Each day, Freddie Barrow wakes up, opens his bedroom door and says “Good morning” to an empty apartment. Losing both parents—his father, Garrett, to heart failure in 2018, and mother, Maria, a year later to alcoholism–has left the 23-year-old East Oakland native “trying to get my mind right.”
On a recent evening in a Jack London District gymnasium, Barrow opened up about his grief before taking part in a preseason practice for Oakland’s Midnight Basketball League. The program, once a pawn in political grandstanding that shaped its image and stripped its federal funding during Bill Clinton’s presidency, is designed to give young adults like Barrow an alternative to the dangers of the streets.
Established during gang warfare fueled by the 1980s crack epidemic, the Oakland chapter’s goals remain much the same today: to curb a city murder rate that has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic. By engaging youth with a positive and fun activity, and requiring players to participate in additional life skill programs, the theory is that they will be safer from the dangers of the streets, and that some won’t themselves become perpetrators of crime.
Oakland’s Midnight Basketball program is funded by the city, county, and contributions from the Oakland Athletics, Kaiser Permanente, and the Alameda County Probation Department. Melvin Landry, the Oakland chapter director since its 1993 founding, has finalized a summer league schedule that plays each Friday, from 6 p.m. to midnight, beginning June 3 at Open Gym Premier.
For Barrow, Midnight Basketball is a reprieve from years of bouncing between jobs and housing. In a way, it helps him make sense of losing his father, who used to boast about his own basketball glory days at Fremont High, and his mother, whom Freddie used to see or call daily.
“It’s basically checking in every morning, letting them know I’m down here and in a happy state, always thinking about them,” is how Barrow explains his morning ritual. He moved to Pittsburg in May 2019 and asked his mother if she would like to relocate there with him. “She was like, ‘no,’ because our whole apartment complex in Oakland, on 92nd Avenue, was literally nothing but family from the beginning of the building to the end of the building. So I saw the reason why she would stay.”
Barrow’s mother, Maria, died one month later, on Freddie’s 21st birthday. Then his housing situation became chaotic.
“I ended up getting evicted,” Barrow said. “I was just trying to get myself back together, so I stayed with my sister for a couple months. Then I ended up being with my ex, then with her brother. We left her brother’s house, then lived in her sister’s best friend’s house in West Oakland. So I was moving house to house, then we ended up getting a spot in Pittsburg again, and then we broke up this past December and I got a spot in Concord.”
At Open Gym Premier, a four-court complex in a large warehouse at 31 4th St., Barrow is entering his third season playing Midnight Basketball. This is the chapter’s first season back since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. Joining him is fellow Castlemont High graduate Antoine Woods, who hoists a Steph Curry-esque half-court shot that strikes a lamp in the gym rafters.
“You knocked the dust off that!” cries Barrow, as particles fall under the glow.
On an adjacent court, 21-year-old Omari Preston is a bit more diligent. The Alameda native and Berkeley High School graduate has rested his phone against the portable hoop, aiming the screen toward the free-throw line so he can watch Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals—a Warriors victory over the Mavericks—while working on his shot.
On the sidelines, Landry shares stories with Stan Hebert, who was national director of Midnight Basketball when its headquarters were in Oakland; Marshall Collins, a former participant who now oversees the program for Alameda County; and Sam Moses, general manager for this basketball facility that formerly housed the Oakland Soldiers AAU basketball team.
“In Oakland, we always talk about, what can we do for our young people?” said Landry, as players entered the gym. “You know, to get them off the street and into a positive environment. So Midnight Basketball has always been that hook and that key for them, to get them off the streets. And like I always say, the real hook is to provide the resources that they need, and help them be productive citizens within our Oakland community.”
A ‘Point of Light’
Midnight Basketball was founded in 1986 by G. Van Standifer, the town manager of Glenarden, Maryland. Youth basketball coach Larry Gray Jr. started a San Francisco chapter in 1992, and leagues soon blossomed across the Bay Area.
At its peaks, Landry said the Oakland chapter operated on a $300,000 budget (15 to 20 sponsors donated $10,000 to $80,000 each) and had leagues of eight teams each in West Oakland (McClymonds High School), central Oakland (Roosevelt Middle School) and East Oakland (Havenscourt Middle School). Hundreds of spectators flocked to games. Citywide playoffs bussed players across town, often bringing gang members into rival neighborhoods.
“That was a challenge because Oakland was territorial,” Landry recalls. “We convinced teams to do it and they came back and told their friends these guys are cool. We were breaking down barriers in our community. We were able to get people into a safe space.”
In the chapter’s early years, Landry reached an agreement with the police to not make on-site arrests. A high percentage of participants had traffic warrants, often for skipping court dates, and were given a reprieve for taking part in league workshops.
“Our case managers made sure they made their new court date,” the director said.
Landry also called out Oakland for not employing program participants with past felonies, when companies like UPS and Sears would. The city changed its tune and Landry said “most of our guys who got jobs didn’t go back to prison.”
