Better Shaq than crack

WASHINGTON — Washington -- CALL IT NIGHT owl hoops. Call it insomniac dribbling. To Republicans, it's Sodom and Gomorrah.

We're talking about the argument over midnight basketball -- the most bizarre, noisy issue in the phony rhetoric over Bill Clinton's anti-crime bill.


A dozen miles from the Capitol in a gym at suburban Hyattsville, sweaty teen-aged boys were trading jump shots in imitations of Michael Jordan and Grant Hill.

Except for the weird hours -- midnight to 2 a.m. -- that sounds fairly innocuous.


Not to Republicans who, in a transparent effort to block the crime bill, mock the national midnight basketball program as social spending gone berserk.

Where others see kids staying out of trouble, they see pork, pork, pork.

"Our children don't need midnight basketball," thundered Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas.

"Our children need law enforcement, imprisonment for criminals and safe streets."

"Midnight basketball is bad and it's ugly," said Rep. Terry Everett, R-Alaska.

"This vague social spending goes by the theory that the person who stole your car, robbed your house and assaulted your family is no more than a would-be NBA star," bellowed Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

Never mind that in a $33 billion crime bill, heavily tilted toward prisons, cops and death penalties, midnight basketball is a mere $40 million item. That's 12 cents for every $100 in the bill.

Never mind that Republicans, despite the elephant as party symbol, are suffering from amnesia.


They forget that on April 12, 1991, their man George Bush took a helicopter ride to the Hyattsville gym and raved about midnight basketball as a social marvel.

"This country is finally catching on that whenever drugs are involved, everybody loses," Mr. Bush said that night, awarding a Point of Light Citation.

The guy Mr. Bush was honoring, Van Standifer, invented midnight basketball to keep kids busy during late-night hours when most crimes are committed.

After Standifer died, sons Eric, Nelson and Nelson's wife Karen spread it as a national program -- 900,000 youths in 44 cities from Camden, N.J., to Los Angeles.

Was George Bush some kind of big-spending, wild-eyed liberal?

True, Mr. Bush pushed volunteerism. The $40 million in federal funds would expand midnight basketball to more kids, give coaches token pay, buy uniforms and security.


That's about $40 a kid -- a cheapie compared to $29,000 a year to lock up a young offender.

Nobody's claiming midnight hoops can wipe out street crime. But for kids in the toughest neighborhoods, it provides supervision and a place to burn off steam during dangerous hours. Better to emulate Dr. J than your local crack dealer.

"Midnight basketball isn't just about basketball, it's about luring kids in to educate them when they're most vulnerable," Eric Van Standifer said.

Although midnight basketball is one of 39 crime-prevention items, Republicans make it the symbol of their "pork" war cry.

What's going on is politics at its sneakiest.

Republicans, some newly awash in National Rifle Association campaign money, want to knock out the ban on assault-style weapons.


But the public overwhelmingly (78 percent in a CBS poll) wants the gun ban. So the Republicans attack programs such as midnight basketball as a counterfeit target.

In prime-time TV ads paid for by the rifle lobby, Charlton Heston never mentions the assault-gun ban. Instead, the macho actor raps social spending: "What you don't know about the crime bill is a crime."

Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, of Georgia, would hold the crime bill hostage until $2 billion to $3 billion are cut -- probably the death knell for midnight basketball.

If they bond with NRA-fearful Democrats to block the crime bill, Mr. Clinton will be a 98-pound weakling come election time.

So what if their "gotcha" ploy may hurt a million kids who'd be better off imitating Shaq and Bird at midnight? That's Washington hardball.

Turn off the lights, empty the courts. Sorry, kids, politics is a game played by so-called adults.


Gotta keep building those jail cells and electric chairs.

Sandy Grady is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.