Level Playing Field (2021) s01e01 Episode Script

Midnight Basketball

The following is a presentation
of HBO sports.
I grew up in Park Heights
in Baltimore city.
It changes you when you live
next to vacant houses
and see people die
from violence.
First time I saw a shooting,
I was before my 10th birthday.
Rec centers
were like our Haven,
if you think
about midnight basketball game
and what that culture
meant for the city.
The midnight basketball league is
not really about playing basketball.
It's about the war
against drug and alcohol abuse.
I look at midnight basketball
as one of the great sport-based
youth development interventions
of the 20th century, really.
Our program grew and went to the
larger cities, Chicago, for instance.
It isn't about winning or losing, man.
It really isn't.
It's about just having
a positive attitude, man.
President Clinton told me we need
to do this program across the country.
So, they come up with the crime bill.
The crime bill gives funds
to community activities,
like midnight basketball.
I'd a lot rather have somebody
shooting hoops than shooting bullets.
Our children don't need
midnight basketball.
We need to put swiftness
and certainty of punishment
back into the system again.
To say to a kid that it's a waste
of time and money to help you,
you've got to strip away
your ability to see humanity.
When you don't have anyone at
home, that program is your lifeline.
That's your one escape
from a life that's hell.
My childhood years,
my teenage years,
were in the eighties
and nineties.
And that directly connects
to the crack epidemic,
some of the most violent times
in Chicago.
Around my neighborhood,
we had to kind of create
our own sports arenas,
because we didn't have them there.
You see all the nails?
Those are the rims.
That's where we put the rims up.
So, as we grew up, look, here's even
a piece of crate. Look at that.
I need a nice sprint now.
With the idea of co-founding
Westside Sports,
we want to provide out of school
positive programming for young people,
so that they have a place to go,
to stay safe.
Most important, to have fun. Okay?
The program's been fortunate to have
officer Whitaker and officer Martinez.
Good hustle. We've got another
one next week. I'm getting ready.
They're actual basketball players.
They grew up playing
midnight basketball.
They now have an opportunity
to relive that,
to take those experiences
and help other kids grow from that.
This is important to me, because
it can help to stay off the streets,
because I knew a lot of kids
doing that right now.
Coach Martinez?
He's a good coach,
and coach Whitaker.
And he give me an important details,
like every time I miss a layup,
like go up harder.
And him and my mom went to the same
school, so that's how I know him.
Take that shot.
Think. Think about it.
Either pass it, or then just
sort a normal jump shot. Alright?
When I coach the kids
and mentor the kids,
for most of them, they have
never even seen me in a uniform.
Traditionally, officers,
they have a bad perception.
And this is nothing new.
This has been going on
from generations to generations.
But when I played
midnight basketball as a kid,
the police was here,
so it was a safe space.
By coaching, I can impact
those kids
the same as those officers
did for me.
Three years ago,
with no help, support, or money,
Van Standifer launched
his one man crusade
to use basketball as a means
of reaching young people
before drugs reach them.
The midnight basketball league is
not really about playing basketball.
It's about providing a vehicle
upon which citizens, businesses,
and institutions can get involved
in the war
against drug and alcohol abuse.
I'm Nelson Standifer.
I am the son of the founder
of the midnight basketball league.
My father was
the town manager of Glenarden.
Most crimes are committed
between 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM.
So, my dad decided
something needs to be done.
In reality, this gathering
has less to do with basketball
than it does with what some here
might be doing otherwise.
If they weren't here, they'd be
on the streets selling drugs.
Basketball is just the lure we use
to get them in
so that we can talk to them.
It was a way to get kids
off the street
and give them
something else to do.
But then, there were also
these wraparound services.
My primary concern was
to help to make them
productive citizens
in that community.
And we did that by having
mandatory workshops.
We can teach them
how to fill out a resume,
how to prepare for job interviews.
We had businesses that would hire our
midnight basketball league players.
And we had schools
that would offer them scholarships.
We're giving them a step up.
And we're giving them opportunities.
It kept me out of trouble.
That's the great thing.
I used to get in a lot of trouble.
Standifer's midnight
basketball program,
it started to get written up
in a number of newspapers,
including the New York Times
and some national circles.
