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Hard-Core Hoops, revisited

Pre-game: Road to prison

Tipoff: Dyson's glory

Game over: Come again


Chat with IBF middleweight champ and former prison boxer Bernard Hopkins, Wed. at noon ET


 Sports behind bars
Prison official Greg Benjamin says the fear factor paralyzes opponents in the first quarter.
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McNeil inmates take pride in the team's history.
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Another team learns what it's like to get blown out.
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Tuesday, June 3
Tipoff: Dyson's glory
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 part two of three.

Game time. If the prisoners are going to find any freedom in this facility, it's going to be right here within the dimensions of a smaller-than-regulation-sized basketball court that's been home over the years to some of the best players produced by the state, former high-school stars from Garfield on down.

Old heads who have been incarcerated before at maximum-security facilities like Walla Walla, where prisoners are locked in their cell 20 hours a day, consider life at McNeil a form of adult day-care, with its dorm-like rooms and lesser restrictions on movement. But to first-timers like Shedrick Dyson, a loquacious 26-year-old from Seattle, it feels like misery.

Shedrick Dyson
Shedrick Dyson (left) considered basketball his salvation to the boredom of prison.

Room checks every morning, body counts six times a day, including twice in the middle of the night. The same low-grade food each week. The spirals of razor wire circling the prison grounds, a reminder that you are a threat to society and cannot be trusted. No, McNeil is not Fantasy Island.

"Without basketball, I don't know what I'd be doing in here," Dyson said. "From the time I walked into this prison, I started playing. The very first night. I just walked in and said, 'Anyone want to play?' First night I probably scored 35.

"Once I get on the court, it's like I'm outside the institution. I could be at Green Lake or Seattle U., because those are the places we played on the streets. Every time the sun comes out, Green Lake's the spot, no doubt about it. I've played against Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, all the guys, Detlef Schrempf, just out on the playground. Michael Cage, Cortez Kennedy, Rick Mirer.

Online and on television this week, explore the debate over sports in prisons through Outside the Lines' presentation of "Sports Behind Bars."

ESPN television will air a one-hour show on the subject on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET. Among the features: rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the professional boxing debut of ex-con Keon Abad, and basketball at McNeil Island (Wash.).

Online, you can read about the unique McNeil Island program, and vote in polls and sound off on issues related to prison sports.

"I got Nate McMillan once at Green Lake. He just kind of finger-rolled it, I came from the other side and swept it off the glass, you know. He's like, 'Good block.' That's one of the highlights of me ever playing basketball."

Teammates on the McNeil varsity consider Dyson a cartoon figure. They tease him about his grand appearance: the pencil-thin mustache, the impeccable haircut, the exaggerated sense of self, and particularly, the $115 shoes he wears only when playing basketball. They say he scores only because he never passes the ball.

Dyson bristles at the criticism but concedes, in the stuttering manner of an alcoholic coming to terms with his illness, "I-I-I am a selfish person." Basketball, as always, is a mere reflection of the person. Dyson had a job as a car detailer in Seattle but wanted a swanky ride himself, couldn't afford it, so he sold crack cocaine on the side.

Now he's locked up, with a 2-year-old son on the outside and a family wondering what in the world went wrong. None of his five brothers and two sisters has ever been incarcerated, he says.

His mother, a live-in nurse, wrote him a letter in October, as he was being assigned to McNeil.

Hi Shedrick,

I know you are feeling like no one cares about you, but that's not the issue here. Things are just tight right now for everyone but it will get better. Trust me. I'm working very hard at getting things in order, but I'm doing it ...

Well, here's some of the things I'd like you to do for me. Pray a lot and try to get through this. Don't let the system use you. Use the system by escaping it and doing a lot of the things you enjoy doing. Try to get you a job that can help you when you get out. There are a lot of different people there, of all nationalities, races and colors. Try to break down that line and make friends and try to always give, rather than receive. Before you think of raising your fists at someone, think of me and your family and take the time to sit down and write us.

