It was an unusual start to an organized basketball game: Inside the rickety old gym in one of the toughest sections of Southeast Washington, the announcer implored the young men from the two opposing teams to shake hands before tipoff.
"Come on, this is about sportsmanship," the announcer boomed as the young men in black and red T-shirts exchanged handshakes and handslaps.
It wasn't a typical start, but it wasn't a typical game in the Patricia Harris Education Center on Livingston Road SE. Last night's contest marked the beginning of a 13-week late-night basketball league that police and city officials hope will help divert young men from the streets into constructive activities.
In addition to referees and fans, the gym was filled with representatives from the D.C. Department of Employment Services, there to help people find jobs, and mental health professionals from the D.C. Commission on Mental Health, on hand to let people know about the availability of services.
There were even representatives from the D.C. schools there to make arrangements for people to take high school equivalency exams. Michael Graves, business development manager for the local Pepsi franchise, was around to let young people know about summer employment opportunities with the company.
"We're using basketball as a carrot, as a draw, to bring people in," explained James Lee, the deputy police chief in charge of the 7th District, which recorded the most homicides of any section of the city last year.
"We believe this is a good investment in young people," added Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. "If we save these kids here, we've made a difference."
The "Late Nite Hoops" program, which had a four-day preview of sorts last November, is patterned after a similar one launched in Chicago in the mid-1980s and another one that began in Prince George's County about five years ago.
The effort is being sponsored by the police department and several other agencies, including the Human Services, Recreation and Parks, Education and Employment Services departments. Other sponsors include Pepsi-Cola, the Chartered Health Plan and the United Black Fund.
The league has 16 teams with 10 players per team, ranging in age from 17 to 23, said Lt. Reginald Smith, a police department spokesman. Games also will be played at school gyms in Southwest and Northeast, officials said.
The November preview was a four-day tournament featuring eight teams. Smith and other officials touted that effort as a success, saying that officials had found jobs for nine young men directly as a result of their participation in that tournament.