Warriors return to San Quentin to play prison team

Warriors return to San Quentin to play prison team

​SAN QUENTIN – There’s some anxiety when you enter San Quentin State Prison, even as a visitor, not knowing what awaits you inside the walls of one of the world’s most notorious places.

It helps to be there with a group, in this case, the Golden State Warriors. Members of the team’s front office and coaching staff have been making an annual visit to San Quentin for most of the past 10 years to play pickup basketball against a prison team.

It’s a friendly game, but competitive. And it is still San Quentin, California’s oldest prison and home to the state’s only gas chamber.

SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 16: San Quentin Warriors’ Rick Hale, center blue jersey, and Golden State Warriors player development coach Hilton Armstrong fight for the ball during the tip off of their basketball game as part of the Warriors annual visit to San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Warriors players James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and other players did not play but signed autographs and met with the incarcerated population during their visit. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Last Friday morning, in the guest parking lot, generic green jerseys were distributed to the players on the Warriors team. Green is one of three colors allowed inside. The others are black and white. This distinguishes visitors from the prison population, which wears state-issued blue and gray clothing.

At the entrance of the prison, your cell phone is confiscated and locked away for the duration of the visit. You present your ID to a prison official and sign in. You are led to a room called a “sally port,” a holding cell of sorts, where your ID is checked once more before they unlock a metal door.

When that door shuts behind you, the isolation experienced by a largely forgotten population sets in deeply.

But the Warriors are in The House.

SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 16: Golden State Warriors Jonathan Kuminga, left, signs autographs for incarcerated men during a visit to San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Coaching and front office staff from the Golden State and Santa Cruz Warriors played a basketball game against the San Quentin Warriors as part of their annual visit.  (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 16: Golden State Warriors Jonathan Kuminga, left, signs autographs for incarcerated men during a visit to San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Coaching and front office staff from the Golden State and Santa Cruz Warriors played a basketball game against the San Quentin Warriors as part of their annual visit. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

“This is the thing I look forward to every year,” said Rahsaan Thomas, who has spent 22 years in San Quentin on a second-degree murder conviction. “It’s something to look forward to in this dreary, dark place when you’re far from your home and your family don’t get visits. These guys are my visit.”

Casual fans of the Warriors wouldn’t recognize this lineup. Steph Curry isn’t here. Neither are Klay Thompson nor Draymond Green. Among players, there are only a handful — James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody most notably — and none of them will play in this game.

The Warriors lost the most recent meeting — three years ago, before the pandemic — on a last-second shot. The roster is even thinner for the rematch. General manager Bob Myers, who played collegiately at UCLA and is said to have scored 40 points in one of these games, was sidelined this time with a nagging hip injury. Assistant coach Chris DeMarco, who stands 6-foot-7, was a late scratch.

In their absence were at least four players making their San Quentin debuts: Warriors player development coach Hilton Armstrong, who stands 6-11 and was a first-round pick in the 2006 NBA draft; Santa Cruz Warriors assistant coach Noel Hightower, who stands 6-5 and played collegiately at a Division II school; and, for the first time, two women – Warriors manager of player rehabilitation Danielle Langford and data analyst Hannah Heiring.

SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 16: Golden State Warriors data analyst Hannah Heiring, green jersey, lays up a shot against the San Quentin Warriors during a basketball game as part of the Warriors annual visit to San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. , on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Warriors players James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and other players did not play but signed autographs and met with the incarcerated population during their visit.  (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 16: Golden State Warriors data analyst Hannah Heiring, green jersey, lays up a shot against the San Quentin Warriors during a basketball game as part of the Warriors annual visit to San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. , on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Warriors players James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and other players did not play but signed autographs and met with the incarcerated population during their visit. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

In the prison yard, at the bottom of a hill, a large throng of prisoners awaits the reigning NBA champions. They offer a warm welcome, exchanging daps with their visitors like old friends reuniting after time apart.

“Just understanding the energy when we walked in, you didn’t know what to expect,” Warriors assistant coach Jama Mahlalela said. “And we came down the hill and it was just an outpouring of love and hugs, and smiles. And it makes us feel welcomed, it’s emotional. It’s interesting to see so much energy in a place you didn’t think there’d be so much energy.

“I was able to talk to a few of the guys as we came in and it’s normal conversation,” Mahlalela added. “And I think that is what this is really all about. We’re all figuring out humanity together and we’re in different places doing that journey but it’s been good to get to know some people. And realize — I always say this — we’re more the same than different.”

The concrete basketball court, its green paint faded by the unrelenting sun, is ringed by spectators cheering for dunks and big blocks. Over the next two hours, men and women from vastly diverse backgrounds and life experiences shared the court and played the game they love. It got physical, at times, with players from both teams diving onto the pavement for loose balls.

SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 16: The Golden State and Santa Cruz Warriors coaching and front office staff, green jerseys, and the San Quentin Warriors basketball team pose for a group photo before the start of their game as part of the Warriors annual visit to San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Warriors players James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and other players did not play but signed autographs and met with the incarcerated population during their visit.  (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
SAN QUENTIN, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 16: The Golden State and Santa Cruz Warriors coaching and front office staff, green jerseys, and the San Quentin Warriors basketball team pose for a group photo before the start of their game as part of the Warriors annual visit to San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Warriors players James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and other players did not play but signed autographs and met with the incarcerated population during their visit. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

“Kind of the same being back home… playing street ball,” said Armstrong, who grew up in Peekskill, New York, about 50 miles outside NYC. “Pretty fun. Just brought me back to my younger days.”

At a metal table away from the action, Moody was engaged in a game of chess with an inmate. The Warriors’ second-year player hadn’t been to San Quentin before, but the experience was not new to him.

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