ATLANTA — The more than 100 participants in the City of Atlanta's Midnight Basketball program have played a role in reducing crime in the area.
The initiative aimed to curb crime by reaching 18 to 24-year-old men, a demographic that reportedly commits crime at the highest rate in the city according to Ramondo Davidson, director of recreation for the City of Atlanta and Midnight Basketball league commissioner.
"The police alone can’t stop crime in the city," Davidson said. "It’s just not possible, and that’s in any city. What we have to do is give them support.”
Davidson said many of the players have a criminal past or a less than stellar academic history. But in discovering a passion that intersects entertainment and sports, he said the players can get back on track. Midnight Basketball featured 10 teams this season, and the teams averaged about 10 players each.
RELATED: Atlanta's Midnight Basketball program | Dozens show up to play a game, but leave with a shot at much more
"Their backgrounds may have been affected to where they don’t have the same access or opportunities as people that haven’t actually been involved in those scenarios," Davidson said. "We want to give them a second chance. I think a second chance can save lives.”
Marqui Olds, the league's leading scorer, played Wednesday night in the championship game. Olds, 21, said the competitiveness on the court keeps players engaged. The league started in late March and met every Wednesday since.
"It's keeping everybody out of trouble," Olds said. "If they weren’t in here, there’s no telling what they’d be doing right now. It’s a good way for every Wednesday, at least you’re not out there doing anything else.”
Davidson said the city invests about $6,000 a week in staff and security to operate Midnight Basketball. He called it a drop in the bucket compared to the community. Before the program started, there were 17 crimes reported in the Adamsville and Collier Heights neighborhoods on Wednesdays from January to March. Since the league started in April, only six crimes have been reported on Wednesdays, though none were reported when games were being played.
A large group of fans and supporters, including Atlanta Interim Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat and several Atlanta City Councilmembers, sat courtside for the championship. C.T. Martin beat MLK in the final game 54-52 to take home the winner's trophy and a set of rings.
“It’s just a real cool experience for them to come out and display their talents and for other people who may never get to see it," coach Chris Polycarpe said. “It’s very important that this grows to get more people involved with what the city has going on, because this is a very good program.”
Davidson said the league is growing, and more teams will join this summer. The Midnight Basketball League will also have new seasons starting every few months.
“The sky’s the limit," Davidson said. "We’re going to continue to do this, and we’re going to continue to save lives as long as we need to. We’re going to do it until we change what’s happening in our city.”