Travon Martin, 24, slipped off his white jersey and used it to wipe the sweat from his face and neck. His basketball team, the Atlanta Allstars, trounced the SW4TS team by more than 30 points on the hardwood at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center.

Martin, a second-year electrician apprentice, scored eight points, had a handful of assists and grabbed a few rebounds during his first game in Atlanta’s Midnight Basketball summer league. The SW4TS (pronounced “Swats” and references Southwest Atlanta and Atlanta Police Zone 4) was just no match for the fast breaks and a few flashy slam dunks from the Allstars. 

“This was our first time playing together as a team and feeling out our strengths,” he said. “It was fun. I gravitate toward competition.”

Mayor Andre Dickens revived the Midnight Basketball League this year in response to rising crime rates across the city. Homicides are up 15% from last year, according to data on the APD’s website. Aggravated assaults increased 5% since last year, burglaries and breaking and entering are up 21%. 

City officials say APD data shows men in their late teens and early to mid-20s are most vulnerable to joining gangs. While crime peaks in the late night and early morning hours, Atlanta’s Midnight Basketball League begins at 7 p.m. and ends by 11 p.m. Outreach to young men even if it is before midnight is one way to try to prevent crime, according to the city. 

Martin praised the city and the league’s mission.

“Midnight Basketball is great because it brings together a lot of males, older and younger than me, and we’re out on the court and we’re staying out of trouble,” Martin said. “It’s a good way to release tension for whatever you got going on. It’s like a stress release for me. I lay it all out on the floor.”

There are 200 young men playing on 20 teams in the summer Midnight Basketball League that runs weekly through August. Games are played Mondays and Wednesdays at the Rosel Fann Recreation Center in south Atlanta and the C.T. Martin center on the Westside. 

That’s double the numbers of the inaugural league held this spring. And dozens more young men want to play, said Ramondo Davidson, executive director of recreation. Some have criminal backgrounds, making it difficult for them to find jobs, for example. But they all deserve another chance, he said, and Midnight Basketball can provide that.

“For many of these young men, they don’t feel like they have options or outlets and that is why they commit crimes,” said Davidson. “They don’t feel like they can get a job if they don’t have a high school diploma or a college degree. But that’s just not true.”

An Amazon representative at a recent game was recruiting. The city’s WorkSource program was handing out jobs’ information. Free haircuts were available. Hot dogs were also free to players. A vendor talked to people about getting their GED. Cost to run the program is about $7,000 a week.

“It’s not just about basketball. Basketball is what gets them in the building and in the space,” Davidson said. “When they get into this space, that is when they have access to all these other opportunities. 

“We believe that if you make a mistake, you pay for your mistake and then you move forward in a more positive way,” he added. “And that is what this league is trying to establish, which is why we have all of the additional wraparound services.”

Data on whether or not crime is dropping because of Midnight Basketball is really too soon to tell. Davidson said police calls around the C.T. Martin rec center dropped while the spring league was in play. 

The C.T. Martin center is in Atlanta Police Zone 1, which includes Ashview Heights, the Atlanta University Center, Collier Heights, Hunter Hills, Vine City, Washington Park and West Lake. APD data says robberies at the end of June 18, a week after the spring Midnight Basketball League’s championship game, fell 9% in Zone 1 from last year. Overall, however, personal and property crimes were up 22% in the zone.

Dozens of midnight basketball leagues exist across the country today. But evidence the leagues help deter crime is mixed, said Volkan Topalli, professor of Criminal Justice at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

“It’s one of those programs that sort of seems to make common sense, but actually doesn’t really have much of an effect,” he said. “The problem is that the program really only attracts the kids who want to play basketball at midnight. And so, you’re self-selecting a population of individuals who probably aren’t troublemakers to begin with.”

One of the best things a program like Midnight Basketball does is bring people together to help create a community where people know and care about each other, Topalli said.

“It has value in the sense that it can produce, you know, community efficacy, for example,” he said. “So if it brings communities together, you get young people playing on the basketball courts, you get folks coming in to watch from the neighborhood — it does sort of strengthen neighborhood ties and provides kind of a social atmosphere that may have some long term … effects on crime abatement.” 

Mayor Andre Dickens was on hand for tip-off at Rosel Fann Recreation Center in southwest Atlanta. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)

In an interview, Mayor Dickens said Midnight Basketball is a tool to teach young men how to resolve conflict without violence. And he stresses its importance in building community. These are key steps to stopping violence, he said.

“This is about crime prevention and avoidance,” he said. 

Rather than seeing someone as an opponent, young men can learn to see others as friendly competition on the court and never enter into a violent altercation, he said. 

“This is training right here while they’re playing the game and others are watching,” he said. 

“They’re learning how to compete without conflict, and they also see their families and community coming together and seeing each other in a pleasant environment,” he said. “This is about building community but also about providing opportunity.”

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.