For some Columbia young people, sweating at midnight has become the way to fight off summer doldrums.

Between 10 p.m. Friday and 12:30 a.m. Saturday, young men can play basketball at Howard Community College.

"Most of the time, people are trying to get out of Columbia," said Genelle Niblack, 16, watching the court action at a recent game. "This gives you a reason to stay."

The Midnight Basketball Friday night league was brought to Howard County by the Columbia Association in July. Forty young men, 17 to 24, formed four teams. But 40 others were in the stands waiting for spaces on more teams. This week, two more coaches signed up, and now only 20 would-be players are relegated to watching.

No admission is charged at the games, and the CA has picked up all league costs except for a $5 registration fee for each player. The fee is more of a way to ensure the players will return to the program than a means of funding it, said league director Charlie Thomas.

Midnight Basketball originated in Prince George's County nine years ago as a way to keep youths off the streets during times hTC when crime and drug activities tend to be at their peak. Since then, leagues have formed in more than 50 cities.

There's more to the basketball program than recreation: To play, players must attend half-hour pre-game workshops on such topics as AIDS, resume writing, dating, parental skills and getting into college. "The game is just the bait to get them here," said Mr. Thomas. "The workshops are the most important thing."

The topic at last Friday's workshop was job interviews.

Roland Braswell III, a league coach and former basketball player at Northeastern University, talked about the importance of a positive, assertive attitude in getting a job.

"Walk into a place like George Jefferson," he told the players as he demonstrated the walk of the popular black television character from the 1970s. "A little bounce in your step can help."

For many of the young men, the workshops aren't the highlights of the Friday nights. But many said they appreciate the CA's efforts.

"It's good that somebody's talking to you, even if you're not listening," said Derrice Green, 20, of Harper's Choice village. What's important is "the fact that somebody's looking out for another person."

In inner-city communities where Midnight Basketball has been adopted, gang warfare and crime are much more serious problems than in Columbia. But the players said the games fill time that might be spent causing trouble.

Crime is "not really a big problem, but it could lead to a big problem," said Eddie Smart, 20, who is entering the Marine Corps in September. "They're just stopping it before it happens."

And the players say the possibility of continuing heated court battles after the games is unlikely. "After you leave here, you should be tired, running up and down the court in this heat," said Tim Spruill, 18, of Savage.

But while the players may want to rest after games, some friends -- the young women who watch their games -- are ready to go out.

"They act like people don't do anything after midnight," said Genelle, a Hammond High senior. She and friend Sonia Minns make the games part of their social schedule. "It stays open relatively later than anything else," she said.

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