GRAND CROSSING — It’s a common correlation: as the weather gets warmer, the city gets more dangerous. So when kids asked the Gary Comer Youth Center for a way to help them stay safe, the center obliged and created a midnight basketball program.
Since January, one Friday a month from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., young people aged 14-21 can step on the hardwood for pick-up games. The next scheduled night is June 14.
On Friday, about 50 players showed up. In addition, there were scorekeepers, referees and a dozen girls sitting in the stands acting as unofficial cheerleaders. LaVoria Thompson, athletic coordinator for the GCYC said the games have proven popular.
"Since we started the program, about 40 youth per month come out and play. There are no tournaments or things like that, and the girls play on the same team as the guys," she said.
"Coming here is entertaining," said Khadijah Smith, a 17-year-old junior at South Shore High School. I prefer to watch although sometimes I do play. It beats hanging out on the street. You can find out a lot about your friends by just watching them play ball."
Players must be members of the GCYC, Thompson said. Annual membership costs $20, and members can bring a guest to play (but guests must pay $10 for an annual guest pass). Light snacks are provided.
Marcus Robinson 17, said he loves coming to midnight basketball so much he travels from his home in Merrillville, Ind., every month.
"I grew up in Grand Crossing, but two months ago my family moved to Indiana," said the high school junior, who has been a member of the GCYC since its inception in 2006. "The Gary Comer Center offers a great environment for young folks."
There are 905 youth members at the GCYC, according to Thompson. Teens younger than 18 must get a signed permission slip from a parent to participate in midnight basketball, and must also be picked up by an adult.
"We do not let anyone under 18 leave the building during midnight basketball," said Thompson. "And those over 18 are allowed to leave, but literally all the youth who come to midnight basketball are picked up, so no one is catching the bus home at night. Extra police officers patrol the area when we have midnight basketball, too."
For Thomas James, playing ball at night serves as an outlet for him. The 16-year old has been home-schooled his whole life.
"Having the ability to interact with other kids my age is something I look forward to since I am at home all day," said James. "If I was at home now I would be watching TV or playing video games and even that can get boring sometimes."
The gym is already open for basketball on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Mondays from 7 p.m. to 8:45 p.m., which Thompson said would go later now that summer is coming up. The demand for basketball has grown so much at the GCYC that it created an intramural basketball day for adults age 30 and up.
"A lot of men like to play sports on Sundays so from noon to 4 p.m. the gym is open for them to hoop it up," Thompson said. "Once again though, it is for members only.”
Annual membership for adults is $30.
The GCYC is a three-story, 80,000-square-foot facility that offers several youth programs throughout the year. Among the free programs offered to youth is mentoring, a fitness center, academic tutoring, athletics, performing arts, culinary, gardening, technology classes, summer camp and career training.
Located in what Thompson described as a "youth center desert" the GCYC, 7200 S. Ingleside Ave., is the only facility, next to the Chicago Park District, that offer programs to youth living in the Chatham, Grand Crossing and the Calumet Heights neighborhood, Thompson said.
"The closest youth facility around here is the YMCA at 63rd and Stony Island," she said.
The center is used during the day by students who attend Gary Comer College Preparatory High School located next door to the GCYC, according to Ayoka Samuels, senior program director for the GCYC.
So Santino Proctor, a 16-year-old junior at Gary Comer College Prep, was already familiar with the center prior to play late night basketball.
"We have gym classes here and play basketball a lot then," said Proctor. "I know which spots on the court to stand if I really want to hit a three.”