How a deadly virus helped one man realize the power of basketball
As I laid in an emergency room bed after collapsing in the doorway of San Quentin’s H-Unit dormitory, I thought about all the life choices that caused my health to take a sudden turn for the worse.
First, I thought about causal factors like my terrible eating habits, or my family’s medical history. I tried not to think about the worse possible diagnosis that Google would provide my wife when she searched the internet.
My diagnosis? I had done a terrible job of recognizing my stress, which manifested itself physically through syncope (fainting spells).
In the past, I dealt with my stress by playing basketball. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have noticed that the absence of basketball has disrupted the way I handle stress. The use of different breathing techniques to control my jump shot became a version of meditation for me. I truly found peace on the court.
Later, the doctor came in and asked me a series of questions. Her last comment stuck with me: “Are you stressing over anything?” The question seemed nonsensical to me, laying there in an orange prison outfit with handcuffs around my wrists and ankles. Of course, I was stressed out!
Being able to hoop always provided me with a sense of community. A brotherhood was forged through acts of trust, executing fancy no-look passes, high flying alley-oops, risky full court lobs, perfect pick and rolls, and precise back door cuts.
Mentally, the court was a place I could escape the confines of prison and experience that sense of normalcy any individual doing time desperately needs. The cement courts offered me a safe space to be artistic with my style of play, yell at the top of my lungs calling out real-time defensive adjustments, or to talk trash and simply joke in a prison environment where all those opportunities to feel free are usually threatened by a constant, thick, fog of danger.
Basketball has long been my escape; it saved me from bullies as a child, helped me navigate the social atmosphere in prison, and it has kept me out of trouble while I live in the prison system. But COVID has disrupted my mental and physical outlet.
After the E.R. visit, I was escorted to the “hole” (Administrative Segregation Unit) for a 14 day quarantine for COVID-19 “precautionary measures.” Reluctantly, I laid in the hole bed staring at the ceiling of the cell and memories began to surface in my mind.
Growing up, a pair of retro Michael Jordan’s loosely laced sat in my closet. A giant poster of Orlando Magic’s Tracy McGrady hung on my wall. I practiced on my colorful miniature Fisher Price basketball hoop. I spent hours running around chasing my bricks (missed shots) and dunking the basketball. Basketball meant everything to me, and has been a part of my life for a long time. I joined the Boys & Girls Club rec league. I was the captain of the high school varsity team. I dreamt of playing for a D-1 college.
Ironically, my coaches used to say that if we wanted to be the best basketball players, then we had to live in the gym. After being released from the hole I found myself literally living in a gymnasium because, at the height of the pandemic, San Quentin turned its gym into a makeshift medical ward. I wasn’t shooting jumpers, or taking Kobe Bryant-inspired fade-a-ways. I was now a patient.
I watched the world’s death toll rise. I prayed that my family would be kept safe from the virus. I prayed that I wouldn’t suffer the same fate that 28 other S.Q. residents did, and take my final breath in a cot hovering over the yellow painted 3-point line.
I am out of quarantine, and the prison is no longer locked down—for now. But the doctor’s voice continues to echo in my head, asking me: “Are you stressing about anything?”
I have started to fight the stress with a deeper spiritual connection to my sons, Cameron and Ka’Mari. At certain times, I’d go out on the prison court and shoot around, feeling as if they were doing the same thing at the same time. Somehow, we were connected through the energy of the shooting motion.
And for that, I salute the game of basketball.