Welcome to the Midnight League. On these Wednesday and Saturday nights – which punctuate three 10-week seasons during the spring, summer and fall – about eight teams square off , with four games played each day. As the buzzer sounds to end the night’s first game, Nate Hubbard, his jersey drenched in sweat, jogs off the court. He’s a member of the Hillside-In the Cut team, named after the Hillside neighborhood. Life in this gym on the near South Side has a different rhythm than the neighborhoods where many of the players live, places scarred by violence. “I see it every day,” says Hubbard, who is 21.
The Midnight League isn’t open to just anyone. In fact, it has the opposite expectations and requirements of many opportunities in these men’s lives. The league was designed for unemployed (or underemployed) men or others struggling with social ills – and not high school kids, who are barred. During the last season, some 88 joined in.
“These guys are the most vulnerable,” says Keelyn Tyler, one of the volunteer coaches. “If they had other positive interactions going on, they probably wouldn’t be here.”
A player on the 414 Work team, 21-year-old Armani Thompson is soft-spoken, currently unemployed and would love to play college ball somewhere. But he has no immediate prospects.
“I don’t want to stay in Milwaukee,” he says. “I’m tired of the same faces.” And violence, he says, “It’s all around me.”
On game nights, the action starts at 8 p.m., and some of the men stick around for the full duration. “I love it,” says Hubbard. “We watch everybody play. We cheer them on.” In between, local organizations hold sessions on fatherhood and help with employment, healthcare, getting a driver’s license back and applying for education.
The experience has a positive impact on the men that goes beyond basketball, according to Tyler.
“They become a lot more mild-mannered,” he says. “They are used to having outbursts whenever they want. With this structure, if you have an outburst, you are suspended for a game.”
Hubbard carves out a living as a personal care worker, with a side gig at the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, where he works with youth. A 6-foot-tall guard with a sturdy build, Hubbard was a star basketball player at Washington High School and played briefly at Gogebic Community College in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He’s hoping for another shot, somewhere, maybe at the junior college level. In the meantime, he sharpens his game at the Midnight League.
Which leads him, after the game’s conclusion, to a dimly lit atrium at the high school, seated next to other sweaty players, listening to a presentation about Milwaukee Area Technical College. “I know you all want to play ball, but this is the business side of life,” says Larry Burton, an instructor at the school, his voice rising. “What does your life look like? That’s what you need to start thinking about.”
Milwaukee Ald. Khalif Rainey – who represents a district on the North Side – began to push for a Midnight League in 2016, when he was a county supervisor, and he became even more convinced of the need for one after the Sherman Park disturbances.
Technically, the league, which kicked off in early 2017, is a revival. Similar organizations popped up in nearly 50 cities during the 1990s, including the In the Paint at One-Two league in Milwaukee, launched in 1992 at the Hillside branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee as an alternative to drugs, gangs and violence.
President George H.W. Bush anointed midnight basketball leagues as one of his “thousand points of light,” and President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill earmarked funding for the program. However, debate about the bill led critics to point to a lack of concrete statistics showing the groups had any effect on crime. By the turn of the century, most leagues had faded away, including Milwaukee’s, as public funding dried up. The current version is a collaboration between Milwaukee Public Schools, the Running Rebels Community Organization, the City of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Bucks and MPD.
While it’s too early to compile any meaningful statistics on the Midnight League’s newest incarnation, Milwaukee Police Department Captain Ray Banks says, “It has to have a positive impact in some way. They are here. They aren’t in trouble. Some of these kids coming through those doors have had no hope.”
MPD’s commitment to the program is such that one of its sergeants, Delmar Williams, is a volunteer coach. “It humanizes us,” he says.
David Hughes, 25, is tall and slender, with short-cropped hair and a beard, and he’s one of the oldest participants in the league. During the day, he works as a student intervention specialist at Bradley Tech, counseling kids with behavioral issues.
He’s on the verge of aging out of the league, but he keeps coming back. “I went to college, but this still keeps me away from the danger in the streets,” he says. “Basketball brings you here, but the opportunities and the enrichment programs give everyone a chance to better themselves and their families.” ◆