Midnight Basketball has been running in Australia since 2007 and recently finished its first eight-week tournament in Griffith. The Area News sports editor Andrew Piva attended one of the competition nights to find out what the program is all about.
ROGER Penrith drapes two plastic sheets over the shower doors at Westend Stadium and waits to see what gravity will do with them.
The venue’s female changeroom is undergoing its Friday night makeover for the Midnight Basketball program. A mobile whiteboard has been wheeled inside. Two tables have also been positioned in the room — one in front of the whiteboard, the second against the side wall. When the chairs are unstacked, the transformation from changeroom to workshop area will be complete.
“It just helps, you know?” Roger says, adjusting the first sheet so it doesn’t slide off. “It takes away some of the distraction.”
With the sheets hung and cooperating, Roger returns to the stadium foyer. The Midnight Basketball community chairman circulates among the 17 program volunteers, greeting them with “g’days”, handshakes and genuine appreciation. It’s 7.20pm. The winter dark has descended and is luring the temperature outside towards single digits. Inside, however, the hustle of people with purpose is keeping heavy coats unzipped and hands out of pockets.
The volunteers go about their duties as the children start to arrive. There are no sulky, mum’s-making-me-do-it faces among the boys and girls, who range in age from 12 to 18. The kids bounce through the door, conversations humming, creating a tinnitus that overpowers all background noise. Midnight Basketball is open to everybody, but the majority of attendees are of either Aboriginal or Pacific Islander descent.
Tournament manager Maydina Penrith marshals bodies and clutches her clipboard like it possesses buoyancy that will prevent her drowning beneath her duties. The program is into week seven of its eight-week run. Familiarity of process has started automating everybody’s actions, but the clipboard and stack of sheets, filled with names and schedules, remain invaluable.
“It’s pretty important,” she says, perusing the pages. “There’s a lot in here. It’s really important to be organised when you’re doing something like this.”
Midnight Basketball has been running in metropolitan and regional centres since 2007 with financial assistance from government departments and the Commonwealth Bank, but this is the first year it has been staged in Griffith. The program offers young people an option on Friday nights, something away from LCD screens, where social networking is achieved with talking, not typing; eye contact, not emoticons. Basketball is played, but workshops are also staged each week, arming youths with the knowledge to negotiate the minefields of adolescence.
Tonight, like all program nights, proceedings start with a group meal provided by a Griffith service club. Tables have been arranged on the left side of court one. Players sit with their teammates and coaches, imitating a relaxed family unit as they eat bowls of beef pasta and vegetables. Coach Jackie Tupa proudly points to her side, Green Frogs, like a mother highlighting her overachieving children at school pick-up. The players are leaning in towards each other, giggling and gesturing as they unload seven days’ worth of gossip.
“Every week my team turns up, every single one of them. They’re very dedicated children,” Jackie says. “They’re really good, very compliant and always listening. There's some really good kids. There’s some quiet ones who can talk now. None of them really knew each other at all before this started because they're all from different schools. It’s a good time for them to get to know each other and everybody else.”
Jackie first volunteered at Midnight Basketball when she was living in Sydney four years ago. She witnessed the good it did for the children, the small victories of self-esteem that snowballed into confidence. It was an easy decision to give her time when the program started in Griffith.
“The kids are walking away with a lot,” she says. “They learn a bit about basketball and they take a lot of knowledge from the workshops. They know what to do if certain circumstances ever arise.”
The tables and chairs are swiftly packed up after the dinner is finished. The competition’s six teams – Green Frogs, White Hawks, RT (Red Team), Maroon Bricks, Royal Blue Rockets and Light Blue Ballers – then congregate in the main grandstand as the code of conduct is read out. Midnight Basketball wants participants to have fun, but there are boundaries. Mobile phones are banned, there’s no tolerance for swearing, and above all, players must treat each other and volunteers with courtesy and respect at all times. Bad behaviour is identified using yellow and red cards, with players facing suspension if they don’t follow the rules.
Following the conduct recital, four teams head to the courts to warm up for their first games. The other two sides retreat to the women’s changeroom for a workshop. The Griffith Aboriginal Medical Service is running tonight’s session about healthy lifestyles. It’s a broad topic but has been narrowed down to the dangers of smoking and sugary drinks to fill the 35-minute slot.
The side table in the changeroom has been populated with visual aids: an oversized cigarette packet emblazoned with the picture of a respirator-wearing child; cigarette ingredients represented as store-bought poisons; bottles of Coke, Red Bull, orange juice and Gatorade beside bags of their sugar content. A laptop with speakers has been set up in front of the whiteboard and plays educational DVDs to reinforce the messages delivered by Michaela Pauling and Jess Meredith. The duo belong to a staff of six at the medical service, which covers the Riverina and as far south as Echuca on the NSW-Victoria border. Much of their work takes them to schools, where they perform presentations to year five and year seven students.
“A lot of them would have seen what we’re doing tonight before,” Michaela says. “Some of them seemed to remember it from when they were in year five, which was pretty good. You’ve got to try and get through to them when they’re young. You hope they take something away from it.”
