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WILL LIGHTS GO OUT ON MIDNIGHT BALL?

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Not once this year has 16-year-old Aisha Cain missed a game of the Stateway Sonics in the city's public housing midnight basketball league.

She loves what happens at the end too much to stay away, and being at the games is a lot safer than walking to the corner store for a soda on a hot summer night."When the game is over, no matter who wins, the black man is going to shake hands and hug," she said the other evening as the Sonics and the Ida B. Wells Celtics rushed up and down the court. "That's positive. Maybe that's why the congressmen don't like it."

In the halls of Congress, far away from Aisha's world, midnight basketball has become an issue in the debate over the stalled $33.2 billion crime bill. The bill includes $40 million for late-night crime-prevention and alternative programs like midnight basketball leagues, now operating in 45 cities from Chicago to Elyria, Ohio, outside Cleveland.

Opponents of the bill say it is too fat with wasteful spending, and it appears that they will impel President Clinton into trimming the amount of money allocated for such programs, a prospect that has Aisha and her friends convinced, she says, that "Congress doesn't care nothing about us.

"They can waste money to build more jails instead of schools but they don't want to fund something positive like this," said Jackie Johnson, 24, who the other night was cheering for her boyfriend's team, the Robert Taylor Rockets.

Midnight basketball programs were started in Maryland in 1986 to provide local young men from 17- to 26-years-old an alternative to the streets during some of the peak crime hours of 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The Chicago Housing Authority, which is financed by the federal government, started its league in 1989 with money from its general recreation fund to provide an alternative to the street gangs that have long haunted its buildings.

"The league gives us hope," said Mario Goins, 22, a college student who plays for one team from the Ida B. Wells project. "It makes us feel good because we're a part of something. It's like being in a big family. Plus, it keeps us off the streets, where anything can hap-pen.

"A lot of the kids doing the violence and running in gangs, they were never part of anything," he said. "They felt there was no way out except doing wrong. With this, there's a sense of light. It's not dark anymore upstairs in people's minds."

The Chicago league has an annual budget of $80,000, which comes from the housing authority. It also receives contributions from local businesses that help pay for the basketball shoes, warm-ups and uniforms that each player is given at the start of the 16-week season.

But basketball and a crisp uniform are just hooks to get the young men into the "ministry" of the program's job training and self-esteem classes, said Gil Walker, director of the housing authority's recreation program, which oversees the league.

"You're not going to undo years and years of denial in 16 weeks," Walker said.