SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Night Court : Inglewood's Late Night Basketball program keeps young men off the streets and teaches them skills that can help in the working world

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first, the guys were in shock. Don Lovett, a mediator by profession, was behaving completely out of character. Week after week he had stressed to the 20 or 30 young men who play in Inglewood's Late Night Basketball program how to communicate politely with other people. But tonight he was cussing at them nonstop.

Shock passed. Then the players, who come from some of Inglewood's toughest neighborhoods, started to get angry, Lovett recalled. How dare he talk to them like that.

"Finally, I pointed out to them that that's how they talk all the time," Lovett said. "They swear at each other and at anybody else all the time, and other people don't like it either."

The exercise was one of many Lovett uses to help the youths see how they come across to other people--particularly possible employers.

For many players in the Late Night league, the conflict counseling portion of the program is the hardest part to take. The lectures and reminders about controlling their tempers are a drag, they say. But they agree to pay attention because a basketball game follows.

Program officials know this. But they don't really care why the young men listen to them, just as long as they do it.

Basketball may be the primary reason the players show up to Darby Park on Tuesday and Friday nights, but for the staff and city officials who created the program last year, it is the means to help a group of young men learn to fit into society and the work world around them--while keeping them off Inglewood's streets.

Late Night Basketball was 1 year old in January. Paid for with city funds, the program targets men ages 17 to 30 who are in danger of being trapped in a life of drugs, gangs and chronic unemployment. In addition to conflict resolution, Late Night also offers job training to the players and, of course, basketball.

At best, officials hope the program will help the young men learn how to change behavior that has kept them on the streets and out of school, and led many to be fired from jobs. At the least, the program serves to keep its participants occupied, making the Darby Park neighborhood safer for both the basketball players and others at least two nights a week.

Initially conceived by the City Council as an anti-crime program, the mediation and job training aspects of the program have become central to its purpose. Paid for with $150,000 in city funds, Late Night contracts with the Centinela Valley Juvenile Diversion Project for mediation counseling and with Innovative Education Systems of Inglewood for job training and placement services. Also provided for each session are two referees, four staff members and an Inglewood police officer whose job is to keep the peace.

The worth (and expense) of such nighttime basketball leagues became a subject of national debate last year. Congressional Republicans, during debate on the $30-billion anti-crime bill that eventually passed, spotlighted so-called midnight basketball as the epitome of liberal social programs whose results do not justify their costs.

*

The Inglewood program receives no federal money and has never been controversial with residents. Even members of the normally fractious council agree on its value. Mayor Edward Vincent has popped in to visit the program and speak to the players. And his opponent in the recent mayoral elections, Councilwoman Judith L. Dunlap, sat through the league's victorious game against the city's Police Department, cheering for the Late Nighters.

"I'm glad that Inglewood officials are (into) prevention rather than incarceration," said Senior Recreation Supervisor Ron Randle, who oversees the Late Night program. "Punishment has its place, but it's not the only way to fight crime.

"Most of these guys, if you give them a job, they're going to work," Randle said. "If you ignore them, they're going to steal."

Inglewood police officers recruited players ages 17 to 30, in part by telling gang members about the program. Other players heard about Late Night from friends or teachers, or on routine visits to the park.

"This is meant for people who are high-risk," said Jan Vogel, who as director of Inglewood's federally funded Job Training Program coordinates the job placement part of the basketball program. "If someone wants to play basketball, then there are basketball programs in existence. If they want job training programs, then there are job training programs."

Between 20 and 40 regularly show up for the Tuesday and Friday games, and that alone is considered a success by the program directors. About 16 men have found jobs or have enrolled in job training classes through Late Night.

"It's important to keep an open mind, because this (works) one person at a time," Vogel said.

And for the players, one of the proudest moments was defeating the Inglewood Police Department, 80-66, in a game during the summer.

The Late Night guys wore black. The police wore white.

The police certainly held their own, but the Late Nighters had more to lose, and it showed in the way they played.

"Beating the police was something personal to us," said Joe Kimbel, 23.

