Search

A TOUGH TEAM INSIDE THESE PRISON INMATES TOOK THEIR HOOPS SERIOUSLY

Dec. 15, 1997
Dec. 15, 1997

Table of Contents
Dec. 15, 1997

A TOUGH TEAM INSIDE THESE PRISON INMATES TOOK THEIR HOOPS SERIOUSLY

One fall when he was working in a small coastal town in Maine,
my father spotted an ad in the local paper that read something
like this:

This is an article from the Dec. 15, 1997 issue Original Layout

OUR BASKETBALL TEAM NEEDS OPPONENTS
*we play home games only*
Maine State Prison

My dad, a high school administrator, is an educator in the
truest sense of that word: He loves to shake things up and see
what happens. So when he read the ad, he compiled a list of
everyone he knew who, in his estimation, needed the rigor of
playing prison basketball. Then he pared the list down to those
whom he might conceivably convince to do such a thing. The only
people who survived the cut were relatives: my two cousins, my
brother and me. Then my father answered the ad.

In the weeks before Christmas, Dad made vague allusions to the
upcoming contest. He talked about "challenge"; he talked about
"service"; he talked about "giving something back."

"Are we actually playing in the prison?" I asked my brother, Sam.

"Maybe it's against the staff at the prison, like the guards and
the warden," Sam answered.

But we were kidding ourselves. We knew we would be on the court
with kidnappers and arsonists, killers and rapists--and that
while my dad was educating us, they would be the ones taking us
to school.

When the day came, the five of us--a pale, scrawny
five--traveled together to the prison. We chatted away about the
weather, the road conditions, the upcoming holiday, everything
except the game. But when we got to the prison and a poker-faced
guard led us to the gym through a seemingly endless series of
iron-gated doors, we quieted down.

We stayed in tight single file behind the guard; he was our new
best friend. Then we were outside again, in the bracing December
cold, but not really outside: We were standing on the prison
grounds, enclosed by towering walls. It was a bleak landscape
dotted by patches of ice and snow. On the west side of the
grounds was a crude baseball diamond, weathered and neglected.
"You hit a ball over that wall, and it's gone," said the guard.
We looked out at the western wall of the prison, complete with
an imposing watchtower at each end. Ahead of us was the gym,
without windows, a small version of the prison itself.

The locker room was cold and sparsely furnished, with two
benches, one toilet stall, a urinal and a sink with a mirror. As
we undressed, I ran down our lineup.

At point guard was my 31-year-old cousin Andrew Moore, 5'8",
once an ambitious skateboarder and a nationally ranked
windsurfer. Tenacious, lithe, dexterous, mercurial. An
accomplished duck hunter. Nearly zero basketball experience.

At two guard we had Andrew's 33-year-old brother Ally, 5'8",
roughly 10 years out of Connecticut College, where he was a
reliable midfield soccer player. Clever, competitive, graceful,
robust. A good fisherman. Not a good basketball player.

At power forward was 24-year-old Sam, 5'11", the once celebrated
captain of Wesleyan's ultimate Frisbee team, which he led to the
national tournament in 1992. Surefooted, headstrong, consistent,
impassioned. Played hockey as a kid and goes to the hoop with
the same brute intent with which he slammed people into the
boards. Should have stuck with hockey.

At the other forward was my father, 6 feet, the 130-pound center
of his high school jayvee football squad in 1956. An admirer of
basketball, he could probably teach it if he had to, but he
never played the game.

At center was I, at 6'2". In the early '80s I pitched several
games for the Pat's Pizza Little League baseball team of
Yarmouth, Maine, amassing an ERA of 23.17. Gritty,
unpredictable, loyal. Always picked last for kickball. As a big
man in the paint, persistent but hopelessly inept.

We were going to die.

Somewhere around the second iron-gated door, we had stopped
thinking our predicament was funny. When we heard our opponents
limbering up and sensed that the gym was filling up with
hysterical inmates, we stopped thinking that the day could be
written off as a good educational experience. Behind the closed
door of our locker room, we could smell the inmates' height,
their heft, their criminality and their ability to dunk. We
waited.

