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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Night Court : Inglewood's Late Night Basketball program keeps young men off the streets and teaches them skills that can help in the working world


At first, the guys were in shock. Don Lovett, a mediator by profession, was behaving completely out of character. Week after week he had stressed to the 20 or 30 young men who play in Inglewood's Late Night Basketball program how to communicate politely with other people. But tonight he was cussing at them nonstop.

Shock passed. Then the players, who come from some of Inglewood's toughest neighborhoods, started to get angry, Lovett recalled. How dare he talk to them like that.

"Finally, I pointed out to them that that's how they talk all the time," Lovett said. "They swear at each other and at anybody else all the time, and other people don't like it either."

The exercise was one of many Lovett uses to help the youths see how they come across to other people--particularly possible employers.

For many players in the Late Night league, the conflict counseling portion of the program is the hardest part to take. The lectures and reminders about controlling their tempers are a drag, they say. But they agree to pay attention because a basketball game follows.

Program officials know this. But they don't really care why the young men listen to them, just as long as they do it.

Basketball may be the primary reason the players show up to Darby Park on Tuesday and Friday nights, but for the staff and city officials who created the program last year, it is the means to help a group of young men learn to fit into society and the work world around them--while keeping them off Inglewood's streets.

Late Night Basketball was 1 year old in January. Paid for with city funds, the program targets men ages 17 to 30 who are in danger of being trapped in a life of drugs, gangs and chronic unemployment. In addition to conflict resolution, Late Night also offers job training to the players and, of course, basketball.

At best, officials hope the program will help the young men learn how to change behavior that has kept them on the streets and out of school, and led many to be fired from jobs. At the least, the program serves to keep its participants occupied, making the Darby Park neighborhood safer for both the basketball players and others at least two nights a week.

Initially conceived by the City Council as an anti-crime program, the mediation and job training aspects of the program have become central to its purpose. Paid for with $150,000 in city funds, Late Night contracts with the Centinela Valley Juvenile Diversion Project for mediation counseling and with Innovative Education Systems of Inglewood for job training and placement services. Also provided for each session are two referees, four staff members and an Inglewood police officer whose job is to keep the peace.

The worth (and expense) of such nighttime basketball leagues became a subject of national debate last year. Congressional Republicans, during debate on the $30-billion anti-crime bill that eventually passed, spotlighted so-called midnight basketball as the epitome of liberal social programs whose results do not justify their costs.


The Inglewood program receives no federal money and has never been controversial with residents. Even members of the normally fractious council agree on its value. Mayor Edward Vincent has popped in to visit the program and speak to the players. And his opponent in the recent mayoral elections, Councilwoman Judith L. Dunlap, sat through the league's victorious game against the city's Police Department, cheering for the Late Nighters.

"I'm glad that Inglewood officials are (into) prevention rather than incarceration," said Senior Recreation Supervisor Ron Randle, who oversees the Late Night program. "Punishment has its place, but it's not the only way to fight crime.

"Most of these guys, if you give them a job, they're going to work," Randle said. "If you ignore them, they're going to steal."

Inglewood police officers recruited players ages 17 to 30, in part by telling gang members about the program. Other players heard about Late Night from friends or teachers, or on routine visits to the park.

"This is meant for people who are high-risk," said Jan Vogel, who as director of Inglewood's federally funded Job Training Program coordinates the job placement part of the basketball program. "If someone wants to play basketball, then there are basketball programs in existence. If they want job training programs, then there are job training programs."

Between 20 and 40 regularly show up for the Tuesday and Friday games, and that alone is considered a success by the program directors. About 16 men have found jobs or have enrolled in job training classes through Late Night.

"It's important to keep an open mind, because this (works) one person at a time," Vogel said.

And for the players, one of the proudest moments was defeating the Inglewood Police Department, 80-66, in a game during the summer.

The Late Night guys wore black. The police wore white.

The police certainly held their own, but the Late Nighters had more to lose, and it showed in the way they played.

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