Oakland, Calif., has a rich, storied history of basketball talent that stretches from Bill Russell (McClymonds High School) to Damian Lilliard (Oakland High School). From iconic playgrounds like Moss- wood Park, to Harmon Gym on the UC Berkeley Campus, where Oakland native Jason Kidd earned his stripes, “The Town” brand of hoops has left its mark. Jamal Harrison grew up in this culture, soaking up the expertise of his predecessors.
For visitors to the lower yard, who have watched the San Quentin Kings basketball team, “Mal” is a playmaker and quiet leader on the court, but most people don’t know the journey he’s taken to get here.
Harrison said he grew up tagging along with his two older brothers as they played ball around Oakland. He tried to imitate their movements. Watching them, he said, helped him develop his own style; he became known as a fierce competitor on the blacktop.
But basketball wouldn’t save Jamal from the realities of life in the inner city. Family problems prompted him to run away from home at the age of 14. He met his father for the first time at 15. That same year, because of increasing problems at home, he moved to Texas to live with his Dad. The Lone Star State presented new opportunities and Jamal played on his high school basketball team there. It was his first experience with the concepts of teamwork, coaching and basketball fundamentals.
Harrison moved back to Oakland at 16 and joined Castlemont High School’s basketball team. He played in popular local tournaments at places like the 85th Ave Boys and Girls Club, Brookfield, the 65th Village, and YAP in Berkeley.
Jamal loved the NBA and followed local stars like Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Isaiah Rider and Antonio Davis. However, his idol, like most kids at the time, was Michael Jordan.
“I wanted to be 6’6” like MJ”, says Harrison, adding, as if remorseful, “but J. Kidd is my favorite player of all time.”
Even as his basketball game developed, drama at home prompted him to find sanctuary in the streets. He got into trouble and ended up being kicked off the Castlemont High team and out of the basketball tournament circuit.
At 18, Harrison joined the military to escape his surroundings. He chose the Navy, because of his admiration of “The Admiral” David Robinson, who went from the Naval Academy to the NBA. Jamal played for the USS Kittyhawk (CV63) and from there tried to get on the All- Navy team.
In the Navy, “I really started to learn what goes into the game of basketball, the preparation, techniques, and fine points,” Harrison said.
The highlights of his Naval basketball career include playing a semi-pro game in Tasmania, Australia, and signing autographs for fans. In his highest scoring game, in Bremerton, Wash., he scored 25 points and dunked on an opposing player who was 6’9.
In spite of all of this success, old demons resurfaced. Harrison went AWOL twice after multiple disciplinary infractions. He said he was ultimately released from service with an “other than honorable discharge” after two and a half years in uniform.
Back in Oakland, Harrison got a job.
“I tried to go straight but I wasn’t making enough money, so I got influenced by the streets,” he said.
This new direction had him in and out of jail and prison. Ultimately he landed at San Quentin, where he became part of the Kings.
Kings’ starting point guard Oris “Pep” Williams describes Harrison as, “a quiet leader on the court and great teammate. Off the court, he’s a smooth character.”
Harrison said that playing basketball at San Quentin has changed his perspective. He describes the Kings basketball team as being a “brotherhood” and the court as one of the only places in prison where race doesn’t matter.
“Basketball is a culture,” Harrison said. “When you see someone playing, there is an instant connection. No matter where we are or where we come from, we are speaking the same language.”
Seeing volunteers and outside teams come into the prison has changed Harrison, too. After games, opposing players share their testimonies with everyone circled around half-court. Harrison is always surprised with how non-judgmental and supportive they are.
All of this has solidified Harrison’s drive to get out of prison and use basket- ball as a tool to help young people, who may be experiencing similar challenges to those he went through. His plan is to open up a barber- shop and become a teacher on African culture, but the lessons of support and love he has learned from basketball form the backbone of his aspiration.
Harrison said he truly believes that if he’d had a mentor at 16, to not only teach him the game but also give him guidance off of the court, would have kept him out of trouble.
Harrison believes in God and that everything happens for a reason. The next step is to take all of these lessons back to the community which was formative for him in establishing his identity.