An All-Star Game, played at Laney College in conjunction with the Festival at the Lake, pitted Gray’s San Francisco chapter against Landry’s Oakland chapter. NFL Pro Bowlers Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith and Warriors stars Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin served as coaches.
A 1993 article in the San Francisco Chronicle details an unofficial origin of nighttime basketball in Oakland. In 1991, two years before the launch of the official chapter, rival gangs played night games at the East Oakland Youth Development Center. “I figured any positive step was a good one, so I let them do it,” said Connie Dyer, the youth center’s director.
“I’ll be honest with you,” participant Sean Price told the Chronicle. “Most of us would be hanging out on the street corner, selling drugs or drinking, if we weren’t here.”
As part of his “thousand points of light” initiative to highlight volunteerism, President George H. W. Bush presented Standifer’s national Midnight Basketball program with his 124th Point of Light in 1991.
Bush joked about the award later: “You know, when I told Barbara that I’d be visiting a great institution dedicated to keeping guys off the street and out of trouble, she said, ‘George, you spoke to Congress last month.’ And then I told her, ‘No, as commander in chief I want to see firsthand some real American air power: dazzling nighttime shooting, skilled tactical wizardry, and the courageous airborne maneuvers Americans have become world-famous for.’ And she said, ‘Oh, you mean Midnight Basketball.’ And here we are.”
When Standifer died in 1992, his son Eric moved the organization’s national headquarters to his Oakland brokerage firm’s office in Montclair. In need of a national director, he turned to Hebert, a Cal State Hayward graduate with a degree in marketing. The business partners bonded over their NFL team fandom, as both were Washington D.C.-area transplants living in Raider Nation.
From their new Oakland headquarters, they recruited national sponsors and developed chapters that adhered to Standifer’s national model. Players were required to take classes in violence prevention, AIDS awareness, and Black pride and history. There were workshops in social services, job training and financial literacy. Chapter directors worked with police and probation departments to bring at-risk players and basketball fans off the streets after dark.
Money, Hebert said, came largely from signing away Midnight Basketball movie rights to 20th Century Fox. Actor and producer Harold Sylvester–a former college basketball player and the first African American to receive an athletic scholarship from Tulane University–had taken an interest in the inner-city program. By 1994, Midnight Basketball had approximately 10,000 participants across 50 national chapters.
“What we discovered in mentoring is that (the program participants) wanted our attention,” Hebert said. “These kids always said, ‘Everyone looks when we’re doing something wrong. Nobody looks when we’re doing something right.’ The key was we would watch them play basketball after the workshops were over. And they would love it. After they hit that 40-foot jump shot, they’d look to see who watched.”
Midnight Basketball eventually landed a national sponsorship with the sporting goods company Spalding. Hebert and Gray met with NBA Commissioner David Stern in New York to discuss a partnership to recruit even more sponsors. Stern was “very receptive to our programs and enthusiasm and passion,” Hebert said, but a deal was never reached.
‘They just attacked us’
There was one other source of funding that promised to boost Midnight Basketball and secure its future.
In 1994, funding for the program was incorporated into the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—at $33 billion the largest package of law enforcement legislation in American history. The bill, which mainly focused on creating harsh new penalties for a variety of crimes and boosting police and prison spending, was thought to be a party unifier. However, the bill also included an assault weapons ban, and Hebert said the National Rifle Association made Midnight Basketball a wedge issue. Three years after Bush lauded the program, Republican representatives and senators called it wasteful spending under a Democratic president.
“They just attacked us,” Hebert said. “It got down to soundbites where people like Rush Limbaugh were saying, ‘Why should we teach criminals to play basketball?’”
In a 1994 sports column for The Washington Post, sportswriter Mike Wilbon defended the program.
“The Republican windbags on Capitol Hill are saying that a $40 million commitment to Midnight Basketball is symbolic of what’s wrong with President Clinton’s crime bill,” wrote Wilbon, now an ESPN fixture. “A character from Texas, Rep. Lamar Smith, said during a floor debate last week, ‘All this on the theory that the person who stole your car, robbed your house and assaulted your family was no more than a … would-be NBA star.’ Another genius, Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), says that when the Republicans hear about Midnight Basketball they laugh. Very fortunately, their constituents turn a deaf ear to this ignorance and keep calling the Oakland headquarters of Midnight Basketball to ask for a chapter of their own.”
Once lauded for stemming violence in major cities, Midnight Basketball had been swept up in partisan political posturing led by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and the NRA.
“It was pulled out of the crime bill before it passed,” said Gray, who now oversees national operations from his home in Bay Point. “Newt Gingrich and his gang said they wouldn’t fund gangsters playing basketball at midnight; they made a mockery of it.”
A lot of would-be corporate sponsors assumed Midnight Basketball had secured millions in federal funding and were unaware the group had been largely cut at the last moment. Confusion made it difficult for the group to raise money.