And so, that's when the Bush
administration kind of got involved.
His secretary of urban policy,
former football player, Jack Kemp,
was fascinated with the idea of using
basketball to do crime prevention.
People loved the idea of it
because it was cost-effective,
and it seemed to really deal with the
problems in a way that was innovative.
Bush made it one of the signature
of the thousand points of light
It gives me great pleasure to welcome
the President of the United States.
President Bush came here,
in this very gym.
And let me tell you something,
little Glenarden was abuzz
knowing that the president
was coming here.
This country is finally catching
onto the fact
that, whenever the drugs
are involved, everybody loses.
So, Standifer creates the very first
program, late eighties, so '86/87.
And some of the backdrop here
is the attacks on the welfare state
during the war on drugs
of the late eighties.
This is the enemy,
destroying lives and neighborhoods.
Smokeable cocaine,
otherwise known as crack.
These kids are looking at
a $400 billion industry.
I don't envy them,
the choices they have to make.
By next year, our spending
for drug law enforcement
will have more than tripled
from its 1981 levels.
American people are demanding action
to stop violent crime.
A lot of federal crime control
policies actually set in motion
kind of self-fulfilling prophecies
about incarceration and crime.
We see greater investments
going into police departments
and into the prison system,
while federal policymakers divested
from fundamental
social welfare programs.
At the height of the war on drugs,
Ronald Reagan kicks millions
of families off of food stamps,
cuts back welfare budgets,
and reduces federal outlays
for public housing.
What was being called
the crack epidemic itself
justified and rationalized
the war on drugs,
and led to disproportionate rates
of black arrests and incarceration
during the 1980s.
In 1985,
Glenarden, Maryland had one of the
highest crime rates in the nation.
That's when Van Standifer
decided to fight back.
He started
a midnight basketball league.
It gave kids something better
to do with their time,
and new meaning
to Van Standifer's.
From the get-go, midnight basketball
was a racialized program,
not just in targeting black men
as its main recipients,
but in the images
about why we thought
this idea of basketball
could serve the problems of crime.
Streets once littered with drugs
and plagued by violence
have become peaceful
and passable.
Standifer brought together
the liberal and conservative
approaches to crime prevention.
If you are a real conservative,
who thought the only way to deal with
crime was more police, more control,
you could see that
in midnight basketball.
If you're more liberal
and thought,
"It wasn't we need more police,
but we need more resources.
And we need to socialize
young men in a different way,"
you could see
that part of the program too.
We have to start somewhere.
We realize that playing basketball
in the wee hours in the morning
isn't going
to solve the problem.
We know that.
But it is a place to start.
My dad used to say that,
what makes our program work
it was a collective of the businesses,
and institutions,
and the police departments,
and the communities
that we were able
to work with together.
And it grew to a national level.
It really exploded.
I say my first love is basketball
because it saved me
in many aspects of life.
My father was arrested when I was in
kindergarten. He was a gang member.
And he was, I guess,
like the strong guy
or something to like control
where the drugs were.
Well, the police went
to where the drugs were.
And he was the man there,
so he went to jail.
Basketball was my escape.
And it got me mentors,
got me involved in organizations
that joined with midnight basketball
to offer a safe space.
It helped me in so many aspects
that it's still helping me to today.
The mentees that I mentor myself,
I use the same programs that I uses.
It all started
with midnight basketball,
because I just wanted to hoop.
And I got in the room with them,
and the lessons stick.
If in fact you were to measure
the Chicago housing as a city,
it would be the second largest city
in the state of Illinois.
I was the director
of sports program.
G. Van Standifer would develop
a program in Glenarden, Maryland
called the midnight
basketball league.
And it was
a successful little program.
I felt like
it could work in Chicago.
Okay. Good evening.
I want to welcome everyone
to the midnight basketball league.
Midnight league basketball
started in Chicago.
And this was one of the hot spots
for midnight league basketball,
some of the biggest players.
Gil Walker was
one of the founding fathers.
I'm so proud of you guys, I don't know
what to do, man. I'm telling you.
I was 18, 19, 23, 24 at one time.
And if someone showed
an interest in me,
I paid them back
by doing the right thing.
