The Salvation Army Blackhawks and Omaha Street School are tied at 41-41, and the atmosphere is tense.
Eleven seconds remain on the clock. Fans rise from the seats.
This north Omaha basketball league, hosted by the Hope Center for Kids and organized by violence prevention groups, is fun and exciting. Along with the games, organizers aim to teach players life skills and encourage them to make good choices.
"I believe every gang member doesn't want to be a gang member," said the Hope Center's pastor, Edward King, who organizes the Village Basketball Alliance. "As adults, we have to provide a positive alternative."
A Street School player scores on a free throw: 42-41.
The Blackhawks race to the other end of the court. One player misses a layup, then another, then a third.
The players are mostly teenagers and men in their early 20s. Many have gotten themselves into trouble, including gang membership. Some didn't make their high school teams or weren't allowed on because of grades or behavior problems.
This league gives them a chance.
"It sounds cheesy, but it's true — the kids just want to be kids again," King said.
One second before the buzzer sounds, the Salvation Army's Julien Parker, 18, sinks a shot for the winning two points. The crowd erupts.
Blackhawks players wear grins for the rest of the night. Parker calls friends to brag.
Tonight, Anthony Miller, 16, and Deonte Green, 17, will go home tired — and that's a good thing.
"If we had nothing to do, we'd probably be getting into trouble," Miller said.
Miller moved to Omaha from Atlanta a few years ago, and he brought some bad habits with him. But he said he's been better lately, not getting into scuffles and not skipping school. Part of it is his father's influence, but playing basketball every day also leaves little time or energy for those things.
The idea for the Village Basketball Alliance came about a year and a half ago at a meeting of Omaha 360, a group that seeks to unite violence-prevention organizations.
Most of the group's programs focus on things such as job training and prisoner re-entry. The group needed a way to reach young people with something young people like.
The Hope Center already hosted basketball leagues on a smaller scale at its community center, just south of 20th and Lake Streets. From that emerged the Village Basketball Alliance, an expanded league that includes people from all around north Omaha. It's now in its third season.
A league like this could have brought problems. Some of the players are from rival gangs or grew up in areas where people generally don't mingle.
But the Village Basketball Alliance is a haven, one aided by metal detectors at the door and a willingness to bench or expel troublemakers.
Plus, players and fans like the Hope Center's safe atmosphere, and most don't want to ruin it.
"It gives people a place to go," said David Brown, 19, one of the players. "A lot of people don't want to go anywhere because of the fighting."
To encourage this, Jannette Taylor bought trophies last season for all the players on the Impact One team, even though many of them aren't really "kids."
"It makes them feel appreciated," said Taylor, executive director of Impact One, a gang intervention organization.
Jamall Robinson, 20, keeps his trophy in the china cabinet with his most valued possessions.
"That's something big, especially with a trophy that has your name on it," he said. "It makes you feel good."
Robinson said he hadn't participated before in anything like this league, and the little things make a difference.
"I like that we pray before the game," he said.
His coach, George Devers, helped teach him that "hard work gets you good things" by rewarding Robinson with new basketball shoes. Since the league began, Robinson has graduated from Metropolitan Community College with a lead abatement certificate, and he has a job in that field.
Most of the players have an off-court relationship with the coaches and other adults involved.
That is part of what makes programs like this successful, said Pete Simi, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has studied adolescent delinquency and Omaha gangs.
Though this particular program hasn't been studied, Simi said, one of the predictors of delinquency is the amount of time teenagers spend without adult supervision.
Also important are the positive reinforcements, especially from mentors such as the coaches.
"It gives kids a sense that there's somebody who cares about him or her," Simi said.
This kind of activity has a side benefit of teaching skills like team building, leadership, persistence and work ethic.
"These types of programs can be really critical in terms of filling a vacuum where there's just a lack of recreational leisure opportunities for adolescents," he said.
King, the Hope Center pastor, said a lot of the program's success can be attributed to prayer. Also, once he gave these young men a good, structured way to spend their time, things seemed to work out.
The league's biggest problem is that the number of players is growing faster than the number of organizations that sponsor teams, so some people have to sit on the bench for too long.
The six teams have about 100 players altogether, with some trying to find playing time for each of 20 players. It's a good problem to have.
King sees the young men gaining confidence. Their parents often notice a change in their attitude, he said.
And off the court, they continue to get along.
"They may not be best friends ... but when they get back out on the streets it raises the respect level and the consideration level," King said.
Dain Johnson, 20, a former player who now works at the Hope Center, said there are other benefits to the community that has grown around the Village Basketball Alliance.
He once was stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire. Another young man stopped and said, "Hey, you play in the VBA," and helped him change the tire.
If they hadn't had that bond, Johnson said, the other player probably would have driven by.
"Something as simple as basketball can form unity," he said.
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