Visiting “the family” at San Quentin
In 1991, three friends from Portland, OR living in San Francisco signed up for a basketball league in Oakland, California. In the Bay Area, Oakland has the strongest reputation for good street basketball . And one thing these three knew about was playing street ball. Asphalt courts, chains for nets, double rimmed hoops, bad weather, uneven surfaces, it did not matter. They’d seen it all.
Growing up, they were every bit as good as their peers who played on the high school teams, but these three took other paths. With so much structure already in their lives from attending private high school, the option of playing under the looser reigns of city league ball appealed to them more. Plus, they just loved playing basketball, so it didn’t matter where they played or in what league so much as they just wanted to play, and to play together. They brought this “take anyone on” mentality to Oakland and later San Francisco forming a team named Bitter, and then, The Bittermen.
In existence in one form or another since ’91, the team had mostly disbanded until the opportunity to play the prison team at San Quentin every month became reality. As one of the team’s founders, and having moved away from San Francisco many years before, and officially being on injury-retirement, the chance to lace them up one more time for a once-in-a-lifetime experience was too much to pass up. I was headed to prison.
The first thing you notice about San Quentin prison is how pretty it is. Not so much the physical structure, though, having been built in 1852, it has a cool castle-like quality to it. It’s the setting you notice. San Quentin sits on San Francisco Bay in glorious sunshine. The day we arrived for our game versus the 40-year-old+ prison team, The Kings, we were even greeted by seals playing in the water as we gathered in the visitor’s parking lot.
Most times you have a basketball game, you are conscious of the need to be on time to allow for warm-ups, any stretching and of course to not forfeit by missing the tip off. While we were cognizant of the start time, our coach reminded us that it really doesn’t matter if we are a few minutes late. The prisoners aren’t going anywhere and are waiting for us regardless of when we show up.
San Quentin has the largest death-row population of any prison in the country. Charles Manson has lived there, and Scott Peterson is housed there now. And of course, San Quentin has a “no hostage” policy. My first thought when I heard that was, “oh, the prisoners are not allowed to take hostages. Well, that makes sense.” Um. No. The prisoners can take hostages all they want, but the prison guards will not negotiate with a prisoner who has taken a hostage. In other words, hostages are expendable thus rendering the act of taking hostages ineffective. The prisoner is shot and if you get in the way, that’s just the way it is.
To enter San Quentin and play requires passing a thorough background check. Even one unpaid parking ticket and you don’t get in. Looking back, and knowing the guys on the team, it is a bit of a wonder that we all cleared, but for the most part we’ve cleaned up our acts over the years. One player, coming out of retirement like myself, didn’t pass at the gate, and had to stay behind.
Entering the prison, on the other hand, was surprisingly easy. Once you pass through the main gate you have to walk along a road bordering the beautiful bay. You arrive at the building structure, avoid staring too long at the memorial to prison guards who lost their life in the line of duty, and enter another gate with another checkpoint. Gate opens, you enter another holding pen-type area, the gate behind you closes, enclosing you for a moment, ID’s are checked again and the forward gate opens and finally….you are inside. You enter a nice courtyard, peer back over your shoulder at death row, walk down a paved ramp around a corner, and there you are. In the Yard. The court is still another 100 yards away which gives you an opportunity to soak it all in. You soak in where you are, the lack of any control mechanism, and the need to stay close to your teammates. You know there are guards somewhere but you don’t see them. All you see are inmates hanging out, lifting weights, jogging, and just happy to be outside their cells. But, this isn’t a time to go exploring. You see the court and your mission is to get there quickly. You are there to play basketball not fraternize with convicted felons.
Every single inmate player approached every Bitterman team member with a handshake and a hug of gratitude for coming to play the game. Every single one. And not just thanks, but warm and sincere thanks. Then before the game commenced, a gathering of players at center court for a speech, a prayer, and all hands…inmate and Bitterman, stacked together in the middle of the huddle for a shout of “family!”. However, given the way the inmates came out firing shots, throwing elbows, and playing lock down defense to start the game, the feeling of “family” quickly subsided.
The game was lost 67-50. To say that the inmates had a home court advantage is an understatement. The court is not level, the backboards crooked and made of wood, the wind swirls off the bay, and of course, there is the heckling from the crowd. That the Bittermen had won the previous game against The Kings probably did not help either. They came out seeking revenge and got it.
They all thanked us again for showing up. Though they had won the game, it seemed like they were just happy to have had the opportunity to play. And to have the connection with the outside. Another group circle at center court, some good-natured ribbing, and a final shout of “family!”