It's a little before midnight on a recent weeknight outside the Glenarden Community Center. The streets are not quite quiet: Neighbors are outside talking, teenagers ride bicycles down lamp-lit blocks, lights seem to be on in just about every house. Noise from radios and televisions seeps into the night. Despite the brightness, however, the streets still seem a little dark.

And then the cars start leaving the parking lot after another night of play in the Midnight Basketball League.

During the past few weeks there have been several acts of random violence throughout the Washington area. A Capitol Heights mother of five was shot and killed by a stray bullet while hanging curtains. A grandmother was killed by an errant bullet while trying to shield several children from a gun fight in Southeast Washington. A Prince William County woman was fatally beaten by two teenage girls after complaining that their car was blocking the street. Four bystanders were shot outside the Latin American Youth Center in the Adams Morgan section of Northwest Washington.

None of the victims knew what was coming their way.

Organizers of the Midnight Basketball League hope their league helps players--young men ages 16 to 21--stay out of trouble's way.

"There's so much you can get into on the streets," said Jason Williams, a 1997 graduate of Bladensburg High School who is in his second summer playing Midnight. "I have a very strong family and I wouldn't be caught up in it, but stray bullets don't have names on them."

Local Idea's Wide Impact

The late-night basketball movement began in Glenarden in 1986, when town manager G. Van Standifer decided that playing sports in the middle of the night was an alternative to being on the streets. Standifer died in 1992; his son, Nelson, now runs the local league. In 13 years, the Midnight Basketball League has expanded to 50 cities, including a league in Puerto Rico, and has a summer-ending national championship in Dallas.

Just as important, Nelson Standifer is quick to point out, Midnight Basketball affects more than just the players, even though not every league plays at midnight. At Glenarden, games were moved to 9 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. last season to make the hours more tolerable for those working.

Last Thursday night, the community center was packed. The indoor pool was nearly empty, the pool table was covered and the foosball table continued to gather dust. But about 200 people--mostly friends, girlfriends and relatives, including a few children--were crammed into the tiny bleacherless gymnasium. On the court, the top two teams in Midnight battled for bragging rights and a one-camera crew from a local community-access television channel filmed the "Game of the Week" to air over the weekend.

The game was a blowout, but so what? What mattered to Standifer was that for a few hours the players were off the streets--and so were the fans.

"Midnight Basketball is not about basketball," Standifer said. "We use basketball simply as a lure to get young men off the street. . . . It's about offering programs to high-risk youths, to make them productive in the community."

The Glenarden league is open to Prince George's residents. For $20, players get a reversible jersey and two games every week from the beginning of June until early August. Some of the players are high school dropouts, others are former high school standouts now in the work force or unemployed and a few are college players home for the summer just looking for a place to play. Many show up to watch games even on nights they are not playing.

'No Workshop, No Jump Shot'

The play itself resembles a hybrid of organized and pickup games. There are two referees, though they don't have to touch the ball for play to restart after a whistle. Assists are rare--almost everybody looks to shoot first and pass only if absolutely necessary; a shot clock is not needed. While winning is important, the mood is not terribly serious. During one game last week, a player on the foul line said to loud fans behind the basket: "Excuse me, excuse me. I'm trying to shoot the free throws here."

There are no set offenses, no pick-and-rolls. There is only one kind of defense, man-to-man. If you sag off or get caught loafing, illegal defense can be called. Just in case things get out of hand--on the court, on the sidelines or in the parking lot--two security guards, almost always off-duty police officers, are paid to be at every game.

"We hope you are going chest-to-chest with your opponent and in his face for 40 minutes," Standifer said. "We hope [afterward] you are tired enough to want go home and not hang out with your buddies."

The court is narrow, with just enough room to shoot a three-pointer from the corners, and little room out of bounds along the sideline--the small scorer's table has two of its legs on the court. Fans lucky enough to get a spot behind the baseline are able to sit down with lesser fear of being trampled by players.

