The San Quentin (SQ) Warriors finally faced fresh competition on Aug. 13 as the first outside basketball team came in for a scrimmage after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19.
The Lower Yard was filled with sports activity on that sunny day, but it was basketball that drew the biggest crowd with spectators ringing the court to cheer on the home team.
The Warriors played a team put together by the California-based Prison Sports Ministry, which typically sends a regular rotation of local teams to play the SQ Warriors and the 40-and-over SQ Kings. However, the last time a basketball team came in was on Sept. 5, 2019, during the filming of the Q Ball documentary produced by NBA star Kevin Durant.
“This day means a lot to us. We’re a basketball family, and when these guys come in, it’s like having a visit. A lot of the newer guys on the team haven’t even experienced this or played against outside guys, so it’s a big deal.” said Brian Asey, general manager of the SQ Basketball Program.
Several of the spectators who had recently transferred from higher-level prison yards couldn’t believe their eyes — a basketball game being played with guys from the streets with no correctional officers (COs) in sight like it was just another day at the park.
“I guess what they say about San Quentin is true,” one of them was heard saying, in reference to The Q’s culture of positive programming.
SQ resident and referee Tay Reed also welcomed the sight. “For a few hours you get to feel normal again. I’ve heard a lot about outside sports teams coming in here, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen it up close and personal. It’s nice to finally get to experience some of what this place has to offer.”
Basketball players and spectators from The Q were not the only ones rejoicing that COVID-19 restrictions were finally easing up enough to let outside sports teams back into the prison.
Coach Don Smith, one of the leaders of the Ministry, noted they had been disappointed numerous times trying to get into the prison to play. “It’s so important for our guys and myself to actually be here now,” he said.
Live-action rust was evident early for both teams with a rash of unforced turnovers, fouls and sloppy play. Derrell “Sadiq” Davis opened the scoring with a three-pointer for the Warriors, but the Ministry team took an early lead as the Warriors struggled to finish at the basket. After the first quarter, the Warriors eked out a one-point lead thanks to a hot hand from Montrell Vines and Keyshawn “Steez” Strickland.
On defense, the younger Warriors team stuck with man-to-man while the Minis-try team — an assorted bunch who normally play the SQ Kings — switched to a two-three-zone to slow down the pace. Pressure defense and turnovers forced by Joshua “JB” Burton and Delvon “Delvy” Adams helped create a tide in the Warriors favor along with Strickland’s high-light-worthy Euro-step move and behind-the-arc swishes.
When the duck-call whistles sounded at the half, the scoreboard read: Home 46, Guests Players gathered at half-court for some inspirational words of encouragement and prayers led by Coach Smith.
The Ministry team was shorthanded, so they recruited two players from the SQ Kings — “Pookey” Sylvester and Nash Batta to help share the load.
But the Warriors soon started busting the zone D with good ball movement and penetration into the paint. Rickey “Big Rick” Hales and Adams added timely offensive rebounds and put-backs, and the Warriors cruised to an 84–65 victory over their friendly rivals.
“The guys really locked in defensively,” said Warriors coach Jeremiah “JB” Brown. “With the pace in the first half, I knew we’d eventually wear ’em down. I kept rotating players to keep our guys fresh — as long as I could look in a guy’s eye and see he was ready to play, I’d put him in.”
Coach JB was pleased with the offense, saying they just needed to make the shots. Most of all, defense was the key to victory in his eyes.
“I went through the (stats) books from the last few years and when the other team went over 70, we usually lost. So our goal, our mantra, was 70 — hold them to 70,” he said.
If the Warriors keep up their smothering defense and increase their offensive efficiency, then expect them to meet that goal and continue winning games. Regardless of the scoreboard, the day was a win for everybody involved.
“It means the world to come back in here after a couple of years with everything we’ve been through,” said Charles, one of the Ministry team players. “Feels good to see the old faces, and some new ones, too. The fellowship and the brotherhood, it means a lot to us as well. We’re looking forward to more basketball.”
His teammate, Free, who has been coming in since 2016, agreed. Free led all scorers with 17 points and 10 rebounds, but said his favorite part is getting to welcome people into the fold on the outside when they are paroled.
“Just the other day we had a barbecue to celebrate with like 25 to 30 guys, a lot of them who we used to play in here,” Free said.
Warriors players who scored in the double digits included Strickland with 16, Adams with 14, and Hales with 10 points in the paint.
As long as The Q remains outbreak free and open to visitors, the Warriors and Kings will be holding court for more spirited balling on the Lower Yard with their brothers from the Prison Sports Ministry this season — so stay tuned.