Wearing baggy sweats, hightops and a black baseball cap turned so the bill stuck out sideways, Brian Proctor sauntered across the basketball court to pick up his trophy: "Most Valuable Player, Prince Georges County, Maryland Midnight Basketball League."
The 21-year-old former drug dealer, one of the coaches said, is all the proof members of Congress should need to include funding for crime prevention programs such as the Midnight Basketball League in the anti-crime bill now being debated on Capitol Hill.
Yet the program, which started in this county in the suburbs of Washington eight years ago and has spawned leagues in 50 cities across the country, has become the subject of heated debate as the Clinton Administration and lawmakers argue over dropping some provisions from the bill in order to secure enough votes for passage.
Midnight basketball is intended to lure young men off the streets during the peak crime hours of 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. It requires them to attend workshops on everything from job training to sexually transmitted diseases as a condition of playing. Some of the programs require the players to pursue a high school diploma.
Young people between age 17 and 26 are the general targets of the programs, but the criteria for participation vary. Some leagues are aimed at school dropouts. Others are aimed at those who have served jail time. Still others are intended for those who are poor.
The programs' fans, including police chiefs across the country and politicians from George Bush to Bill Clinton, have praised the leagues for offering an attractive alternative to crime to unemployed or underemployed young men living in poor urban neighborhoods--like Proctor.
After dealing drugs since he was 13 years old in the southeast Washington neighborhood where he grew up, Proctor was caught three years ago with $8,000 worth of crack cocaine and sentenced to prison. In 17 months, he was back on the streets--without a high school diploma or any direction in life.
"It's real hard," Proctor said, to earn minimum wage working in a barber shop instead of bringing in $2,000 a week dealing drugs. But the league has helped him stick to the commitment he made to himself while in prison not to get into trouble again.
"If it wasn't for the league, I wouldn't be here today," Proctor said after picking up his trophy before the league championship game Tuesday night. "It started me off and keeps helping me on my way."
Proctor's coaches have arranged for him to start in a GED (graduate equivalency diploma) program next year, and he hopes that he will be able to get a college scholarship from one of the scouts who appear eager to recruit him.
For other players in Prince Georges County and elsewhere, midnight basketball has been a ticket to further education and training or a job.
In New York, the first state to launch a statewide program, players without high school degrees must attend GED classes as a condition of playing in the midnight leagues.
In Chicago, 1,280 young residents of public housing projects have participated in midnight basketball since it began in 1989. With the help of the program, 300 have found jobs and 300 more have sought further education, said Gil Walker, director of sports and recreation at the Chicago Housing Authority. Though many of them had criminal records when they joined midnight basketball, none have had trouble with the law since, he added.
Crowds of 400 to 500 people cram into gyms to watch the midnight leagues, and players win local renown for their play. But at the end of every game in the Chicago league, players must attend workshops where they are instructed in everything from cleanliness to mutual respect to career planning.
"The basketball is just a hook," Walker said. "Once I have them into the gym, they have to listen to the gospel according to me."
Walker takes issue with Republican members of Congress who argue against spending $40 million over six years on leagues like his. Most of the leagues currently are financed through a combination of private donations and local public funds.
"If we don't put money on the preventive end, we're going to pay more trying to clean up the trouble they get into," Walker said.
Prince Georges County Police Chief David Mitchell agrees that midnight basketball is an investment worth making.
In 1985, when crack cocaine first hit the Washington area, the late Van Standifer, the town manager of Glenarden, Md., saw crime in his suburban community skyrocket. Looking at the statistics, he found that most of the crime was committed between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. by young men.
He proposed opening Glenarden Recreation Center during those hours so that young men could play basketball. Once they were in the gymnasium, they could be taught some of the life skills that they had missed growing up. The Glenarden program began in 1986.
"There was a 60% reduction in drug-related crime," Mitchell said, as he watched the league's ninth annual championships. "That success has continued. It's a crime-prevention program that works."
One of midnight basketball's biggest evangelists is Sam Saxton, Prince Georges County's director of corrections.
"I'm absolutely convinced that it is programs such as this that will help us get out of the problem we have with crime," Saxton said.
Even though President Bush awarded the program his 124th Point of Light and cheered its founder for contributing "to the struggle against crime and delinquency," House Republicans have objected vociferously to funding the program during debate on the anti-crime bill.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), called the program "vague social spending" and suggested that including it in the anti-crime bill is based "on the theory that the person who stole your car, robbed your house and assaulted your family was no more than a disgruntled artist or would-be (basketball) star."
But Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who represents the district where the first league was created, argued that the Republicans who oppose it are trying to hide their real objection to the crime bill--its ban on assault rifles.
"Of course this is not the sole answer," he said while watching a championship game here at Bowie State University. "But it makes good sense to invest in programs that give young people at risk of turning to crime an alternative that gives them discipline, a purpose and a sense of worth."
For Proctor, the program stands for that and a lot more.
"There is something about the midnight basketball league that brings out the best in people," he said. "We're like a family out here."