Sweat dripping from his forehead, Pheng Xiong — in full police uniform, including bullet-resistant vest under his shirt — was locked in a heated one-on-one battle with Ronnie Kemp.

But as the 29-year-old St. Paul police officer and 15-year-old boy traded jumpers and layups at the Arlington Hills Community Center gym, Xiong steadily pulled away — from 17-8 to 19-8 and finally, 21-8. Game.

After the winning shot dropped through the net, the two shook hands, with the kid wondering how he lost to a cop.

“Man, I was off,” Kemp grumbled.

Xiong smiled. For the past three years, he has embraced his role as officer and mentor — both in the community he patrols and with teens who are like he was — looking for direction. Xiong, who grew up in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood, overcame trouble in his teens thanks to a stint in the St. Paul Police Explorers program that whetted his appetite for police work. Now, he is one of the program’s lead advisers.

“Being in the Explorers taught me to always do the right thing, no matter what,” said Xiong, a three-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department and the married father of two young children. “It wasn’t going that way. I got into trouble. I followed some guys. But it definitely saved me from a lot worse.”

Tug of war

It’s not that Xiong was a bad kid. He played football and wrestled in high school. With a father, grandfather and great-grandfather who fought for the U.S. during the Vietnam War, honor and discipline were important in his family.

Still, he admits, the bad stuff had its allure.

Friends and extended family members pulled him toward gangs and making a quick buck at someone else’s expense. Some insisted that he join for “protection.” Xiong admits there were times he chose wrong. He once spent a weekend in juvenile detention, although he won’t go into detail about why.

Then, at 14 or 15, he joined the Explorers.

“It really turned me around,” he said.

The program, for young people ages 14-21, provides participants with hands-on experiences, skills, and opportunities related to law enforcement. The St. Paul Police program, started in the 1980s and affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, covers CPR and first aid and state and local statutes and ordinances. It also provides participants with scenario-based training on a variety of topics, with students acting out traffic stops, executing search warrants and making arrests.

Explorers are not officers, but they do assist police at such events as the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the Minnesota State Fair.

Candidates for the program must pass a written test, make it through a background investigation and complete an oral interview.

The current class of 12 students, which meets on Tuesdays at St. Paul Police headquarters and on some Saturdays, is set to graduate soon. The next class will start academy training this fall. Participants often go into the military or college after graduating, officials say. Others become cops — 15 St. Paul police officers were once Explorers and 48 other St. Paul kids who went through the program are officers with other departments, a department spokesman said.

Getting to know kids

Xiong did not spend a full year in the program. But, he said, the police officers who were advisers convinced him to pick the right side in his personal tug of war. Joining the program also had another benefit: It convinced the neighborhood gangbangers and criminals “to leave me alone,” he said.

After graduating from Arlington High School, Xiong went to work at a metal press job. Hating it, he went on to study law enforcement at Century College. He got his first police job in New Hope and joined the St. Paul Police Department in 2012.

Now, Xiong and partner Nick Lyfoung work a beat in Grid 54 — an area on the city’s East Side bordered by Payne Avenue to the west, Maryland Avenue to the north, Arcade Street to the east and Case to the south. It is one of the most active areas for youth crime, Xiong said.

On a recent Friday afternoon, he and Lyfoung dropped by Arlington Hills to talk with staff members and hang out with kids before walking up and down Payne, poking their heads into businesses and chatting with store managers and bar owners.

“This is the job, this is what we do,” Xiong said. “It’s as much getting to know the kids out here as it is arresting people.”

Seeing other kids getting into trouble, Xiong said, it’s not hard for him to imagine how his life would be different without the Explorers. He said he has encountered old neighborhood friends, some who have continued on the wrong side of the law and some who have not. He admits he’s had to arrest more than a few of the guys with whom he used to run.

“It’s kind of a love/hate thing when I have to do it,” he said. “I tell them ‘Hey, it’s nothing personal. But I have to do my job.’ ”