“When I first started, I was just concerned with getting kids off the streets during my watch as town manager, but somewhere in the years since then, the program has changed me. I don’t know where, don’t know when, but I started trying to see the world through the eyes of these youths, and I didn’t like what I saw.” — G Van Standifer, creator of the first midnight basketball program.
Nothing about newly elected Mayor Kenny Alexander’s crime prevention initiative is new.
Not the name, which has adorned a myriad of teams and programs throughout the decades — the most famous of which is a now defunct arena league football team which used to play in the Scope. Not the idea, which originated in the mind of a Prince George County town manager back in 1986.
If there’s anything even remotely novel about Norfolk’s Nighthawks it lies in the the level of commitment on the part of our fair city of the cannonball to seek out methods of preventing young adults from killing each other. The idea is simple enough: Give young men in crime ridden neighborhoods something to do during the hours they’re most likely to get killed. Use basketball to lure them off the street, and while you have them use that time as an opportunity to provide workshops focusing on skills that will improve their odds for a better life. In many ways it’s fitting that a city like Norfolk, a city that is arguably the cradle of the state of Virginia, draws upon lessons learned in a program that started a mere 70 miles away. A program that spawned countless iterations all across the country some thirty years ago and provoked national dialogue about crime and urban youth. Instead, the money went towards locking them up.
Of course, those with short memories may forget the political hot potato midnight basketball became as debate raged over Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. Critics derided programs utilizing late night sporting events as bribes to criminals. Liberal proponents of the concept pointed towards lowered crime rates as a direct result. As conservatives seized control of most of our government, funding to divert at risk youth from crime largely went the way of passenger pigeons. That is to say: it vanished from the face of the earth.
I took a few hours to visit the two sites in Norfolk running the program. I left buoyed by what I witnessed. Young men, playing hard. Young men. Who, when they fell to the floor? Got back up. Competitive men. Who, when they caught a stray elbow in a tough game? Shook it off. I saw camaraderie and teamwork. I saw men with futures. I saw the beginning of something that may well grow into greatness.
I believe there’s possibility here. Will programs like this correct the issues that create crime in the first place? Well, no. We’ve much work to do in the areas of economic expansion and social justice before we start to see further advancement in that arena. But if midnight basketball can help keep young black men alive until we do begin to make real progress in this city? It’s a start. And not a bad start at that.
Well done, Mr. Mayor. Now keep it going.