The midnight basketball league
started out
underneath the budget
of the Chicago Housing Authority.
We went out
and found sponsors.
For $3000, you could own
your very own team
in the midnight
basketball league.
He put together Chicago Bulls,
Chicago politicians,
Chicago Housing Authority,
and all of his NBA friends.
It wasn't just on the west side.
It wasn't just on the south side.
He spread it out
throughout the city.
Just amazing to see because the crowd
would come and it was a safe spot.
Cross gang territories?
That did not matter.
It was we're coming
to play basketball.
The athletes were off limits
to the gangs.
And everyone knew it. You can yell
and scream, and show that energy.
And not feel like someone
is going to attack you for it.
And it wasn't just anybody playing
in these leagues.
It was like the top, top guys.
You had games
where the games were so intense.
But even when you had the real rough
and tumble guy down the streets,
they respected the league.
They respect the people
that ran the leagues.
They're playing
for big old championship rings.
And they get a chance to go
to the Bulls game,
because they had a partnership
with Chicago Bulls also.
High energy players,
high energy coaches.
I can remember my brother and I,
we both had 40 points.
You never forget it. It's been, what?
Like almost 20 years from now?
The hairs on your arm
goes up.
That's the energy that you feel when
you're playing midnight basketball,
like 200 people now screaming
either at you or with you.
This is what you wanted for the kids.
You want to give them something.
You know they didn't have much.
Most of them were located
in these housing project areas.
I can't pay to go see the Bulls play,
but I can go into midnight basketball.
The program went viral.
We were bombarded with interviews.
We were written up in every major
newspaper and that type of thing.
One of the things we always
emphasize with these guys,
and that is, the eyes and ears
of the entire world are on you.
We're setting up a class
so you can't fail.
This going to be an easy class
you guys ever been into.
Then, after that is over with, you
going to be what we call job-ready.
It kind of had
all this real good energy around it.
And that league was framed
as this innovative approach
to crime prevention in the inner city.
And so, by the early 1990s,
there was thousands of these copycat
programs that were in place.
If these young men weren't on the
court, they might be on the street.
That was the theory
nine years ago,
when this midnight
basketball program was started.
Now, there are 44 cities,
including Puerto Rico,
that can claim they too
are involved in a program
that aims at building self-esteem
and increasing personal development.
It was one of the few programs
that people could talk about
with respect to poverty policy,
with respect to crime.
It was one of the few things
people really got excited about.
This is the model for what should
be going on every place in this state.
We're going to try and copy it.
Thank you very much. Congratulations.
There was a rash of shootings
in Chicago.
Young men were killing each other.
So, we reached out
to now President Clinton,
implored him to come
to Chicago,
to help us in this fight
to reduce crime in our city.
The president saw all the workings
of the midnight basketball league.
And he told me,
"I love this program.
We need to do this program
across the country."
So now, they began talking
about the crime bill.
Good morning.
For a year and a half now,
I and my administration
have worked very hard
to do the right thing
by ordinary Americans.
Now, our administration and the
Congress must do our job on crime,
so that the American people
can do their job
in the communities
where they live.
During the presidency
of Bill Clinton,
we saw one of the largest
and most consequential crime bills
in the history
of the United States.
The crime bill will put 100 000
more police officers on the street.
But providing more police
and tougher punishment isn't enough.
We have to deter crime
where it starts.
It gives funds to community activities
like midnight basketball.
Midnight basketball
can make the difference.
But why should we have it only
in two schools, or two programs?
We should have it
in every community in America.
In that $33 billion crime bill,
$8 billion was set aside
for preventative
and intervention programs.
And the midnight basketball league
could apply for some of those funds.
So, there's a funny thing
that happens
when the 1994 crime bill
is being debated
in the spring and summer of '94.
And that's that Republicans
start turning against this policy
that had once been endorsed
by President Bush.
Most Americans do not believe
the programs like midnight basketball,
of building Olympic sized
swimming pools,
are going to do much to get thugs
off their street corners.
This bill throws a huge amount
of money around in a way
that is not likely to have
any great effect on crime.
This is not a crime bill.
This is a welfare bill.
Part of, in '94, why Republicans
turned on midnight basketball
and the crime bill was because Clinton
was trying to federalize the program,
because it was exactly
what they didn't want to see happen.
