With the gang wars ongoing, Phil Carter had to help get kids off the streets of Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood in March 1991.
The Wilson High School football legend, then a program director at the Tacoma Center YMCA, conceived the Teen Late Nite program there as a way to use basketball to connect with young adults.
“We just knew that there was a need,” said Carter, 55 and now the senior executive director of the Tacoma Center, Morgan Family and Lakewood YMCAs. “We filled up the gym right away and we didn’t have any issues.”
Not even with the gym packed with Crips gang members, to the point where Michael Schwartz, now a Pierce County Superior Court judge, would walk behind Carter, facing the other way, watching his back every Friday night.
“I just remember trying to be the best basketball player you could be — surrounded by 60 or 70 Hilltops,” said David Jenkins Sr., 41, a Stadium High School alumnus who participated in Teen Late Nite at its inception.
Now, Jenkins’ son, David Jr., plays basketball while his dad volunteers with Teen Late Nite, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this month.
The program, which started locally at the Tacoma Center YMCA, gives teens open time on the basketball court and with the exercise equipment every Friday and Saturday night.
There also are public speakers and teaching about the Y’s tenets of caring, responsibility, honesty and respect.
“It’s a great opportunity for kids to come together and it’s great for our community because it gives somebody a safe environment to play basketball and to come interact with other people,” said Jenkins Jr.
The younger Jenkins, a senior guard at Wilson High, is a two-time Narrows League MVP and holds the Rams’ all-time scoring record.
He has been coming to Teen Late Nite since he was in sixth grade, and credits it with developing him as a basketball player as well as a student and a person.
The Friday night event generally draws 80 to 85 kids — mostly high-schoolers, though no student is turned away. Saturday nights are tailored for middle-schoolers and attract 150 or more.
Across Pierce and Kitsap counties, the nine branches draw 1,500 participants a week on average.
On the Friday night before Easter, turnout was a little more sparse, with about 40 people around the basketball courts all evening for games of 4-on-4.
Before the games started in earnest, new teen director Gary McCurty, a 1989 Lincoln High School graduate, told the teens about free pizza to celebrate the 25th anniversary.
Then he gave them a speech about the power of respect.
“Respect goes a long way,” McCurty said. “You might not see it now, but I’m telling you — I’m telling you — that when you respect people, you will see where that takes you later in life.”
McCurty told the kids about a teen he’d worked with at the Y. The boy wanted a letter of recommendation, and before he had said what for, McCurty agreed — because the teen had always treated him with respect.
Then McCurty let the kids play basketball.
Oakland High School freshman Julius Nichols was playing with a limp and a brace on his right leg. He has come out for four years, and what he thinks is a broken ankle wasn’t enough to keep him off the court — even if most of his shots came up short.
Asked why he was playing, he replied with a simple cliche: “Because ball is life.”
At one point, Erin Jones, 45, was in charge of Teen Late Nite. The former state teacher of the year now directs Tacoma Public Schools’ Advancement Via Individual Determination college access program.
Jones, a former small-school college basketball star at Bryn Mawr, moved to her husband’s native Tacoma before getting a surprise WNBA tryout invitation and having to get into game shape in three months.
Jones, who grew up in the Netherlands, worked out in the Y for six hours a day, six days a week to prepare. She didn’t make the league, but became a volunteer at Teen Late Nite, playing with the boys.
“I have spent hundreds of hours in this gym, playing alongside guys,” she said. “I was always the only female out here.
“There’s a power in that being kind of a mother/big-sister figure. Young men are always looking for that, that ‘Who can I look up to, who can I listen to.’ And because I can play at their level, it also gave me incredible authority to speak into their lives in other ways, so it wasn’t just about basketball.”
Jones says she can tell how someone will be as an employee by how they play the game.
“I tell my guys, ‘I can watch you play basketball for five minutes and know who I would hire, just by work ethic.’”
She also reminds the young men she comes across that they need to plan for life after sports, just as she did.
“I think seeing a black female who is not only an athlete but an academic — I speak four languages — I became a model for what was possible. They’d never seen anything like me before.”
Jenkins Sr. still sees the benefits in Teen Late Nite, 25 years after participating as a teenager.
For one thing, some kids have to walk down to the Y and back, he said, and for some the snacks on hand are all the food they might get that night.
There are still gang members, but they’re more scattered now — no more groups of 50 or 60 people, all dressed in blue, standing on the sidelines.
“My best memories now are watching these kids come up and play basketball and go off to college,” Jenkins Sr. said. “I didn’t really get to see that when I was at Late Night. I get to see that now.”
Carter, the program’s founder, is glad the program has stuck it out for 25 years and sees it continuing far into the future.
“There’s just a need for something so positive for kids to be able to come to,” he said. “I’m privileged and honored to be able to offer this to the community.”