SAN QUENTIN, Calif. – They walked back out some two hours and 45 minutes later, past death row with the loud cadence of the Mexican Mafia counting off exercises, through the two metal-bar doors that slam shut with exactly the shock value portrayed in movies, and to the final check of sliding a wrist under the fluorescent light to make sure the underside of the lower arm had been stamped with “PASS” on the way in, indicating a guest allowed to leave.
“No glow, no go,” the guard manning the lamp said.
Nineteen Golden State Warriors players, coaches and executives had been inside San Quentin State Prison on Friday morning for a another pickup game against inmates, and it didn’t matter that they were back for the third year in a row. You don’t get used to San Quentin. About a 20-mile drive from Oakland, the prison boasts 3,873 inmates, 732 of them on California’s only death row for men. Some 400 convicts ringed the outdoor court to watch the game; an official estimated 80 percent of them were serving life sentences. So, no, you don’t get used to that.
The game was played in a yard near a baseball field, a tennis court, a track and weight-lifting equipment, the same kind of outdoor setting that could be found anywhere, except that this one also included razor wire looped along the top of the fence that ran the length of the sidelines and one baseline. Because blowing a whistle is a signal for trouble — inmates are required to hit the deck, everyone else must freeze — hunters’ duck calls are used. (In a non-Golden State game about five years ago, one of the refs with the visiting group, unaware of the rule, tweeted a regular whistle. Rifles flashed into view from towers in an instant.) Cell phones are not allowed without prior permission. Outsiders are prohibited from wearing blue, even jeans, or grey for fear of being confused with inmates’ wardrobes, so the Warriors, mostly dressed in the approved black and white as they arrive, slipped on green jerseys.
A unique basketball experience?
“Probably the No. 1,” said coach Steve Kerr, the former shooting specialist who did not play. “I spent about three years in Egypt when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. We didn’t have a gym. We’d play on a dirt court, light bulbs hanging on cords to light the court. That was No. 1. This replaces it.”
A different vibe?
“I watch the TV shows, I watch the movies,” Festus Ezeli, the projected backup center this season, said. “To be here today is almost surreal.”
A scary situation?
“My sisters, they were nervous about it, to be honest,” assistant coach Alvin Gentry said. “My older sister called this morning to say, ‘Be careful.’ Obviously there are a lot of things associated with San Quentin.”
All of the above. The Warriors have never had anything close to a problem in the three visits, though, not so much as a member of the home team trying to stare them down on the court or hoping to get in their head by suggesting a special brand of prison justice as intimidation. As officials and convicts themselves note, the only people who get hurt if game action goes too far are the inmates. They don’t want the visit to go away.
“We’re in such awe of them being here that we don’t have time to process that,” inmate Juan Haines said while watching from behind the Warriors bench. “We’re the ones intimidated.”
The inmates were exceedingly polite Friday, greeting the visitors with waves of high fives, handshakes, embraces and conversation, participants and watchers alike. One said the appearance was like getting Christmas at a different time of the year. Another told Ezeli the appearance that had nothing to do with marketing to sell tickets or merchandise “made us feel a little human.” Bill Epling, who has been coming to San Quentin to play basketball for about 15 years and for the last 11 has led the outreach program that now extends to the Warriors, called the game “a little moment of escape today from the daily grind” as part of his pregame invocation at mid-court.
Kerr, just as he is everywhere he goes, was asked about playing with Michael Jordan. Rookie guard Aaron Craft was questioned about playing at Ohio State and about Ohio State football. General manager Bob Myers heard about the upcoming season. One inmate said he wanted to ask Jonnie West, the associate general manager of Golden State’s D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz, about Jonnie’s father, Jerry. Ezeli, coming off a knee injury, was questioned when he was getting back on the court.
On and on. The usual fan stuff.
Inmate Rahsaan Thomas was asked during the second quarter what he would like to ask one of the Warriors.
“My question is,” Thomas said, “who talked you into walking into prison? It took guns and warrants to get me in.”
OK, so not always the usual fans.
Players — Craft, Ezeli, Ognjen Kuzmic, James Michael McAdoo, Marreese Speights, training-camp invite Mitchell Watt this year — attend strictly for the experience and the support, not to get on the court. General manager Bob Myers and assistant general manager Kirk Lacob, who organizes the Warriors group and comes to San Quentin other times as part of the outreach program, played, along with assistant coaches Luke Walton and Jarron Collins while Kerr and Gentry stayed on the sideline, with Gentry running the team. (Gentry, turning to the bench just before tipoff: “I’m going to show you how a real coach does it. Bob, Kirk, you can shoot any time you want.”)
The benefit from the Golden State perspective, Lacob said, “I think there’s an element of good community… and it’s a great learning experience. An educational experience, I’ll call it, for anyone who goes in, seeing how other people live and what else is out there, because we live in a pretty rosy world in sports. It’s basically you win or you lose but you’re still in a great environment. On top of it, the thing that I always come back to, it’s that mutual shared interest, that shared love of basketball that brings people together. There’s just something when you connect with people. It’s hard to explain, but that idea that you can connect with someone so different from yourself at such a deep level I think is valuable. But every year that we’ve gone with the Warriors, I think people have come out with a great appreciation for their own lives and what they do.” The team has even donated old practice gear to the inmates.
Death row is 300 yards away from the court. Guards are everywhere. The razor wire.
The game is lighthearted enough most of the way, with running commentary over a public-address system from one of the inmates, then becomes a close finish. It is a good, intense pickup run with a lot of contact, and Collins and Walton, with long NBA careers in their backgrounds, and Myers, a member of a national-championship team at UCLA, chug hard under the sun and light breeze coming off San Francisco Bay. Finally, the inmates close out the 92-86 victory, their first win in three tries.
Both sides consider the day a success. The convicts, after spending weeks talking about the upcoming game, got to go against players they had seen on TV and spend time in conversation. Plus, the win. The Warriors got to experience San Quentin — then got to walk out through the yard, up a slight hill into a courtyard within hearing range of death row, through the doors and, finally, to their cars.
They plan to be back for another game next year. It has become part of the annual routine. But it will never be something they get used to.