This summer, just like all past summers, the gym at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast Washington will be filled with youngsters playing basketball. But this year there will be a difference: pro players will be there, telling youngsters about the dangers of illegal drugs.
Washington businessman Melvin Roberts came up with the idea after the cocaine-related deaths of athletes Len Bias, Don Rogers and Jeep Jackson.
With contributions from the NBA, the United Black Fund, the D.C. Department of Recreation, and R.A.P., a local antidrug organization, Roberts has put together the Say No To Drugs Pro-Am Summer Basketball League.
The league, which will begin play Saturday, has eight 15-and-under teams and eight pro teams.
The pro players participating are from the NBA, CBA and European leagues. Some of the NBA players involved are Eric Floyd, David Wingate, Johnny Dawkins and brothers Dominique and Gerald Wilkins. The league also will give Bullets fans their first chance to see Tyrone Bogues since he became their top draft pick on Monday. Former Georgetown players Reggie Williams, Michael Jackson, Michael Graham, Ed Spriggs, Eric Smith, Craig Shelton and Horace Broadnax also will compete.
The league commissioner is Bobby Dandridge, a former star with the Bullets and Milwaukee Bucks. Local coaches, such as Georgetown's John Thompson, are to speak to the 100-120 youngsters who will play in the league.
"We want to get to youngsters during the years that they would be introduced to drugs," Roberts said.
For 14 years, he directed the highly successful Big M Tournament of Champions, a four-day, eight-team basketball tournament at Woodson. That event featured many of the players who will participate in the Say No To Drugs league.
But despite the popularity and profit of the Big M tournament, Roberts knew something had to change. "Because of the present problem of drugs in D.C and other cities, we decided we wanted to get a league together and let the kids in for free so we could educate them," he said.
He started to think about such a league last September. "So many people close to me have died, gone to jail or messed their lives up on drugs," he said. "I knew something had to be done."
As soon as he began to spread his idea, organizations began to hop on the bandwagon, the most important being the NBA.
"The NBA sponsors pro-am leagues all over the country, but not in D.C." he said. "As soon as we talked to them, they said, 'We'll back you up with balls and uniforms.' "
The NBA also will contribute an antidrug film featuring Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas and will post antidrug messages around the gym. The NBA also will scout the league's officials for possible invitees to the NBA referee camp.
Soon after the NBA came aboard, so did the United Black Fund. It will rent the gym and help pay for the uniforms. "We get our money from public funds," said Dr. Calvin Rolark of the UBF, who also is the league's assistant executive director. "What better way to use that money than to invest it in our future."
According to Roberts, getting players was the easiest part.
"All the players ask for is a safe program, good referees and a good floor," he said. "They don't want to get fat in the offseason."
The league will play every Saturday and Sunday until Aug. 9, except July 4. There will be three 15-and-under games from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., then three pro games from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Between games, youngsters will listen to antidrug talks from the players and coaches. Spectators who come to the games also are invited to listen. Roberts hopes that the league can help those not participating, but he hopes for better results than at previous events he has run.
"Lenny Bias spoke at our free camp two years ago," he said, "speaking about drugs and keeping clean, then the next year, he has an overdose. Even if the league has a minute effect, we've done good. I just hope we can keep it going next year. If the NBA supports us, we will."