By Chris Ballard
October 01, 2009

A few months ago, I entered San Quentin State Prison with a group of guys to play basketball against a team of inmates.

First, the important details: none of the dozen of us who went got knifed or were taken hostage. The guards didn't fire a single shot, and we never had to hit the deck. Likewise, no one had to D up Scott Peterson, a Menendez brother or any serial killers, at least as far as I know. Which is to say our worst fears, and those of our families, were not realized.

That didn't stop us from being, shall we say, a bit cautious. For example, afterward I sat at a bar with a teammate who we'll call "Jake." We were crusted in sweat and feeling mildly euphoric, as tends to happen when one safely departs a prison with the largest death row population in America. "So," I asked Jake, "What did your wife say when you told her you were going to play at San Quentin?"

He looked a bit startled. "Oh," he replied. "I haven't yet."

No wonder. As the inaugural opponents for San Quentin's over-40 squad, an element of the prison's outreach program, we had received the following warnings before our first visit: stay bunched together at all times, give only first names and run only when on the court because, as hoops coordinator Stephen Irwin, told us, "Otherwise the guards will think you're a prisoner making a break for it, and trust me, you don't want that." We knew about the three gun towers and the ratio of one armed guard for every four inmates but most of all about the "no hostage" policy, which we were reminded of often and which was helpfully summarized by a prison employee as: "If one of them grabs one of you, ain't s--- we can do about it." In other words, no one made you come in here (and further, and more graphically, if a prisoner is holding both you and a weapon, the guards will shoot through you to get to the prisoner).

You can watch Shawshank Redemption a hundred times, but nothing can adequately prepare you for the sensation of turning a corner and first walking out onto "the yard", in this case a dusty expanse of asphalt, grass and dirt ringed by fortress-like walls and teeming with 600-odd prisoners baking in the sun, all of whom turned to appraise us. It's safe to say we did not present an intimidating tableau. A dozen pasty, middle-aged guys (I was the youngest at 35), we were recruited from a Sunday game in San Anselmo, Calif., that is as friendly as it is enduring. Our tallest player was 6-foot-4, which was also about our cumulative vertical leap. As we strode forward, trying not to make eye contact with the men who now pressed toward us, it took a concerted effort not to turn around and sprint back the way we'd come. I'm not sure I've ever felt more self-conscious.

To say the yard provided a home court advantage would be an understatement. A strong wind swooped over the walls from the nearby San Francisco Bay, taking outside shots with it. Convicts perched on the metal bleachers, heckling and roaring and, more disconcertingly, staring holes through us. Refs blew kazoos instead of whistles, lest they signal an attempted escape, and our nervous pregame layups were interrupted by an ear-piercing siren that sent the prisoners onto their stomachs for a head count, like so many dominoes suddenly tipped over, and left us shaken and huddled together awkwardly. "So," said Bobby Galliani, our veteran big man, as we waited for the all clear, "Anybody seen any good movies recently?" More nervous laughter you've never heard.

As for the game, rarely have you seen so many guys less interested in offensive rebounding or driving to the hole. We swung the ball on the perimeter and somehow got an early lead, though they came back behind "Calippo," their boulder-armed 6-6 big man, who boasted a bruising post game, an enormous tattoo and a soft jumper. The play was physical and the crowd intense. When we scored, the bleachers jeered us, then berated their own. "Somebody do something about somebody," a prisoner with cornrows yelled at the inmates at one point, "They're killing y'all from the outside!"

It took until at least the third quarter, but at some point, I don't remember exactly when, it became just basketball. I remained hyperaware of my surroundings, of not making eye contact with the crowd, of not fouling too aggressively, but I also began focusing on the game itself. I looked to get the ball to our shooters, tried to take advantage of the prison team's tendency not to rotate on defense. Eventually, we made a final surge but they held us off for the win. And so, two hours after arriving, we filed back through the sally port's iron cage, exhaling as we went. Outside, the sun felt a little warmer, life a little grander. I went home and hugged my kids.

We'd left the prison with a story to tell, but I wondered about the prisoners, about what this meant to them. Before and after the game, they'd been gracious and friendly, exchanging enthusiastic shoulder hugs and making it clear they appreciated our presence, but as we'd played there had been an edge. When asked what our opponents were in for, Irwin had responded with a stern glare. "I don't ask and you don't want to know," he said. But wasn't part of the purpose to humanize these men, for better or worse? To complicate our assumptions?

They say you can tell a lot about a man by how he plays the game; there are even CEOs who take new hires to the gym to get a feel for their grasp of teamwork. But do men who've done unspeakable things deserve more of a second chance because they can make a backdoor pass, because they're passionate about the same game we love? Is there more truth in a Sunday hoops game than a parole board hearing? Or is the escape the game offers more temporary than permanent?

A few months later, we went back for a second game and this time we managed to win, aided by a couple (younger, taller) additions. Afterward I set up a phone conversation with Danny Cox, the prison team's lean, thickly-muscled starting small forward. As we talked, his life story unspooled: He said he'd once been a shooting guard with a 34-inch vertical leap who played for Long Beach City College. Fourteen years ago he was put away, after being arrested for his third non-violent felony, aiding and abetting a drug deal ("I'm very guilty," he says). Since this is California, home to the harshest three strikes law in the country, he got life. His case was not eligible for review for 20 years. So he joined prison church programs and got involved with the hoops team.

It is, he explained, something they take very seriously. The team, "lifers" all of them, breaks down each game for days afterward, practices three times a week, and has both a coach and an assortment of plays. Their first thought upon seeing us, he admitted, was: "To be honest, we thought we'd blow you guys out -- I mean, you didn't even look like basketball players." Regardless, they were grateful for the competition. "Without exaggerating, you guys coming in shows us that people still care and have faith and trust in us," he said. "It motivates us to keep trying to get back to the outside."

Finally, he told me about Calippo, the big guy who'd been their best player in both games. Cox described him as a legend in the prison system who "could have gone pro" 20 years and 70 pounds ago and who, after 22 years inside, "just got his date, God bless him" meaning the parole board found him suitable to leave and he might be home by January.

And personally, I am inclined to root for his release, not knowing the specifics. Not just because I want to believe that people can change, and that the game can help heal a man in some small way, but for another, more practical reason: In a couple months we're headed back to play again, and, frankly, that guy's an absolute bitch to guard.

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