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Outside the Lines

Native Americans

Hard-Core Hoops, revisited

Pre-game: Road to prison

Tipoff: Dyson's glory

Game over: Come again


 Sports behind bars
The visitors find common ground with the prisoners.
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 Sports behind bars
A prisoner explains why such an effort is made to thank visiting teams.
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 Sports behind bars
The Misfits say they would return to play at McNeil.
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Tuesday, June 3
Game over: Come again
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 third and final part.

From beyond the three-point line, Don Womack lets loose a shot that splashes down 25 feet away in a cushion of nylon net. He loves watching the shot, the way it feels leaving his fingers, its high, beautiful arc, the anticipation as the ball falls back toward earth, then finally the sense of total accomplishment as it filters through the net.

Little else in Womack's life is so perfect. He was a confused boy from Tacoma when he first got into crime, at age 13, taking cars on joy rides. Later when his drug habit got expensive, he started selling the cars he stole. Now 25, he's pretty much been locked up since he was 14, in various juvenile and adult institutions.

Shaking Hands
The post-game handshake hasn't died at McNeil, for the prisoners want their guests to return.

He was introduced to basketball at one of those juvenile facilities, Mission Ridge near Bremerton, where a counselor showed him a little fadeaway jumper. As the tall, skinny kid grew, he started taking the shot from farther out on the perimeter. Before long, he was a certifiable gym rat.

And breaking all the rules.

In the yard one day at McNeil, Womack said, he was cornered by several white inmates -- "the ones with tattoos" -- who informed him in racist terms that in prison, basketball is a black sport and that he shouldn't mix with black inmates. Out of fear, he stopped playing in the gym, instead sneaking outside to shoot on the hard courts by himself every day for hours.

But eventually he made his way back inside, where perils of a new variety existed. Some of the black players accepted him but a few of them did so, he said, "for the wrong reasons." In some prisons, he said, there's a perception that young white men who hang around black men are interested in homosexual sex.

One day when he was 18, he was hit over the head with a lead pipe by one of those prisoners, "just as a warning that I was 'posed to do what he wanted me to do," he said.

Womack says the tension at McNeil has relaxed in recent years with the construction of new living facilities, and that he gets along with everybody. But crossing the racial divide still has its consequences, even on the basketball court, one of the few places where inmates from the various racial groups interact voluntarily.

"The black guys still talk crazy every once in a while, you know, trying to get you all frustrated," he said. "And it does get to me when they're saying 'white boy, white boy,' even though they don't mean it in a disrespectful way. That's just how they talk when they're talking. But it irritates the hell out of me. I'm like, 'My name is Womack, I'm a white man or something.' "

He is one of two whites on the 12-man varsity roster and one of a mere handful of whites and Hispanics who even tried out for the team.

But he is a basketball player, above all.

Third quarter ends with McNeil leading, 88-46.

Gettin' theirs

As a contest, the game has completely degenerated. The waves of McNeil substitutions, five at a time every four minutes, have sapped their opponent of any last chance at a comeback. Just about every other trip upcourt for Evergreen Excavation, a McNeil player steals the ball and tosses it quickly the other way for an easy basket.

It's gotten so ugly the crowd is cheering for Evergreen. Womack flips off one of the inmates, and gets benched.

But most of the players are still getting what each of them needs, personally, out of the game.

Anthony "Little Barkley" Hickenbottom, 25, a muscular inmate new to McNeil, is roaring to the hoop, just like his younger brother, Roberto Bergersen, does for the University of Washington as a scholarship basketball player. Hickenbottom likes playing against outside teams because it allows him to feel "human" again, not criminal.

Running the team ably from the point guard position is Eric "Prime Time" Langston, 30, who uses basketball as a way to keep in shape until he is released into the outside world, where he wants to put to use his training as a computer technician. He is captain of the team, which pays for its balls, uniforms and league fees with funds raised by the prisoners.

Down low in the key is Emanuel "Veteran" Milton, 46, the oldest player on the court. A self-described Vietnam vet who is missing most of his teeth, who had his dentures stolen with his coat while playing hoops in Salt Lake City, Milton is waving for the ball on his gimpy knees, looking for that sweet, "un-stop-pable" fadeaway that's been with him all these years.

"If I had my choice on dying, it'd be on a basketball court making my turnaround jumper," Milton said, flashing a gummy grin. "I'd have a heart attack, the ball would hit the bottom of the net and, boom, I'd be gone.

"Hopefully if I get to heaven, God will put me on his varsity team."

Wait 'til next year

Final score: 117-59. McNeil moves a step closer to another Meridian League title. But judging by the players' eagerness to slap hands with the losers, the Islanders aren't so much drunk with victory as they are intent on leaving the right impression. They thank Evergreen Excavation for making the trip and encourage them to return, anytime.

Evergreen Excavation likes the idea. It occurs to the players that the game was virtually devoid of trash-talking and rough play, contrary to what they had expected. Maybe they just didn't give the Islanders enough of a run; the inmates got testy in a close loss a couple weeks later to a team called Da Boyz. But they say they have to go back to youth-league ball to remember a game so cleanly played.

Best of all, they came face-to-face with their fears. Maybe they didn't get the life stories or even the names of their opponents, but they got physical and emotional images, and in the wonderfully expressive language that is basketball, came to know the prisoners on some level.

"I probably talked about the game more in the two weeks prior than the two weeks after," Miner would say later. "You anticipate it more than anything. You talk about it with your friends, about what Guido the Killer Pimp might do to you, all the scenarios. But when you come back there's not much to talk about, because not much happens."

It's worked that way for years at McNeil, where prison officials say no one from a visiting team has ever been attacked. The outsider goes inside the McNeil Island prison, deep down scared for his safety, and he comes out with 16 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and a clearer understanding of the people who call the place their temporary home.

Next time, maybe he walks downtown past the drug pushers and street life with a little more comfort, because he's traded sweat with them under the boards. Maybe the news stories about crime don't seem as menacing, because he's looked into the eyes of society's worst, been guests in their house, and on some basic level, they're not as alien as he assumed.

Doesn't mean he has them over to dinner at his house. Doesn't even mean that they're ready to go back into society. Some people don't know what to do with their freedom; they mistake freedom for license. But the point is, the visitor has found his measure of freedom -- inside some of the meanest walls erected.

"I'd go back there to play," says Peter James, an Evergreen player. "I'd go back there in a minute."

It's only a game, they say. But teams in the Meridian League, including the McNeil Islanders, know better.

Story reprinted with permission of The Seattle Times.

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