Marquez Crews was in a zone.
On two consecutive trips down the basketball court, the 21-year-old guard for Team 24/7 had launched deep 3-pointers to extend his squad’s lead over the Pittman Panthers.
Then, on defense, he stole the ball and led a fast break in which he ignored two wide-open teammates and threw up another long jumper — almost from half-court.
The crowd at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center went berserk. Atlanta City Councilwoman Andrea Boone danced among a group of senior citizens wearing “Moving Atlanta Forward” T-shirts.
Welcome to the city of Atlanta’s Midnight Basketball League.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens is banking on the league serving as a small vehicle to curb crime in the city by providing a positive atmosphere for young men in the most vulnerable demographic.
Dickens worked in collaboration with the Atlanta Police Department and the Department of Parks and Recreation to launch the pilot program in March, starting with 10 teams.
When the players showed up, they found not just the spectators, but community organizations that could provide information on job-hunting assistance, record expungement, GED preparedness and substance abuse support.
Ramondo Davidson, Atlanta’s executive director of recreation, said the city has always sponsored night basketball leagues, but not one specifically aimed at young men considered at risk of committing or becoming victims of crime. City officials focused on men between the ages of 18 and 25, though younger and older men play, as can those who have become entangled in the criminal justice system and those who have not. There are no restrictions.
“We looked at what type of crimes are being committed, when they are being committed and who was committing the crimes,” Davidson said. “We wanted to target that 18-25 demographic to figure out a way to encourage them to come into our space for a more positive environment, to give them things they enjoy.”
Another five teams are on a waiting list and likely will join the league when the second season begins next month at the Rosel Fann Recreation Center. Players are recruited through social media and word of mouth.
The program started against a backdrop of rising violent crime. As of Sunday night, there have been 64 homicides in Atlanta, up from 48 at this time last year.
The concept of Midnight Basketball took shape in the 1980s and 1990s as drugs and weapons swept into inner-city communities. The first league was formed in 1986 in Glenarden, Maryland, in the shadow of Washington, D.C., which was being flooded with crack cocaine.
When city leaders analyzed data, they found that crime peaked between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. and was being committed by young men.
Basketball, they hoped, would give youths something positive to do.
By 1991, there were 12 leagues across the country, and President George H. W. Bush made it one of his thousand points of light. In 1994, as leagues expanded across American cities, President Bill Clinton included $50 million of his original $33 billion crime bill for “community activities like Midnight Basketball.”
In Atlanta, where games start well before midnight, some players formed teams because they love the game. Some have regular 9-5 jobs. Others are using it as a way to survive by keeping them off the streets for at least a few hours.
At least a half dozen players wear court-ordered ankle bracelets.
“We are just so happy to even have them here,” said Andrea Boone, who represents District 10. “We want young men to be able to come here because it is not just about basketball. It is about life. Their lives.”
Davidson knows it could be a while before leaders are able to assess whether the league is making a difference.
“We don’t expect for crime to immediately come down. But, if we can continue with this process, we can change the trajectory in how crime is happening in the city,” said Davidson, who grew up playing in the Carver Homes rec center before starring in football at Temple University. “If we can maintain this positive narrative, we can curb the violence and the bad actors.”
With 10 teams, roughly 100 players are involved in the league — a mere fraction of the targeted men. And, of those 100 players, many — like Crews, the guard for Team 24/7 — have had no legal problems.
Doug Hartmann, author of the book “Midnight Basketball: Race, Sports and Neoliberal Social Policy,” said that while some programs work, answers to crime problems are more “limited, complicated and expensive than most people realize.”
“Nationally, in the cities that had official Midnight Basketball leagues, we found that there were reductions in crimes,”he said. “But the big thing is, it is impossible to say that Midnight Basketball was the cause of that.”
Hartmann said successful programs often include basketball as a part of a larger puzzle that includes a wide range of social services.
“Midnight Basketball is the hook that can bring difficult populations into programming,” Hartmann said. “Basketball doesn’t make the difference. It is that other programs that you can connect them with. The really great programs are more intentional.”
Midnight Basketball in Atlanta actually starts at 7 p.m. During the Pittman Panthers vs. Team 24/7 matchup, a food truck outside of the gym was offering free chicken dinners, hamburgers, hotdogs and fries, “until it is all gone.” And the lobby was lined with social services groups.
Inside the gym, the atmosphere was festive enough to attract all ages.
My DJDre pumped music, from the viral “Aye Bay Bay” to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
One group of kids flew a drone around the gym, capturing the action. At halftime, acrobats from UniverSoul Circus performed.
Ricky Brown, the public address announcer, did live play-by-play of the action on the court.
“When you got young boys out here, some with ankle bracelets and no hope, it is important to give them a sense of pride and hope. I am one of them, and I know what they need,” said Brown, who runs a business in Atlanta helping ex-cons get jobs. He served 13 years in federal prison on drug charges.
“It shows them that there is a better way,” he said. “If I talk about what they are doing on the court, it might slip into something positive off of the court because they know someone cares about them. The more I scream, the better they do.”
During league play, the basketball is chaotic. Lots of three-point attempts, isolation dribbling, no-look passes and fleeting defense. But the fast breaks are swift and crisp, the jump shots are pure and the crowds seem pleased.
After building a big lead, Team 24/7 let the Pittman Panthers back in the game before Crews iced the 74-64 victory for his side. He finished with what the scorekeeper called the league’s first 30-point game―31, to be exact.
“A lot of kids that get in trouble actually love sports and even people who don’t play like to watch,” Crews, a 2019 graduate of Hapeville Charter, said after the game. “It is easy to get in trouble and be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But this is the right place at the right time.”
This story comes from our partners at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more on the news and events in metro Atlanta and Georgia, visit AJC.com.