As 30 Black men gathered at half-court on March 25, the noise level in the San Quentin Prison gym dropped. Dwight Kennedy discussed the rules for the basketball game about to begin, including: the first team to score 11 points wins. Then the men crowded around, placed their hands on the shoulder of the man to their right and bowed their heads as Kennedy said a silent prayer. They broke with a loud, “Amen.” Hands clapped, men embraced, then the Graced Out Youth Basketball Tournament began.
After battling through several elimination rounds, God’s Soldiers beat Running Gun, 11-7 in the final game, to emerge as champions. The YOGs took third place.
“It wasn’t about basketball; it was about the hearts and souls of men,” said Kennedy, a Graced Out member, who helped organize the event. “Basketball was just a tool.”
Graced Out puts on events—like the basketball tournaments and Friday night services that include Christian rap music—to appeal to the youth and help them deal with the spiritual aspects of their lives.
“I see it making a difference,” Graced Out member Carl Saldano said. “We are trying to get them to see what role Christ can play in their lives and that God didn’t create them for the things that led them to prison, but to get them to see that they have a greater potential.”
The tournament consisted of 12 teams, with names like March Madness, Just Do It, Raiders, and Triple OGs playing four-on-four half-court basketball. Each game went to 11 points with the loser eliminated from the competition.
Graced Out members Fanon Figgers and Kennedy were referees of the games.
God’s Soldiers consisted of mostly guards. It included Isaiah “Zay Bandz” Lawson, David Silva, D’Romeo Allen, Deshonnte Jones and Angel Parra.
“We had a good team with chemistry and a mixed-race team, too, which is good,” Jones said.
In the final game, God’s Soldiers came out hot, knocking down long-range shots and taking an early lead after scoring five straight unanswered baskets.
Running Gun responded, scoring the next five. Then God’s Soldiers took the game with back-to-back buckets.
“We worked as a team,” Allen said.
Lawson added, “The team speaks for itself. We had a great time.”
Kennedy hopes to see the young men that played basketball show up at church.
“Seeing people of all ages come out and participate in the basketball event was something very special,” Kennedy said. “I hope that we can all continue to come together for one another now and in the future.”