The towering hulk of a man -- he's 6 foot 5, 240 pounds -- stood on the running track above the basketball floor in the Niagara Falls YMCA, watching 10 teen-agers define the game of "playground basketball."
The time was 11:25 p.m. Friday, and the new Niagara Knights program, which offers weekend activities for young people from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., was in full stride.
Charlie Henderson was talking, but not about the basketball on the floor below him, with its share of bad shots, turnovers, dunks and highlight-film moves. Henderson was explaining the program and its benefits.
"This can offer an alternative to gangs," said Henderson, education and drug counselor for Niagara Knights. "Gangs offer kids what they sometimes don't receive at home: belonging, feeling a part of something. This is similar. It gives them something to identify with. They take pride in being part of this program. It can help."
Niagara Knights already has been a rousing success. Since it began Sept. 21, the coed program has registered more than 700 youths, many of them joining the program's organized basketball and floor-hockey leagues.
Friday night, 140 young people, mostly 15 to 20, participated in floor hockey, basketball, pool, pingpong, weight training and other sports.
"At the beginning, basically what we had were gym rats and good kids," said Henderson, the education and drug counselor. "I started asking how we were going to attract the kids who are at risk. But working the door, I started smelling alcohol and marijuana (on youths' breath), so I realized that the at-risk kids were coming here, too. This has become an 'in' thing to do." The rules are strict: no drugs, alcohol, profanity or revealing clothing. The rewards include the Niagara Knights T-shirts given for attending 10 times without any discipline problems.
While any Niagara County youth is welcomed, the program targets youngsters who otherwise might be sampling drugs or street life.
"A majority of these kids, little things hold them together and keep them in school," Henderson said. "Some of these kids are right on the fence. Just like there's negative peer pressure, this is positive peer pressure. There's pressure to compete and to win. They pride themselves on their skills, and they get a chance to upgrade those skills."
Besides the athletic competition, the program also offers informal drug, education and employment counseling.
"Hopefully, the counselors and the coaches can be positive role models," said Marc Daul, the program's associate director.
After only 2 1/2 months, the Niagara Knights Program, patterned after a successful Chicago midnight basketball league for young men, has no precise way to measure its effectiveness.
But Arthur Eberhart Sr., the program's executive director and a retired Niagara Falls police lieutenant, makes this observation:
"The time these kids are here, they're not getting in trouble."
For Eberhart, that's good news.
"There are a number of kids here whose fathers I arrested, for drugs, robbery," he pointed out.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the program has had an effect.
Two weeks ago, according to Eberhart, a 20-year-old floor-hockey player walked off the gym floor.
"Man, two floor-hockey games in one night are tough," he said. "I know one thing, I'm not going drinking tonight."
No one associated with Niagara Knights sees it as a cure-all for the drug and gang problems that plague Niagara Falls.
"You can't stop drugs," said Alphonso Moody, 20, preparing for a pickup basketball game late Friday night. "But this can control some of the people who are thinking about drugs. And this can control silly crime, like vandalism and mischief."
"I know people here who sell drugs or who probably would be getting into it," added Joe Mallory III, 19. "This may slow them down. It may not. But it's not just drugs. This also can split up the gangs."
The program's effects, as well as the motives for attending Niagara Knights, vary.
"It gives kids a chance to meet other kids, to have something to do Friday and Saturday nights, to get a chance to play basketball and to stay out of trouble," said Dwayne Carter, 23, coach of one of the six in-house basketball teams, the Gambino Ford Griffins.
If nothing else, Niagara Knights offers an alternative to the boredom and idleness that have the potential of luring good kids into trouble.
Where would Mallory have been Friday night if there were no Niagara Knights Program?
"Probably driving around, sitting at home or hanging out, doing nothing," he replied, echoing others' answers to the same question.
Pushed hard by Lee Simonson, Niagara County Legislature chairman, the program got started only when youth agencies, government and the private sector agreed to work together for it, Eberhart said.
Niagara Knights receives $100,000 from the county, $50,000 from the state and $11,000 from businesses, including Tops Markets, Carborundum Co. and Occidental Chemical Corp. Ten to 20 adult staff members work each night.
Designed originally for 15-to-20-year-olds, the program has found a great demand from persons younger and older, leading Eberhart to believe the program has a great potential for growth at both age extremes. The heavy demand also has forced the program to add Wednesday evening basketball games.
"Programs of this type are the wave of the future across the country," Eberhart said. "It's a pro-active, positive environment for these kids. We're not waiting for them to get in trouble. And it's not just rolling out a basketball for them.
"We're making friends first," he added. "Then we'll get into their heads."
Added Moody, dressed colorfully in red Nike basketball shoes and a green New York Jets cap turned backward: "I wish this had happened when I was younger."