They wanted it to be bottom up,
not top down.
Don't ask the taxpayers in America
who want a tough crime bill
to pay for midnight basketball
in Little Rock or any place else.
The midnight basketball league
became a proverbial football.
Whenever Republicans
talked about the crime bill,
they talked about
the midnight basketball league.
Republicans really fixated
on midnight basketball
as being this example
of Democrats being soft on crime,
and linked it to what
Senator Bob Dole and others called
pork-barrel spending,
that this was a waste of money.
With the pork-barrel spending
included in this bill,
we could put
360 000 more criminals behind bars.
Our children don't need
midnight basketball.
Our children don't need
more arts and crafts.
Our children need law enforcement,
good jurisdiction,
imprisonment, and safety.
In the first couple of weeks,
when Congress was discussing
and debating the 1994 crime bill,
there was over a hundred references
in the congressional record
to midnight basketball.
This is a tiny program.
It was at most $30 million
of a $33 billion bill.
Yet, a hundred different times,
congressmen saw fit
to talk about this program
when debating the merits of a massive
criminal justice policy overhaul.
We shouldn't be increasing programs
for the midnight basketball,
and the teaching the dance lessons
and the artistic classes,
and all of that kind of nonsense
to get at root causes of crime.
We should be putting the money
where it needs to be put.
We need to put swiftness
and certainty of punishment
back into the system again.
All they saw midnight basketball
was as a basketball league.
Midnight basketball
is about a lot of things.
It's not about basketball.
It's about helping youth.
They belittled innovative
midnight basketball program,
but they ignore the facts.
Experience all around
this country shows us
that a little spending
on recreational crime prevention
stops a lot of crime.
Part of why midnight basketball
got so prominent and controversial
is it allowed both Democrats
and Republicans to use codes
that signaled to each other
and to the country
that they thought crime
was a black problem.
It combined the two dominant
stereotypes of black men
and the culture at the time, superstar
athletes and super predator criminals.
I have an open mind
on midnight basketball.
Certainly, while someone is playing
basketball, they're not mugging you.
Most of middle-class America
doesn't say
"What that thief needs is
a good midnight basketball league."
All this 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 NBA star.
Midnight basketball itself
was a code word
because everyone knew where
the programs were implemented.
And even Bill Clinton,
when he was touting the program,
the summer of 1994,
at a housing project in Chicago,
said that the purpose of the program
was to serve people just like you,
speaking to a black audience.
I got so tired when we were
debating that crime bill,
hearing people badmouth
midnight basketball.
I'd a lot rather have somebody
shooting hoops than shooting bullets.
And similarly, when Republicans
were attacking the program,
they were always playing off
of racial tropes,
racial assumptions about who the crime
problem was in the United States.
Congressional black caucus took
the '94 crime bill as an opportunity
to get more prevention funding,
to get more social welfare programs,
programs like midnight basketball,
but also job training programs,
educational programs,
after school programs
for low-income
youth of color.
These programs that had any component
of improving self-esteem
or trying to create opportunities for
black youth were seen as wasteful.
Because if black youth are criminal,
if they're sure to commit crime,
and the only remedy
is to throw them in prison,
so, these programs
were either cut from the legislation
entirely in its final version,
or only appeared as kind of a shell
of what they could have been.
SEPTEMBER 13, 1994
We were so close to getting money
out of that crime bill,
but we were back to square one.
Politics is an interesting business.
I don't claim to understand it.
I think the final result
of the controversies
over midnight basketball
led to the stripping out
of some of the prevention aspects
of the original bill.
Three or $4 billion
of prevention oriented funding
went away by the time
the bill was passed
from what had been originally
And I think that was a pretty direct
relationship to the controversies
that came about around
midnight basketball and race.
It basically made it harder to
preserve all the prevention elements,
and put more emphasis
on the prisons and police.
One of the ironies is that,
by 1991,
we now know
that crime had decreased.
So, the enactment of the '94
crime bill came at a moment
when crime had actually declined
from the 1980s.
And in this moment, the bipartisan
consensus of policy makers
decided to drastically expand
the policing and prison regimes
of the United States.
