With my vacation and subsequent move from Sunnyvale to Newark, I haven't written a blog post in a couple of months. And this one is probably my first ever truly personal post.
This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to participate in a basketball ministry at San Quentin Prison. It was an interesting experience to say the least and it was truly a blessing to be able to participate in it. Going in, I really had no idea what to expect. Am I going to get shanked if I dunked on an inmate? But after it was all over and I was heading back to the Bay, I realized it was more than I every could have expected and I can't wait to go back at the beginning of October.
Pulling up to the parking lot outside of the San Quentin gates, I noticed that there were actually houses right outside of the gate. That's crazy! I can't imagine living right outside of a prison. The housing prices have to be great in order for people to actually live there right? But I can imagine that having a prison as your neighbor would work wonders as a scare tactic for your little kids.
Going into this whole thing, I was pretty nervous because I had no idea what to really expect. I wouldn't say I was scared, but just anxious. And the anxiety rose a number of notches when I wasn't searched when I went through the first prison gates. Sure we were a part of a Christian prison ministry and all I was wearing were some basketball shorts and a T-shirt, but still. I coulda been packing all sorts of stuff underneath. And if they weren't searching me, then that means they weren't searching everybody else either. Did that mean they weren't searching the inmates either??? Shux!
I was kinda glad that we didn't actually have to walk through the cell blocks to get to the yard. After going through another set of security doors and a long outdoor walkway, we approached the "Lower Yard." And I have to admit, I was shocked by what I saw when we turned the corner. There were hundreds and hundreds of dudes in blue jumpsuits engaging in athletic activities. The Lower Yard was actually kind of tight. It had a baseball/softball diamond, tennis court, ping pong tables, and of course a basketball court. You throw a swimming pool (and women) and it might as well be a sports club.
There was actually some rapport between the guys on my team and those on the prison team. The ministry has been going up to San Quentin every 2 weeks for the last few months, so a lot of the guys knew each other by now. And because of that they definitely knew that I was a rookie too (it also didn't hurt that I was one of 3 Black guys on a 12-man team). The prison basketball team had on orange and white Warriors jerseys and there were even prison referees. Before the game began, we took team photos and also one big group photo of both teams (pictures hopefully coming soon).
Being the new guy on the squad, I obviously didn't start. But halfway through the 1st quarter, I finally got my chance. I was mad nervous because the atmosphere on the court was kind of crazy. The court was out in the open, so there were like 100 prisoners surrounding the court watching the game as well and making all sorts of comments. Plus on the ride up, I was told about the "rookie curse" and how no one ever plays well in their first game because of the nervousness.
I was tasked to guard their best player, S.P., who supposedly is Gary Payton's cousin. He was pretty nice, with a sick crossover and great finishing ability. But he had no jumper. He definitely chopped me up a couple of times, which was followed by a bunch of "oooohs" (and other words & phrases) by the crowd. But I held my own and even dropped a few points myself. At halftime it was all tied up 39-39.
During halftime, both teams gathered at halfcourt, and a player on our team gave the message. The scripture was from 2 Timothy 3:10-17 which talks about how as followers of Jesus Christ we will all face persecution at some point or another because of our faith. It was a surreal experience hearing this mini-sermon in the center of a prison yard while people all around us were yelling and carrying on. A few inmates outside of the basketball team came to listen to the message as well, so I think it had some impact.
The defense on both sides tightened up in the 2nd half. I just completely backed off of S.P. and dared him to shoot (which he wouldn't or couldn't). He probably only had 4 points in the 2nd half after something like 20 in the 1st. Although I wasn't on the "1st team," I was in the game at the end when it was close to help us get the victory. We ended up winning 65-57, ending a 3-game losing streak.
Overall, it was a good game. It wasn't as physical and rough as I was expecting it to be. I was imagining it being "no blood, no foul" prison rules. But in fact their team was complaining about not getting any calls. The guys were real cool too. When you think of state penitentiary prisoners, you think of hardened criminals, but these guys were nothing like that. They were just like regular dudes I'd play pick-up ball with in the parks. They are somebody's son, father, husband or brother. I don't know their back stories and I was only with them for a few hours, but it's obvious that they weren't inherently bad or anything like that.
After the game, we had another group prayer where the leader of the ministry took prayer requests from the inmates. They asked for prayer for the victims of all of the hurricanes plaguing the Gulf Coast region. They also asked for prayer for a smooth transition as San Quentin racially integrates the cell blocks. Currently the cells are segregated with Blacks rooming with Blacks, Whites rooming with Whites, etc. Apparently there's an integration plan on the horizon which could cause lots of tension to say the least.
Next we went to the "Upper Yard" where cats there were walking around in orange jumpsuits. This yard didn't have any of the amenities found in the Lower Yard. It was just flat hot concrete surrounded by high walls. My guess was that these were the more serious offenders. But while we were there and all up in the mix of them, they were having a Real World Fair. People from the outside representing employment agencies, health care, and the like came to provide real world education to the inmates that they could use when they get out (eventually). The received books, booklets, and pamphlets that they could take with them. It was definitely a good thing to see.
One crazy thing was just the sheer number of inmates there were. It's just sad to see so many men behind bars. Every one of them probably represented a broken family too. And it was even more disheartening to see that at least 75% of them were Black. Especially when we only make up less than 15% of the overall US population. Something's not quite adding up.
But as I walked out of San Quentin Prison, it made value my freedom and realize how much I take it for granted. After the game was over, I got to go back home, shower, and take a nap in my bed. They, on the other hand, can't go home, and can't shower or nap unless the guards tell them they can.
As it seems with every ministry in which I participate, I feel like I was blessed more than I was able to be a blessing. The inmates did sincerely thank us for taking out our Saturday morning to come spend time with them. And it wasn't just the ones on the basketball team either. They were all truly appreciative. But I still feel way more blessed.
So I can't wait until the 1st Saturday of October when we'll be going back. The season is coming to a close so I definitely want to make the most of the few games remaining. And from a selfish standpoint, I want to have a more BenMVP-esque game as well.
Update (3/12/09): Here are the group pictures from our time in San Quentin last year. Here's our team: