kiara’s name, as I’m not sure I’ve got it right, but he demurs. “I can’t really, you know, spell it right off.”

Quixotically, the goal of Midnight Basketball is to snatch its 160 players out from under the crush of urban poverty long enough for them to pick themselves up and escape it on their own. The dribbling and the lay-ups and the fancy footwork–as well as counseling when needed for drugs or jobs or whatever–are supposed to accomplish for these kids what the New Deal and the Great Society couldn’t.

Or just about. “I don’t want to be so naive or complacent as to think basketball is going to cure all ills,” says league commissioner Gil Walker, who grew up in the projects of Gary, Indiana. Still the commissioner is clearly high on his program. “Basketball is what I used [to escape the ghetto] and what I believe in,” he says. “When you play in a league, you’ve got to learn the rules and regulations on the court–the ref is right there watching everything. And what happens when you go to the lot to play after you’ve played in a league? You play by the rules. We’re hoping they’ll learn the rules of life off the court–and hopefully, they won’t need a policeman there all the time.”

Allen Eaton is more cynical. Probably the only player from the suburbs, Eaton is here from Oak Park on the invitation of his old college teammate Chris, who now lives in the Robert Taylor Homes, and because Eaton likes playing ball with inner-city players. Why? “Because it’s a lot more vigorous, a lot more violent,” he says with a smile.

Does he think the league will work? “I hate to sound negative, but no,” he says. To the contrary, Eaton thinks the whole program could backfire. “I think this will be a tool for gang unification,” he says softly. “Kids will use colors for anything. You let them have those sweats, and they’ll use them for colors.”

Eaton means the colors that gangs claim for their own. Wear the wrong one in the wrong territory, and you’re cruising for a whole lot of trouble. Eaton’s home away from home while growing up was his grandmother’s house on the west side. He remembers being pressured as a teenager to join the gangs. He resisted, but, he says, “I made a lot of friends. I go over there now and they’re either in jail, they’ve been shot a couple times and lived, or they’ve been shot and haven’t lived.

“The program’s for 18- to 25-year-olds, right?” Eaton asks. “See, at that age, it’s not going to change ’em. If they had caught ’em earlier–13 or 14–they would have had a chance.”

Mike Moseley, coach of one of the league’s 16 teams, doesn’t flinch from Eaton’s reality. “But hey,” he says, “if we get 10 out of the 160, it works.” Larry Hicks, a spectator who describes himself as having “been there twice and been back twice but now I think I’m on the right road,” takes Moseley’s logic all the way. “If it helped maybe one person, you know, it would benefit if it helped one person, if it reached out and saved one person.”

Stanley Scott, 25, reckons he’s been out of work “for about seven, eight years.” He’s been a member of the Black Disciples “for a while, some years.” The program might work, he says, but he doesn’t seem too concerned either way. And what position does he like to play? “Hey, I’m out there, just I’m out there.”

At halftime it’s a one-point game, with the Bulls leading the Hornets 15-14. In the Bulls’ locker room, coach Curtis Brown, a husky man in a T-shirt that looks too small, even though it’s probably an extra large, exhorts his players to move aggressively toward the ball. “Just come at the ball,” he says, demonstrating what he means with a mock dive to the floor. Then, ambling about in a demonstration of what not to do, he cracks up his all-black team by admonishing, “Don’t laze about like a nigger.” Then he claps and says, “Let’s take ’em.”

The Bulls come back out to the court in time to see the famed Jesse White Tumblers finish their halftime show with midair swoops and arabesques to make even angels envious. Then it’s back to the game.

Allen Eaton, the Oak Parker, who was fairly quiet the first half, comes alive. He scores on several aggressive lay-ups, one with enough hang time to make one fan yell out a comparison to Michael Jordan. Meanwhile his old teammate Chris Buchanan adds a free throw, and the Bulls look pretty. At the final buzzer they’re on top 28-23.

Wondering if the heat and enthusiasm of the game have changed Eaton’s mind about its larger purpose, I ask him if he now thinks the program will work. “No,” he says almost reluctantly, “I still don’t think it will.” He wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his arm and adds, “But the game sure was fun.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.