This legislation,
more than any other,
really precipitated the prison
explosion that we see in the 1990s:
$10.8 billion for minimum
100 000 new police officers,
a $10 billion
prison construction program.
Between 1990 and 2005,
prison construction itself rose 43%.
Today, as a result,
6.7 million Americans are under
some form of correctional supervision,
whether in prison or jail,
or on probation or parole.
So now, we've got to sit and talk
with our young man to let them know
they getting money to build prisons.
They privatizing prisons.
Who's going in them?
Congress could care less
about the young people
that really need their help.
And now, in this day and age,
when you have for-profit prisons,
the only way they're going
to be profitable is to lock people up.
And that makes things even harder.
We ended up
with mass incarceration.
We ended up with so many
of our communities decimated
through this strategy of arresting
our way out of a problem.
And so now,
as we try to get out of that,
what we look back
in hindsight is that,
had we spent more effort
and more energy
on preventing things
from happening in the first place,
how far would we be?
What's sad about the story
of midnight basketball and its demise
is it had nothing to do
with midnight basketball itself.
It had to do with the racial politics
of that time.
We're now in a situation where kids
who from lower income families
play sports at half the rate of kids
from upper income families.
And that's because we have disinvested
in public recreation options.
Let's take a look
at the city of Baltimore.
In 1990, it had 143 rec centers.
By the end of the decade, there were
fewer than 50 of these rec centers.
Kids were on the streets again.
Brandon Scott started
to bring some of that back.
When I think about 1994 crime bill,
I think about how I was turned out
to be a super predator,
just because I was
a young black kid
who grew up
in a disinvested neighborhood
that struggled with violence.
Our rec centers were never opened
in Baltimore on Saturdays
until I was 35 years old.
That looks like investing in
community solutions to violent crime.
I believe that we can do it here,
and do all the other investments
that we need,
and people in communities,
in an ethical way to see our violent
crime disease be cured at the top.
We're still 500, 600,
700 murders a year.
The real true way you prevent violence
is to address the root causes.
We were on the cusp of, on the verge
of, doing those types of things
back then with ideas like midnight
basketball from a government level.
How do we now bring that back
here and into this present day?
A program like midnight basketball,
like Westside sports,
what that does is
it addresses those root causes.
It brings resources
to a young person.
It brings resources
to a family
in a way that goes
beyond just playing the game.
It's the playoffs.
One game, the season over.
It's just different,
something I never seen,
just churches, non-for-profits,
the police officers
are working together
on the same page for the youth.
We all look at officers
in a certain way.
"Like they can't help us.
They just here to lock us up."
A lot of people got that mentality.
But this league, kids being able
to see officers hand in hand
that ain't got nothing to do
with trying to patrol
or trying to look
for something bad.
We got some good officers
right here in Chicago.
One thing about kids,
they know who fake and who not.
Our coaches, they've reached out
to places all over the neighborhood.
They trying to get as many people
on the team as possible,
because they don't want us
out there doing other stuff,
doing stuff
that we should not be doing.
Right. They want us off the streets.
That's why we got the mentor group.
There's so many times
when we've been here,
and things happen outside
that could have hurt/harmed us.
And if we was out there, it could have
been us instead of somebody else.
There's so many times
that happened.
When you get open, when you get it,
make sure you hit it.
I can impact generations to come
just by being nice and having positive
interactions with those kids.
To me, it's really profound
that I can leave that with my legacy.
Not all officers are negative.
People don't like phonies
around here.
But usually, the options that
they give us are real cool people.
They know what they doing.
If I would say, I would switch
them out for my regular coach.
Growing up as a kid
on the west side,
you're going to be faced
with stereotypes and expectations.
And in many times, as a kid,
you have no control or understand
that it's happening to you.
Some of the criticism
that went into midnight basketball
was that it's a waste of money,
it's too soft.
In order to do that,
you've got to strip away
your ability to see humanity.
Taking this energy
and this effort
to be there for a young person,
to think that, that's not worth it,
that's the saddest thing.
I think that's one of those dark spots
in our history, as a country,
we're going to have to atone for.
We're going to have to do a lot more
to try and fix the damage
that was caused back then.
This has been
a presentation of HBO sports.
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