Perhaps the best of those players is Frank McQueen, a 6-foot-4 guard with a smooth shooting stroke and slight 190-pound frame. A 1995 graduate of Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington, as a senior he was good enough to earn a place on the Capital All-Stars roster in the Capital Classic, a game that matched 13 of the area's top players against the best in the nation. That night, McQueen was on the same team as Louis Bullock of Laurel Baptist, who went on star at the University of Michigan and was taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second round of the NBA draft last week. Their opponents included Ron Mercer and Antawn Jamison, both of whom have gone on to be standouts in the NBA.

McQueen is still far from that goal. He said he was headed for Georgetown but poor academics prevented him from matriculating. He ended up at Compton (Calif.) Junior College. After one year there, though, McQueen dropped out. He went back to school this past year at Salem-Teikyo University in Salem, W. Va., averaged a team-leading 18.4 points and was named a NCAA Division II third-team all-American. He has two years of eligibility remaining.

This is McQueen's second summer playing Midnight. Growing up in Landover, he said he used to attend games as a youngster and that playing in the league was somewhat of a dream. His 2-year-old daughter, Destinee, often comes to watch her father. Before the packed crowd and the TV camera, McQueen went for 33 points and his team, the Glenarden Stars, routed the Hale and Dorr Jammers, 150-125.

"If it wasn't for basketball . . . a majority of these people would be out doing something that tends to get them in trouble," McQueen said. "And it's good to see each other, to make sure they are not dead or in the hospital."

For proof of the league's success keeping its players out of trouble, one need not look further than the Stars, who were without one of their top players last Thursday after he was arrested the previous night while out with some friends in Washington, according to Stars Coach Anthony McCombs. McCombs said the player was doing nothing wrong, but a friend had a gun and police arrested the entire group.

"This time of night, 9 until 12, that is when most of the incidents happen," he said. "But when you get done here, you are tired and wet. Once you take a shower, you stay in for the night. . . . This is the best time of year for people to be playing with guns. You don't know if it is fireworks or guns."

McCombs is one of three former players coaching in the league. They don't get paid--the league barely has enough money to survive. It has cut back from playing at three facilities to one and Standifer wonders if there will be enough money to send an all-star team to compete in the national tournament in Dallas.

Most of the support for the local Midnight league comes from sponsors, who either pay $2,000 to put their name on a team or provide free or discounted services. The Laurel Bridge Club, in honor of the league's founder who also was a longtime member, sponsors three teams. Other teams include the Allied Signal Rockets and Tesst Electronics. In addition to financial support, the sponsors often help conduct workshops for players with topics including safe sex, responsible drinking and possible careers in the military or other fields. The workshops are held before games and attendance is mandatory.

"Our philosophy is no workshop, no jump shot. Our focus is not in there," Nelson Standifer said, pointing toward the basketball court. "Our focus is in there," he added, pointing toward the multi-purpose room where a representative of Tesst Electronics spoke to about 15 players.

Attention After Hours

Like the players, Standifer, 42, is exhausted by the end of the night. Sitting at the other end of a desk, he clasps his hands above his head, his brown eyes are bloodshot from a lack of sleep. During the day, he drives a tractor trailer around the county, delivering an average of more than 1,000 cases and several kegs of Anheuser-Busch products to retailers.

After completing his rounds, which usually take at least 10 hours, he trades in his rig for his 1985 Toyota Corolla and heads over to the gym for a few hours. But once the games are completed, Standifer's night is not over; he said he often will drive around Glenarden--adding a few more miles to the 191,500 already on the odometer--trying to make sure no players from the league are hanging out on the streets. The light blue car will slow to a crawl at some points, such as when Standifer checks the area behind the liquor store on Martin Luther King Jr. Highway and on Glenarden's side streets.

"I know where those guys hang out," said Standifer, even though he said he never has caught one of his players. "They know my car."

CAPTION: Hale and Dorr Coach Rick Godwin, above left, confers with one of his players, William Campbell, before tip-off at the Glenarden Community Center. Below, a member of the Glenarden team passes around a Hale and Dorr player.

CAPTION: Sitting room only: Nearly 200 fans line the Glenarden Community Center's court, above, for a late-night chance to watch county players exhibit their skills. There isn't much room to maneuver and two legs of the scorer's table are on the court. However, Glenarden's league moved its games to earlier starts to accommodate daytime schedules--which helped a younger fan, left, stay awake to see the action.