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It is a Sunday morning in mid-January and for the second time this weekend, Jason Wright is at the park across the street from his mother's Pittsburg home, dribbling a basketball with his 3-year-old son Jason Jr. The little boy runs around gleefully, trying to steal the ball.
When Jason Jr. runs off to ride a mini plastic motorcycle, Jason strides to the free-throw line and launches the ball into the air with a snap of the wrist. His first attempt swishes through the hoop. His second attempt bounces off the rim, and he chases after it.
As a 24-year-old single dad, Jason is no longer in top physical shape, even though until a year ago he had a full-ride basketball scholarship to Sacramento State and hoped to turn pro. But he decided not to go back to school his senior year, and works instead for a debt collector in Concord.
Willis Flemings (with ball) and Marshaun Farris (next page) say they want to be a bigger part of their children's lives.
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Jason quit school, he says, because he realized he couldn't handle school and basketball with a toddler in tow. And even though basketball used to be an obsession, Jason now can't even show up at pickup games without making an elaborate series of phone calls to find a baby sitter. If the NBA was a pipe dream before, he knows that now it's totally out of the question.
But Jason does indulge his love for basketball in the summer and fall, when he plays for Oakland's Midnight Basketball League on Friday nights. Midnight Basketball is the only league he plays in now because it doesn't require any practices to schedule around, and because it's a father-friendly league where nearly half the participants are young fathers. The league accommodates fathers by offering day care in a back room where the children can get away from the gym's noise and wayward basketballs. Before each game, during the 45-minute workshops required for league participation, the guys sometimes talk about child custody, visitation, or child support.
For the young fathers, Midnight Basketball is an opportunity to play ball, the closest thing a lot of the guys have to remembering what it was like to be without the responsibility of children.
But Midnight Basketball is also a safe space, where no one is judged for being a young, black, low-income father. There, they can talk about their difficulties with child support or custody without anyone using the ugly slur "deadbeat dad."
For some of the guys in Midnight Basketball, fatherhood was unplanned, and they may not be on good terms with the woman with whom they had a child. But most say they are a part of their children's lives; in many cases, these young fathers were raised by single mothers and have vowed not to desert their children the way their own fathers deserted them. But fatherhood isn't easy when you're in their situations. They know almost nothing about visitation or custody rights, and many of them are suspicious of the courts. Some can't afford to pay child support, and they definitely can't afford a lawyer to help them figure it all out. Not only that, they're a bit distracted by the trials of growing up themselves.
Still, these men insist they want to be there for their children, but they say they need a little help.
The attitude of the men at Midnight Basketball is in line with emerging research that is dispelling myths and stereotypes of the "deadbeat dad," and especially of young, low-income fathers. Recent studies have shown that many of these men initially want to be part of their children's lives, but they can be overwhelmed or alienated by issues of child support or custody. The studies also show that low-income dads often contribute financially and emotionally, but in informal ways that the government usually doesn't acknowledge. Because of those changing perceptions, government agencies and private groups are working to provide more services and support to young, unmarried fathers in the same way they are given to single mothers.
After struggling for over a year to obtain custody of his son, Jason has become a role model to the other young fathers in the basketball league. And Jason realizes it, which is why he chooses to be vocal about the subject and is trying to pursue a career that would allow him to help others like himself.
"A lot of us fathered children, and we want to be positive but we don't know how," Jason says. "Or we have a hard time. It's an issue a lot of men deal with in this community. And there are stereotypes, especially for young black men. But we want to be with our kids."
During the winter off-season, Friday nights are open gym for Midnight Basketball at the Ira Jinkins Recreation Center in East Oakland. By 8 p.m., at least a couple dozen guys in gym shorts and T-shirts have shown up -- enough to get a rotation going for eight-minute games. Rap music drowns out the sound of squeaking sneakers and the friendly trash talking on the courts.
It is five-on-five during these pickup games, and there are no referees and no fouls. The guys seem to play with more heart than aggression, but there are moments of astounding athleticism. There are dramatic, game-winning shots at the buzzer, graceful rebounds, miraculous baskets from half-court, and drives toward the basket full of finesse.