Love you always and forever,


Dyson plays each varsity game with the letter tucked into his left shoe, for strength.

All that Evergreen Excavation sees, though, are the tops of those leather Converses, which is exactly what Dyson wants. In competition, he wants his opponent to take notice of these eye-grabbing shoes with the bold stripes and masking tape over the front, like spats. He said he tapes them to protect the toe area from ripping, but it also serves as a distraction.

"They'll look down at 'em and I'm gone," said Dyson, who cleans his shoes regularly with suede spray to maintain their luster. "By the time he looks up, I'm all the way to the rim already. They can laugh and joke about it but I use every little tool I can use. Everything. Everything."

The first quarter ends with McNeil leading Evergreen Excavation, 25-14. Dyson comes off the bench to hit a three-pointer from the corner, one of three baskets he scores during the game.

A blowout in the making

As the second quarter begins, most of Evergreen Excavation's points have been scored by prisoners the team picked up to fill the player shortage. Steve Miner, with six points, is the only regular member of Evergreen Excavation who has scored.

He is also the only one who appears comfortable in the gym, at least initially.

With the rest of his team, Miner made the chilling walk from the boat dock to the gym. He was escorted through three electronic prison gates, pausing in the sally port long enough to glimpse the rows of handcuffs behind protected glass, then shown into the prisoners' area. He was unnerved by the sound of that final gate closing behind him, a sound that prison officials joke is worth five points at least for the home team.

Miner walked up three stories and into the cramped gym, where the 156 inmates there for the game studied the visitors from a single row of seats along the wall. Others looked on from behind the metal fence of an adjacent weight room. To Miner, it seemed there were more like 500 in attendance because of the noise of weights clanking and inmates talking, all of which reverberated off the gym's peeling, concrete walls.

But once the game started, all cares disappeared for Miner -- not just about his immediate surroundings but from everyday life, the day-to-day stress of paying bills and meeting obligations. That is why he plays basketball, and in a roundabout way why he came to an elevated dungeon like McNeil.

"My life's changed a lot in the last three years," said Miner, who's gotten married and had a child, with another on the way. "I was single, a bouncer at a club, dating a lot of people. I was going 50 miles an hour all the time. Now I've got to slow down, and for me that's hard."

Literally. "It seems like I'm always getting speeding tickets. I feel like every time I'm out in the car I get pulled over. I've also gotten into my fair share of bar fights ... Basketball helps me relax."

Prisoners aren't the only ones seeking freedom. People on the outside exist in a world of increasing restrictions. They spend unwanted hours each day in their cars, or offices. They get caught in traffic jams, long lines, bureaucratic red tape and political dogma that assigns titles to everyone, whether it be "Gen Xer" or "feminist" or "white male." The boxes people live in are getting smaller, even as their options are growing.

As it happens, the game of basketball is all about people trying to make the most of their limited space without coming to blows. It is about perfecting the art of going around opponents, not through them. It is about achieving happiness within strict geographical confines, even as the neighbors get more ornery.

It is a model game for the 21st century, if the population charts suggest anything.

All Miner wants to do, though, is get Evergreen's inside game going. Throwing his 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound body around the paint, Miner got his hands on the ball early. But to cut into the lead, teammates started hoisting three-point shots that missed the mark, often leading to fast-break baskets for the Islanders.

When Miner finally does get the ball and drives inside, his shot is blocked affirmatively, prompting a guttural howl of "WUUUUUUUUUUU" from the crowd.

Miner comes to the bench, a river of sweat looking for replenishment. Sorry. Prison rules don't allow visitors to bring special fluids like Gatorade, to prevent the sneaking of alcohol to inmates.

Score at halftime: 59-29, McNeil. Everyone knows where this game's headed. The McNeil coach, Greg Benjamin, comes over to the Evergreen bench to recommend that the clock run continuously through the second half, even during free throws, so that Evergreen can make the 8 p.m. boat back to Steilacoom. No one objects.

Come back to ESPN.com on Thursday for the third and final installment of the story, reprinted by permission of The Seattle Times.

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