“They said, ‘You’re getting $50 million dollars,” Hebert recalls of conversations with potential sponsors. “The crime bill passed, but the funding was never there. So there was no mechanism for funding. They said, ‘What did you do with the $50 million?’ It became a big challenge for us as an organization.”
The crime bill, stripped of many community-centered programs, increased mass incarceration through a three-strikes law that lengthened sentences, incentivizing states to build prisons, expanding the death penalty, and decreasing education programs for inmates. Democrats were just as responsible as Republicans for the nation’s turn toward more militarized policing. Two years after the crime bill passed, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton used the term “superpredators,” interpreted by some as racially-coded language, to describe youth who commit crimes and advocate for more police funding.
In 1995, Republican Governor Pete Wilson vetoed a $50,000 state grant for Midnight Basketball.
With no money for a national director in the late 1990s, Hebert took a job in advertising and moved away from the Bay Area. Nelson Standifer, who helped his father operate the founding Glenarden chapter, took over national operations. The political and economic damage had been done, however. Chapters in various cities started closing down.
The Oakland chapter operated on a $50,000 budget some years, with limited staffing and only six teams, Landry said. Some summers there was no program at all.
‘Just hoop and be me’
“Without people dedicated to the program, it would have gone under,” said Kevin Grant, an Oakland violence prevention coordinator who has worked with Midnight Basketball since the 1990s. “Maybe there wasn’t a game for two years, but as soon as the program got a spotlight they were able to put it together on bare bones. It has always kept some semblance.”
In 2004, a decade after the crime bill, Gray acquired rights from the Standifer family to use the name, logo and trademarks of the original Midnight Basketball League. He started the non-profit National Association of Midnight Basketball, and its website today touts 28 chapters, though Gray said many haven’t returned since shutting down during the pandemic.
“Things are picking up,” Gray ensures. “We have new chapters coming in because Midnight Basketball helps to fix problems in the community. It brings gangs together. It brings a lot of community togetherness with the police.”
Landry said funding from Alameda County has been integral to the Oakland chapter staying afloat. This summer’s season will run for nine Fridays (including a week of playoffs), with two dates at Laney College while Open Run Premier installs new hardwood. In past years, Landry said the chapter had enough female participants for a six-team league. More recently, with fewer players, one of the four courts has been reserved for women’s exhibition games.
One of the program’s principles is to improve community-police relations. Barrow grew up playing basketball in the Oakland Police Activities League, bonding with coaches who also wore a badge. A large portion of this year’s estimated $150,000 budget goes toward police overtime pay. Landry estimates 20% of program participants have a criminal background, including teens from Camp Sweeney, a minimum-security residential program in Alameda County’s Juvenile Justice Center.
Since the most recent Midnight Basketball season, Oaklanders have taken to the streets in protest of 2020 police killings of unarmed Black people across the country. Landry is aware that many Oaklanders, especially young Black men, distrust the Oakland Police Department.
“When we first rolled out, we just had [police officers] who wanted to work overtime,” the director said. “So we worked hard with the police chief, with the captains. I want someone who wants to connect with us, and connect with our participants, and connect with our community. Those are the officers we want to pay with our money.”
Collins, who played Midnight Basketball after graduating from Oakland Tech High School in 1996, understands its positive impact on young adults.
“It gave me somewhere to play, somewhere to be on a Friday night and have a positive environment to play basketball,” said Collins, who also coaches the Oakland Soldiers. “It’s been very positive in the community. Kids and young adults come together. There’s a lot of positive vibes when you walk into the gym. A lot of older guys who’ve been mentors.”
Woods, 25, returned to Oakland after playing basketball at a small South Dakota university, Dakota Wesleyan. He is currently unemployed after sorting packages for several parcel delivery companies, and eager to “just hoop and be me” after a two-year Midnight Basketball hiatus during the pandemic.
“It keeps me out of the streets; keeps me busy,” Woods said. “Make sure I’m doing the right thing, not the wrong thing. Keep a good circle around me.”
Taking a break on the bleachers, Woods and Barrow trade workplace stories about FedEx, UPS, and Amazon, and working security and retail jobs at shoe stores. While living in Pittsburg, Barrow commuted to Fremont for 12-hour shifts at the Tesla automotive plant.
“That messes with your sleep,” he said of the schedule, “but I was getting benefits and stocks.”
Woods explains how he could tolerate eight hours of sorting packages. “It’s OK,” he said, “as long as you have some music.” Barrow once despised making deliveries, but now he pays rent as a medical transporter, bringing IV bags and pills to houses and hospitals.
“I’ve been in a good mind,” Barrow said of his mental state, three years after losing his parents. “I’ve been house to house with a girlfriend, but since we broke up I’ve had a clear mind. I ended up getting my own place. I’m working.” The former Castlemont High teammates call each other each day, so Woods knows what “little brother” was going through—“It was really bad.”
“We’re tight like this,” said Woods, nudging his backcourt mate. “We don’t separate at all.”
“And if we separate,” Barrow interjects with a laugh, “I’ll call him right back.”