San Quentin – There’s some anxiety when you enter San Quentin State Prison as a visitor, not knowing what awaits you inside the walls of one of the most infamous places in the world.
It helps to be with a group, in this case, the Golden State Warriors. Members of the team’s front office and coaching staff have been making the annual trip to San Quentin to play pickup basketball against the prison team for the past 10 years.
It is a friendly game, but competitive. And it’s still the oldest prison in San Quentin, California, and the only gas chamber in the state.
The players of the Warriors team were given generic green jerseys in the guest parking lot on Friday morning. Green is one of the three colors that are allowed. Others are black and white. This separates visitors from the prison population, which wears state-issued blue and brown clothing.
At the prison entrance, your cell phone is confiscated and locked for the duration of the visit. You present your ID to a prison officer and sign in. You are taken to a room called the “Sally Port”, a type of holding cell where your ID is checked once more before the metal door is unlocked.
When that door closes behind you, the isolation experienced by a largely forgotten population is deeply established.
But the warriors are in the house.
“It’s something I look forward to every year,” said Rahsan Thomas, who spent 22 years in San Quentin on a second-degree murder sentence. “It’s something to see in this deserted, dark place when you’re away from your home and you can’t meet your family. These people are my journey.”
Casual fans of Warriors won’t recognize this lineup. Steph Curry is not here. Neither is Klay Thompson nor is Drummond Green. Among the players, there are only a handful – James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody most notably – and none of them will play in the game.
The Warriors lost the most recent meeting – three years ago, before the pandemic – on the last-second shot. The roster for the rematch is even slimmer. General Manager Bob Myers, who played collegiately at UCLA and is said to have scored 40 points in one of these games, this time was sidelined due to a hip injury. Assistant coach Chris DeMarco, who stands 6-foot-7, was a late scratcher.
At least four players were making their San Quentin debuts in his absence: Warriors player development coach Hilton Armstrong, who stood 6-11 and was selected in the first round in the 2006 NBA Draft; Santa Cruz Warriors assistant coach Noel Hightower, who stands 6-5 and plays collegiately at a Division II school; And, for the first time, two women — Warriors manager Danielle Langford of player rehabilitation and Hannah Herring, data analyst.
In the courtyard of the prison, at the foot of a hill, a large crowd of inmates await the current NBA champion. They extend a warm welcome, reuniting time after time with their visitors like old friends.
“Understanding the energy when we went in, you didn’t know what to expect,” said Warriors assistant coach Jama Mahallela. “And we came down the hill and it was just a whiff of love and hugs, and smiles. And it makes us feel welcome, it’s emotional. It’s interesting to see so much energy in a place that you didn’t think was possible.” There will be so much energy.
“When we came in, I was able to talk to a few people and it’s normal conversation,” Mahalalela said. “And I think that’s really what it’s all about. We’re all exploring humanity together and we’re doing that journey in different places but it’s nice to know some people. And feel – I always That’s what I say – we are more alike than different.”
The concrete basketball court, its green color faded by the unbelievable sun, is cheered by spectators for dunks and large blocks. Over the next two hours, men and women from very diverse backgrounds and life experiences shared the court and played the sport they love. This happened physically, at times, with players on both teams diving onto the pavement for loose balls.
“The same way coming back home… playing street ball,” said Armstrong, who grew up in Peakskill, New York. “Very funny. Just took me back to the days of my youth.”
Moody engaged in a game of chess with a prisoner at a metal table away from the action. Warriors’ second-year players had not previously been to San Quentin, but the experience was not new to them.
“I have a lot of families who have gone through this situation, so I don’t necessarily criminalize everyone,” said the 20-year-old from Little Rock, Arkansas. “Many people, it’s a case-by-case scenario or situation so … you have to talk to each person.”
I spoke to several people who were deported in their early 20s and incarcerated for a decade or more. Thomas, 51, is serving age 55, but his sentence was commuted by Governor Newsom in January and could be out next year.
“When I was young, I felt like I was not a part of society. I felt like the system was designed for me to fail. And if I play by the rules, I’ll die or be broken. So I felt that I have to work outside the society to win, to become something,” he said. “When you realize that there is unconditional love in society, they want to help you, they want you to have a job and be successful in life, and just be there for you and make a positive impact, then you contribute to society.” Let’s begin.”
Back on the court, the game is over. Players exchange hands, hugs and kind words. Final Scores: Golden State Warriors 83, San Quentin Warriors 65.
“We may have lost by 22 points on the scoreboard, but we won,” Thomas said. “We got to hang out with the Golden State Warriors after three years, and COVID didn’t put us off… it’s beautiful, we won today.”