This article is part of Our City, a series focused on how people around the United States use public and shared spaces to build community.
It was just before midnight in Oakland, Calif., but the lights were on at the basketball multiplex and Freddie Barrow had the ball in his hands.
Barrow, 24, walked the ball up the court, the squeak of his sneakers announcing his presence. Ocie Williams, a 27-year-old semipro player, crouched into a defensive stance. And Davone Oliver, 47, sat in the bleachers watching intently as two of his mentees competed in the championship game of the local Midnight Basketball league on an evening in early August.
The program has been a lifeline for all three men. In a city where some neighborhoods are increasingly defined by housing insecurity and violence, this chapter of the Association of Midnight Basketball provides a refuge for young, mostly Black men. When the gym door closes, it shuts out questions about race and policing that have shadowed the city — and, just as important, it offers a chance to build community.
“This is almost like our own safe sanctuary,” said JuMaal Hill, the 46-year-old police officer who serves as the West regional director of Midnight Basketball and the director of the Oakland Police Activities League, which runs the local Midnight Basketball chapter.
Basketball is a sport predicated on trust. It can build bonds that, in a city like Oakland, might otherwise be found in gangs. As of Sept. 26, 137 of the nearly 450 shootings and homicides in the city this year were group- and gang-related, according to the Oakland Police Department. For players, the league is a way to feel connection — with themselves, with a loved one they miss or with the way they felt before Oakland taught them to live with loss.
“You could be outside with the wrong people, whole time you could be here, with the right people,” Barrow said.
The program’s origins date back to 1986, when G. Van Standifer, the town manager of Glenarden, Md., started the inaugural chapter in his city to keep young men off the streets on Friday nights.
The organization, then known as the National Association of Midnight Basketball League, soon expanded across the country, with chapters eventually opening in 50 cities. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues found that “cities that were early adopters of officially sanctioned midnight basketball leagues experienced sharper decreases in property crime rates than other American cities.”
But Douglas Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and one of the paper’s co-authors, conceded that the study didn’t tell the full story.
“We lacked the data to isolate Midnight Basketball as the cause of this,” Hartmann wrote in an email. “It was likely because Midnight Basketball programs were in cities that had more social intervention and crime prevention initiatives in general.”
President Bill Clinton earmarked $50 million to nationalize the program as part of his 1994 crime bill, but the funding was removed after the program was criticized by Republicans in Congress as “pork barrel,” as Senator Charles E. Grassley put it. By 2004, all but nine chapters had closed down because of funding problems.
Today, the organization is back up to 20 chapters, and few better encapsulate its mission than Oakland’s. The league fields up to 16 10-player teams for each eight-to-10-week session and operates on an annual budget ranging from $150,000 to $180,000, according to Howard Gamble, the league’s director. (The program’s two biggest sponsors are Kaiser Permanente and the Alameda County Probation Department.) On game nights, athletes receive jerseys and meals and attend life skills workshops in which guest speakers discuss conflict resolution, employment opportunities, probation, parole and more.
Oakland is grappling with increases in violent crime, triggered in part by the destabilizing effects of the pandemic, according to some criminologists (the Oakland Police Department investigated 134 homicides in 2021, the most since 2012). Midnight Basketball offers a blueprint for an alternative approach to crime prevention, through life coaching. Where the city’s systems have failed, locals have created their own support network.
Kevin Grant, who runs the workshops, took center stage a few hours before the championship. An ex-convict in his mid-60s, Grant speaks with a preacher’s cadence. But he had been awake for two days — troubled by the shooting of a young man at a recent peewee football game — and as he paced the room with weary eyes he sometimes stumbled over his words. Grant watched the athletes, whom he calls his “loved ones,” and hugged them before the game began.
“When I see you guys embracing each other and activating like that, it makes me emotional,” Grant said, with urgency in his voice. “This is where we should be.”
‘Anything could happen to you, because you are a Black male.’
Davone Oliver often cites himself as a cautionary tale for members of the program. He was reluctant to share details, but noted that he spent much of his youth on the streets.
“I was thrown to the wolves, so I became a wolf,” he said.
In his teens, he met Gamble, then a site director for Midnight Basketball. Gamble eventually persuaded Oliver, who had spent time in a juvenile facility, to join the first iteration of Oakland’s Midnight Basketball league, which he started with Melvin Landry in 1993. (By 1995, the national organization’s headquarters were in the city.) When Oliver got older, he joined Gamble on the sidelines in a recreation league, but in 2007 he started a three-year stint in prison on drug charges. Oliver said being away from his son, Davone Jr., changed him.
“I think it broke me down to the point where I’m like, I really found something I loved more than life itself, and they took me away from it,” Oliver said.
When he was released for the second time in 2010, Oliver received Grant’s blessing to train his son and his girlfriend’s son at the recreation center.
He also started to train neighborhood kids like Barrow and Williams — as well as Williams’s friend Bernard Meshawn Beard, who went by his middle name.