On the court, the first games are winding down. The matches are played in 14-minute halves, with sides participating in at least three every night. Most of the children have little experience with basketball. Every side boasts a player or two who can execute a perfect lay-up, but the majority of team members are still mastering the fundamentals of dribbling and shooting.
Candy Kilby is one of the referees but uses her whistle sparingly.
“As long as they have fun, that’s the main thing,” she says.
Midnight Basketball isn’t concerned with uncovering the next Andrew Bogut or Patty Mills. The focus is participation. It’s a priority championed by the older children, who happily pass to younger teammates to run, dribble and shoot, even if it means sacrificing a certain two points.
Lynette Kilby watches the games from the grandstand with maternal contentment, her eyes strolling between courts. The fugues of laughter, cheers and claps that rise from the floor are all the testimony the grandmother needs to endorse the worth of Midnight Basketball.
“I just like watching the kids and how they interact with each other,” she says. “When these kids are here, there’s no swearing, there’s no arguing, there’s no fighting. They’re just all together here having fun.”
More than most of the volunteers, Lynette knows what’s at stake. The Aboriginal Legal Service employee has seen too many futures derailed or destroyed by bad decisions.The habits that enhance or diminish a life are often ingrained in childhood. If confident, healthy mindsets can be cultivated, Lynette believes many of the problems she deals with in her working life can be avoided.
“This is the age we’ve got to get at the kids so they don’t get into those things that are ruining young adults now, like alcohol and ice, which are taking generations of children away,” she says. “If it’s about kids, then I’ll get involved. They learn a lot in the workshops. This is helping keep them off the street and it’s a safe place for them to come.”
Joel Misiloi bounds up the steps of the grandstand with an exuberance and efficiency that demoralises anyone on the wrong side of 30. The 13-year-old plays for RT (Red Team) and has just finished a match.
“We’re going pretty good,” Joel says of RT. “We just lost that last one 30-34, but we caught up in the last five minutes. Our defence was a bit off, but we’ll get it better.”
Joel considers himself “all right” at basketball. He enjoys the speed of the game, the swift and constant migration of players. That kineticism differs from his normal Friday nights, which involve a couch and television.
“This is my first time actually playing basketball, but it’s pretty fun,” Joel says. “I didn’t really know any of the rules, but I reckon I’m starting to get a hang of them now.”
It’s not long before Joel is back on court with his RT teammates. The children are given enough time to recover their energy between games but not become bored. Stillness is in short supply at Midnight Basketball. Roger exemplifies the “get stuck in” ethos that gives the program its pulse. He works as an Aboriginal Liaison Officer for Griffith City Council and likes to set a good example. If he’s not coaching his team, Bricks, he’s dealing with an organisational matter or helping out where he can.
“I get a lot out of it,” Roger says.
“It’s my way of, not only being a Griffith City Council representative, (but) of engaging with these youths and making sure we’re doing something from our point of view. And it’s not just council, it’s other organisations as well. There’s Linking Communities Network, Youth off the Streets. Without them guys we can’t make it possible. We’ve got reps from the Commonwealth Bank and we’ve got volunteers as well, which is very important. Without the goodwill of volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to run this.”
Cooperation and communication is the chemistry that creates communities. Sharing a postcode and politician isn’t enough to bond strangers and make them look up from their lives to contribute to a broader well-being. Roger has always felt connected to Griffith, even though he grew up in Tumut at the foot of the Snowy Mountains. He often visited Griffith as a boy to see extended family. He fondly remembers those trips to the Riverina; the school holidays picking oranges and grapes; the free time mucking about with siblings and cousins.
It’s a different world for young people now. The framework has changed. Pressures and temptations remain, but the threats this generation face operate on new fronts. A cruel taunt on social medial won’t bruise the skin but can cause pain that penetrates deeper than muscle and bone. There are drugs easily accessed that can demolish minds in one hit or decay them in the drawn out spiral of addiction. Midnight Basketball isn’t a Panacea and doesn’t pretend to be, but Roger knows it creates a positive and safe environment. In his experience, it’s within such settings that young people discover the best of themselves.
“I can remember when I was their age,” Roger says, nodding towards the children. “While it was different times, it was an age where you've got a lot of energy to burn. Basketball was just one of those sports that enabled us to get out there and play in a team sport. It taught us about teamwork and relationship building. It was very positive. I see these kids getting a lot out of it as well.”
The last games finish about 11.15pm and are followed by presentations to each team’s best and fairest. Coaches pick the player or players they want recognised and use whatever criteria they wish. The willingness to unselfishly pass the ball has the same prestige as hitting a game-winning basket.
The children gather in the foyer after the awards are handed out and wait for permission to board the buses that will take them home. Yawns invade conversations and sidesteps are required to avoid the stretching of tired limbs as the night’s effort takes effect. The fatigue has been hard won, mentally and physically, but the kids are already talking about next week — grand final night — and what may or may not happen.
Everyone has an opinion. On the edge of a new day, the future seems easier to see.