In fact, basketball is something personal to many of the players. Playing with style and grace matters to them, as does having the ability to "talk trash" and psychologically dominate the other team. For some of the young men, the games are the only organized activity of their day, and playing them well is their opportunity to demonstrate their skill, endurance and heart.

"We care about how we play," Kimbel said. "We take our league to other parks and practice all the time."

Off the court, life is more complicated. Poverty is wearing, and contact with the police is routine. Some of the men sleep at a girlfriend's house or at a cousin's or on the couch of a friend of a friend. Others, a little better off, work steadily but seem to make little economic progress.

Their streetwise social skills and clearly defined codes of honor, respect and disrespect, so meaningful in neighborhood hierarchies, do not translate well to offices. Jobs come and go, often because of difficulty dealing with bosses who--rightly or wrongly--are perceived as being disrespectful, racist or harassing.

"We try to teach them some very basic skills," Brown said. "How to behave at work, how to get along with colleagues, getting in to work on time, every day, and other skills that are essential to holding down a job."

Helping the players realistically appraise their work skills and job possibilities, Brown said, is usually the first step toward finding them a job.

He added: "Whenever you take a group of people with no real job skills or job history, it's difficult."

*

When the program began, the players received job counseling sessions as a group. In the past six months, however, the program has become more individual. Before the night games, players will sit down privately with staff from Innovative Education to work on resumes and other nuts and bolts of getting a job.

Often, getting the players to lower their salary expectations is the toughest job for counselors, Brown said.

"When you talk about a real job, you've got to work from the bottom up," Brown says he tells the players. "Why should an employer give a job paying $10 an hour when in these times people are desperate for work?"

If the Late Night players want training in computer skills or other technical areas, Innovative Education will find a class for them.

"The program has worked well for me," said Xavier Willis, 23. Through Late Night connections, Willis, who had been unemployed for several months, landed a job unloading trucks at Hollywood Park Card Club and Casino.

"And a lot of guys, if they weren't here, might be out doing other things. Not me, of course," Willis said with a grin, "but other guys."

Not all the players are unemployed. Some did not have jobs when they first started playing but found them later, and others have held jobs on and off.

Among their ranks are a professional welterweight boxer, an exotic dancer and a deliveryman for the United Parcel Service.

Christopher Williams is the exotic dancer. Lithe and soft-spoken, he explains that he decided to pursue a career "fulfilling female fantasies" after he was shot in the back last year while playing basketball at another court in Inglewood.

"While I was recovering I got really skinny, so then I started working out, lifting weights," Williams said.

Harder than finding a job, for some, is resisting the familiar excitement of the streets.

"If you grow up that way, then it's just what you're used to," Kimbel said.

For the older men who staff the program, Inglewood has a different kind of pull. Many of them grew up in the city and return for the two nights a week out of love for their community.

Cameron Bowles, a teacher at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, returns to help supervise the games or to play ball with the guys.

"Ron (Randle) asked me if I wanted to participate, and there was never a question," Bowles said. "I think that all the (staff members) here think it's important to contribute to the community. We all grew up here. We went to school here."

Jonathan Sutton, the Late Night program coordinator, played professional football for seven years, in Canada and in the short-lived United States Football League. He brought his family back to his hometown to live and work in Inglewood.

"If nothing else, I hope it gives (participants) a place to come where they can have a good time and stay out of trouble," Sutton said. "But other things the program offers, like the conflict mediation, can only help them in whatever they do. There will always be conflicts in life, whether it's on the job or at home or anywhere else."

*

In spite of its success attracting players and guiding some to employment, the program has not been without glitches. At one point during the summer, players refused to play for a couple of weeks on the grounds that their participation in the program had not led to employment.

Many of the players think the city needs more such programs to help keep other men off the streets.

City officials do not agree entirely.

"(We don't) necessarily need more Late Night Basketball programs," Vogel said. "In a way, if it were successful, we would offer Late Night basketball and nobody would come--they'd all be in bed getting ready for work the next day."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°