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Prison official Greg Benjamin tells visiting players what to do if they're attacked.
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 Sports behind bars
Visiting player John Scott explains why he wanted to make the trip to McNeil Island.
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Tuesday, June 3
Hard-core hoops
By Tom Farrey

As a companion to the Outside the Lines television feature on prison basketball at the McNeil Island (Wash.) Correctional Center, ESPN.com is publishing the original 1995 Pacific Magazine article by Tom Farrey, now an ESPN.com senior writer. Below is the first of three parts.

The road to prison is a two-way street, in that an outsider can always turn back at any moment.

It starts near the entrance to the Fort Lewis Army base, with the weapons of war on the right, before descending down through a dark gantlet of tall, thick trees that blocks all light except an angelic ribbon of pink-orange dusk that runs along the very top. With nothing to look at, the visitor is left alone with his thoughts, and fears.

The road empties into a Norman Rockwell landscape of wood-frame homes, stand-alone mail boxes and a small, quaint neighborhood grocery. The car stops at the waterfront, next to railroad tracks where an engine rumbles by, shaking his insides. Waiting for the train to pass, he stands next to a mother holding the tiny hand of a girl in a navy sailor hat and matching dress. That could just as well be my little girl, he thinks, as she retrieves a crushed penny from between the rails.

McNeil Island is the Alcatraz of Puget Sound, the lone prison in America accessible only by boat or aircraft.

He's also thinking about bailing, walking onto the part of the pier that splits right for a ferry to Anderson Island. How easy it would be to hop that boat, take a ride for a couple hours, tell his teammates later that he was confused. His wife would not object.

But he proceeds, over the two thick yellow lines urging caution, past the red signs saying authorized persons only, into a government-style hut where he is greeted by a sign that warns:


Dangerous Drugs,



His senses are alive, taking in everything, as a large, uniformed man in the window, perhaps a former pro wrestler, says, "Basketball game tonight, huh?" What did he mean by that -- "huh?" Why is he smiling so cryptically? What's he know that he's not sharing?

He is too scared to ask, now that his teammates have arrived. As a basic American male, he would rather enter a fight with Godzilla than concede, in front of his buddies, that fire-breathing oversized reptiles frighten him. Besides, he's propelled by an urge equally as irrational as fear: the urge to play basketball in the best possible setting, against the best possible players.

This is his Final Four.

So, he takes his temporary prison ID card. He walks through the metal detector and under the row of black-and-white pictures, dating back to 1893, of tough-looking, cigar-chomping prison wardens, men whose job it was to watch over criminals like Mickey Cohen, Charles Manson, the Birdman of Alcatraz. He steps onto a passenger boat driven by a prison official who was once attacked by inmates on this ride, who had to fight them off to save his life.

There is no turning back now.

He is going to prison.


Their Boston Garden The very thought that they are doing this voluntarily occurs many times on a recent Wednesday to the members of Evergreen Excavation, one of the several recreation-league men's teams scheduled to play this season against the McNeil Island Correctional Center team. As a unit, Evergreen isn't having much of a season, at 1-4, and now they are going to try to play McNeil with only four players -- a construction worker, timber-mill worker and two salesmen. The others skipped out late for various, suspicious reasons.

Their best player, who formerly played college basketball, said an appointment came up that night -- his first, hallelujah, in two weeks!

Another, a truck driver, called ahead to say he couldn't make the 6:20 p.m. boat.

A third said his other team, in the Air Force league, had its game rescheduled for that same night and that, of course, he has an obligation to that team first.

The competition alone is enough to scare off rivals. Teams formed under the Pierce County Parks and Recreation Department have been coming to the McNeil Island prison for decades, almost always leaving in defeat. McNeil is regularly the Meridian League champion, having lost only three games in the past seven years against competition made up usually of former prep players. There may not be a more dominating basketball team in the state of Washington during that time, on the pro, college, high school or recreation level.

Of course, the Islanders have certain advantages. All of their games are home games. They are the only team with a coach. Their talent pool is deep, with more than 80 of the 1,100 prisoners annually trying out for 12 spots on "the varsity." Prison life leaves them plenty of time to hone their game. They have their own gym.

And talk about hostile crowds. Everyone courtside is a felon. Some are robbers, others rapists, drug dealers or murderers at McNeil, a medium-security facility. With nothing better to do on Wednesday nights, they cram into the small facility, whooping, fist-pumping, betting. Gambling is common on prison basketball games, with players sometimes paid as much as $40 to make sure their team covers the spread (effectively making the players professionals).

For the strong of heart, a trip to McNeil is the closest a rec-leaguer will ever get to playing a game at Boston Garden. In this old, sweltering gym, in fact, former Celtic player Emmette Bryant, a member of the NBA championship team of 1969, coached the McNeil team for several years in the 1980s as the prison's recreation director. The benches and certain areas of the court are painted in Celtic green, although, as Bryant notes, "that's also known as institutional green."

The Los Angeles Lakers once played an intrasquad scrimmage at McNeil when one of their star players, Elgin Baylor, was in the Army and based at Fort Lewis. His officers wouldn't release him for practice in Los Angeles prior to the playoffs, so the Lakers flew to Seattle. They rented the nearest gym outside Fort Lewis and had inmates officiate the game (prompting Laker player Jim Krebs to bark at one point, "After that call, I know why you're here!").

To entice teams to make the trip, McNeil is the only gym in the Meridian league that allows dunking. That is, if a player can get up in the air -- and over the water. A man once wanted to play so badly at McNeil Island that he submitted the mandatory personal information, hoping that when the state did a security check it wouldn't notice he had an outstanding warrant. He was arrested at the ferry dock.

Not everyone is so eager to go to McNeil, however. Pierce County has to pay referees an extra $10 to officiate games at the prison, and even then many of them chicken out. Teams of policemen and lawyers won't play there, fearing retribution, and a third of the teams that do sign up back out at the last moment.

Fortunately for Evergreen Excavation, they have Steve Miner, their burly center/timber-mill worker, who is reassuring his teammates on the boat ride over that there's nothing to worry about. He's telling them that he played over there several years ago and that it's no more intimidating than an ordinary rec-league game. When he starts to describe the gym atmosphere, though, he is interrupted.

"Uh," says Charlie Washburn, a prison official sitting nearby, "I think you're talking about the McNeil Island annex." He is speaking of the minimum-security annex. Where the prisoners are older and the gym newer than at the main facility, which plans to open a new gym this spring because the old one is falling apart.

Miner pauses, looking around. Then he yells, "TURN THE BOAT AROUND!!!"

He is half-joking, which also means he is half-serious. As always in the Meridian League, the visitors have signed up for more than a game. They'll get an experience, and if they're lucky, an education.

Click here for part two of the story, reprinted with permission of The Seattle Times.

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