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LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS Crime is only loser at night basketball BALTIMORE CITY


On the basketball courts sitting amid three high-rise buildings at Lexington Terrace, Antwuan Matthews shoots jumpers into the early morning hours, long after most of his buddies have gone.

Most every day, beginning in the early evening, the wiry 16-year-old youth heads for the sparkling new courts at the West Baltimore public housing development. He plays -- often alone -- until he's exhausted.

"I play ball out here until the lights go off," Antwuan said this week. "Then if someone wants to play, I play some more in the dark. I'll play even if I can't get a game."

Lexington Terrace's courts are the home of the city Housing Authority's Evening Summer Basketball League. The league started after the courts opened last month and it has attracted scores of youths and young adults who live in or near the drug- and crime-infested neighborhood.

The courts, adjacent to Lexington Terrace Elementary School in the 700 block of W. Lexington St., cost $25,000 and feature two black-top regulation-size full courts -- painted blue -- with overhead lighting. The lights are turned off at 11:30 p.m. on weekdays. There are few other lighted courts in the city.

Organizers of the Evening Summer Basketball League said some of the ball players who flock to Lexington Terrace would otherwise be hanging on street corners.

Shawn Wyche, 15, a ninth-grader at the Francis M. Wood School, is a regular. He said that before the courts were installed, he sometimes got into trouble just "hanging out."

"It was real tempting to do something I shouldn't be doing," said Shawn, who lives near the courts. "But now I'd be here all night if the lights were on."

Daniel P. Henson III, commissioner of the Baltimore City Housing Authority and a product of the nearby Poe Homes public housing development, said the league's games attract top-notch players from throughout the city and top-of-the-line spectators.

"You have a lot of well-dressed gentlemen there and it's good for them [the youths] to see because these gentlemen are not doing anything illegal, but just being there," Mr. Henson said.

"We also want to demonstrate to the African-American middle class who grew up in the area and moved away that it's not bad here. This is you and it's safe."

The league has nearly 300 players on teams grouped by age and in the unlimited classification. But many of those who play daily at Lexington Terrace participate only in pick-up games.

During nonleague and league games, spectators line the sides of the courts. Residents watch from the balconies of the high-rise buildings. League games end tonight.

Mr. Henson, a frequent visitor to the courts, said there's been no trouble during the games.

"I saw two cops there watching the games and I told them to disappear because it gives the appearance of trouble," Mr. Henson said. "But they were into the game and said they weren't leaving because the score was tied."

The fenced-in courts are kept clean by area youngsters who BTC regularly sweep them. Some residents claim that the basketball courts have unified -- if only in a small way -- a community full of despair and fear.

"This is something everybody takes an interest in," said one woman who has lived in the Housing Authority high-rise building at 221 N. Fremont Ave. for three years. The woman, who is in her 30s, lives with her two young sons. But, because of crime in the area, she seldom leaves her apartment or allows the boys out after 7 p.m.

"For some reason, it's as though everything stops and all attention is on the basketball games when they play," she said. "I'm not a basketball fan, but everything seems OK and safe when the games are on. I watched a couple of them and got to know some people here."

Lorraine Ledbetter, president of the Lexington Poe Tenant Council and a 13-year resident of Lexington Terrace, said she notices a big difference during the games.

"As long as the games are going on, you don't hear music," Ms. Ledbetter said. "When they're not playing, you hear music on the ramps, balconies and everywhere else. But it's quiet during the games."

Lenny Clay, who owns a barber shop near Lexington Terrace, was instrumental in having the courts installed. He said he first broached the idea to Mr. Henson several months ago while cutting the commissioner's hair.

"He wouldn't leave me alone whenever I got my hair cut, said Mr. Henson as he chuckled.

During his 35 years in the neighborhood, Mr. Clay said, he's seen 8-year-old drug dealers, 12-year-old children toting guns and 12-year-old pregnant girls.

But the basketball courts have changed the way the neighborhood is viewed.

"This is the best thing to happen to Lexington Terrace in 25 years," Mr. Clay said.

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