To play basketball with Beard, Williams said, was like sharing the stage with a celebrity.
“It’s like people saying if they knew Tupac or Nipsey Hussle,” Williams said of Beard.
At an all-star game held just after their senior season at Oakland High School, Williams got open and made eye contact with Beard, who tossed an alley-oop that Williams dunked. The unplanned sequence was a seminal moment for the friends. “We embraced each other,” Williams said. “I was running down the court screaming.”
Williams said Beard “did college for a few years, and I believe basketball slowed down a little bit.” As Williams put it, “The Oakland lifestyle just got — what usually happens, you know? Just … Oakland.”
On Jan. 12, 2017, Beard was shot and killed. He was 22.
Beard attended Midnight Basketball a couple of times, Williams said, but was pulled in a different direction. And though Williams is now employed as an after-school teacher and is working on earning his bachelor’s degree, “that path could change for me any day of the week,” he said. “I could walk outside and anything could happen to you, because you are a Black male.”
That’s why he continues to attend Midnight Basketball. When he flexes his muscles after a dunk, he feels Beard’s presence and he knows he needs to keep playing.
‘It saved him.’
Barrow, much like Williams, is driven by the memory of dead loved ones.
He wears a diamond-encrusted pendant bearing the Midnight Basketball logo on a gold chain, his prize for winning an essay contest. He had written about the deaths of his parents.
After they died, he felt “lost in space, until I met the midnight league,” he wrote in his essay.
Barrow’s father died in 2018. The next year, on his 21st birthday, Barrow’s mother died of alcohol poisoning. Ten days later, he first stepped into the Midnight Basketball gym and tried not to let his anger affect his game.
Barrow kept coming back as he bounced around from home to home.
“It saved him,” said Oliver, who recruited Barrow to the league.
Barrow tried to bring his older brother Garrett, who he said had been struggling with drug use, to this summer’s session. Barrow had given him a key to his apartment, and he figured Midnight Basketball could provide healthy structure. But Oakland tends to prey on its most vulnerable.
In mid-June, four days before the season started, Barrow dropped his brother off at a friend’s house and told him to call when he needed a ride home. Barrow’s phone never rang.
He couldn’t find Garrett, no matter how many people he contacted. In late July, he learned from his sister that Garrett was in jail.
‘Anything can happen in Oakland.’
About 20 minutes into the championship, two Oakland police officers, both Black men not much older than the players, sat on empty bleachers several feet from the spectators. Everyone’s eyes remained on the action.
An uneasy truce exists between the players and the police. One evening years ago, officers planned to show up at the gym, having received a tip that a man with a warrant for homicide was inside. Hill convinced his colleagues to pursue the arrest at a different time.
“I’m sure the police could get a whole bunch of stats out of this gym, with arrest warrants and different things,” said Hill, who wears his badge on a silver chain during games. “We don’t bring that up in here.” Grant estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the men at each session are on probation or parole, and another 10 to 15 percent are closely associated with someone who is. (Hill estimated that more than half of the players are associated with someone on probation or parole.)
The program’s affiliation with the Oakland Police Activities League is a deal breaker for some. Cat Brooks, a local activist and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, said it amounted to “putting lipstick on a pig.”
“Law enforcement is not a friend for Black and brown children,” she said. “I guarantee you the same kids that are on that court right now are going to be profiled, targeted, arrested, beaten, incarcerated.”
After the championship, Oliver helped award trophies to Williams and his teammates. Williams, who scored 10 points, was among the last to leave the gym, accepting kudos from teammates and opponents.
Despite the defeat, Barrow wore a smile (and carried a second-place trophy). He knew his parents would be proud: He had moved into his own apartment, maintained work with food delivery services and felt supported by the Midnight Basketball community.
A few weeks later, Barrow’s second cousin was killed. The cousin had been close with his brother, and Barrow’s sister was fearful their sibling was in danger, too. When Barrow got Garrett on the phone, his brother relayed the details: He was in the car with their cousin a couple of hours before the shooting, and had seen another vehicle mysteriously slow down as it approached. Garrett knew then it was time to leave.
Barrow’s relief hardly outweighed his frustration. “I get it, you out,” he recalled telling Garrett. “But you got to let me know these type of things. You’re in Oakland. That’s the thing. Anything can happen in Oakland.”
One September morning, Barrow called Garrett to ask him to join Midnight Basketball, but the call went to voice mail. Barrow had trouble sleeping the week after. When he called Garrett next, his brother’s girlfriend picked up. Garrett was back in jail, she said.
“I’m like, So that’s why I couldn’t go to sleep,” Barrow said.
Barrow arranged a video call with Garrett for later in the week, when he planned to “yell at him like I’m his father.” The adult portion of Midnight Basketball’s fall session was starting in two weeks, but, once again, it looked like Barrow would be walking in without his brother.