Was I paranoid to think that the referee, who came to get us
wearing the traditional black and white stripes of that
thankless job, was also an inmate, and that we were going to be
thrown to the lions? Maybe.

Without looking at our opponents, we started a hapless layup
drill, then switched to just shooting around and stretching.
After a while each of us stole glances at the opposing team,
which was detrimental to our morale: The inmates were making all
their jump shots and firing quick chest passes that blurred from
one sideline to the other. Inmate fans filled the balcony
seating above the court, some of them leaning over the rail and
smiling at us.

Somehow I won the tip-off. I got it to Andrew, the most fleet of
foot among us, and he sprinted toward our basket with an inmate
close behind. Just as he planted his left foot and went up with
his right hand for the layup, his defender let out a deep,
guttural groan, like a ghost's, and Andrew's muscles flinched
and sent the ball 15 feet above the rim. The crowd went wild,
and the man who had groaned grinned widely. The prisoners scored
a quick dozen points before we could set up a play, and even
after we scored our first points, they continued to trounce us.

The two players I remember best were a fellow nicknamed Frosty,
a towering, near albino center with Scandinavian features who
may have scored 50 points, and Ed, a box-shaped man of brute
strength who rarely shot but had enormous tattooed arms that
relentlessly hauled in rebounds. Frosty had recently begun
serving a 30-year sentence for murder. We were told he had
dismembered his victim and dumped the body in a granite quarry.
Ed was well into a life sentence for rape and murder, crimes he
had reportedly committed against his mother. The inmates' point
guard was doing five-to-15 on manslaughter charges. We were told
his first trip to Maine had been on a Navy ship that docked in
Portland for a short period of leave time. He and another sailor
had gotten drunk, stolen a car and run over someone.

No question they had a home court advantage. Convicted
criminals in the stands above the court cheered for their more
athletic peers. We were clearly outsiders: civilians who had
either sheepishly followed the rules or not been caught breaking
them. We imagined the cheers of these fans were founded in envy
or resentment, until a remarkable thing happened.

Our point total was still in the single digits, and we had just
endured a swift five or six breakaway baskets. Our opponents
were weaving, making an extra two or three passes to excite the
crowd. Their fast breaks had tired them, and in the absence of
their press we set up something resembling an offense. On one
possession my father, out of breath, was the last to make it
down the court, and we swung the ball around their zone to him.
He caught it in midstride and came to an awkward halt, his front
foot slapping down well ahead of his back foot. But he
positioned himself, and his defender backed off a bit,
challenging him to shoot. The place was silent. Then a fan
yelled out, "Chuck it up, Pops."

Cued by this spectator, my dad rocked back and let fly a set
shot. I watched its trajectory the way I watched the path of the
last shot in Hoosiers (which was in slow motion). It fell
cleanly through the net. The crowd again went wild--this time
for us. My dad, the educator, raised a fist.

In the eyes of the fans, my dad's shot helped to define us as
the struggling underdog. Even our opponents on the court began
to encourage us in an older-brother kind of way. The 10
competitors on the court began to play the game of basketball:
running, jumping, shooting, scoring (though the inmates did most
of the scoring). There were about 10 minutes at the end in which
the game actually flowed.

When it was over, we shook hands, and the inmates thanked us for
coming "inside." As we returned to our locker room, we had no
profound thoughts. We felt only exhaustion, soreness and
satisfaction.

Nowadays the prison basketball story comes up in family
conversation from time to time. We talk about the bleakness of
the prison grounds, our first glances at our opponents and the
hollowness we felt when the iron gates closed behind us.
Remarkably, my dad puts no educational spin on the episode and
offers no moral to the story. The fans found something in both
teams to root for, and, at least for a few minutes, we were all
just playing a game.

Lewis Robinson works on his game in Tenants Harbor, Maine. This
is his first story for SI.

TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVY LIU [Collage of three prison-inmate basketball players and two others; four basketball players celebrating]