In one game we led by seven points on the number one seed, Dream Team, when their point guard pushed Toni. A yellow-jerseyed ref blew his whistle, catching Toni’s retaliation. Foul. “How you gonna call that bullshit on me? That shit’s crazy, yo! Who the hell paid you off?” Toni continued to melt down, hollering and getting in the ref’s face, a man easily twice his size and on death row for a murder in another prison. During the tantrum the other team scored enough to regain the lead and ultimately won the game.
Toni’s outbursts were common enough they had the rest of us yelling at him to get his head in the game and out of his ass, and when that didn’t work we begged Tyreke, our coach, to bench him. J-Roc usually grew angry during the ensuing time out and threw his water bottle at the fence or kicked over a chair, but it was lost in the midst of the other players’ outbursts. God forbid Toni and J-Roc have one of their “moments” together, then Pit would quit playing and Tyreke, screaming at his players from the sideline, would draw the technical foul. Forever and Chanton often looked at us benchwarmers as if they wanted to trade places or be anywhere else. Maybe even the hole.
I’m not much of a ball player. Good defense, attention and hustle, but that’s it. I began playing ball a few years ago when the free weights on the yard were confiscated after two guys got into a fight and one used a dumbbell as a club and bludgeoned the other into a coma. Everyone thought the guy was going to die, but six months later he was back and as obnoxious as ever, a zig zag scar like a zipper spanning half his head. Go figure.
Lifting weights was my passion before basketball, but neither were activities I considered when the judge declared “This court hereby sentences you to death. May God have mercy on your soul.” There were a lot of things I didn’t think of back then.
As the county transport van sped toward Central Prison fear kicked against my rib cage. I had just been sentenced to death for a double murder. Death row approached and my only reference for this unimaginable future was a scene from The Green Mile flashed in my mind. How was a skinny white kid like me going to survive such a violent place? It was as reasonable a thought as it was incongruent with my circumstances since I sat chained hand and foot, racing to my doom at the end of a needle.
I was really confused by the brevity of my trial and my lawyer’s lackadaisical attitude afterward. “Don’t worry, son,” said one. “You’ll get an appeal”. I was afraid, lost and utterly alone. In my mind rows of darkened cells with solid steel doors like coffin lids and bare light bulbs pushed back that impenetrable darkness around screaming killers who threatened despicable acts. Death row became an abyss from which there was no escape.
. . .Even though J-Roc was the team captain he refused to lead or direct the other players. “They won’t listen,” he said when Tyreke pleaded with him. “I’m gonna do me. That’s it.” The Nubians ignored each other on the court until it became absolutely necessary to pass the ball. The frustrating thing was they had the potential to be really good, but working together as a team was beyond them.
The second time we played the Dream Team we lost by thirty points. Forever fouled out in the first half. Coach drew a tech for walking onto the court and by the end of the game we were renamed the Cellar Dwellers. The four games we somehow won were not much different from our losses. Turmoil, finger pointing, bad attitudes and tantrums. Smokey, the assistant coach, tried to get us organized but quit when the starters ignored him. Tyreke was in the hole for fifteen days so we were without a coach. Nobody asked why he went, it wasn’t as important as our losing season. Besides, Coach went to lock-up so much, with him it probably had to do with yet another scam. He was like Sisyphus in that way—constantly trying to beat “The Man” and losing every time.
North Carolina’s death row is nothing like the movies. Prior to 2002, there were nine crowded cell blocks with double bunks in the dayroom. Men in red jumpsuits played cards, dominoes and Scrabble at cold steel tables or held quiet conversations while they smoked. The guard escorting me saw my confusion and laughed. After 20 months in solitary confinement countless scenarios ran through my mind, but an open, unrestricted and packed death row reminiscent of a county jail wasn’t one of them.
The guard left and a skinny black man with a heavy Boston accent handed me a cigarette and asked, “Where ya from?” After responding that I grew up in Maine he told me to chill out and listen. There would be no immediate execution or survival of the fittest. The appellate process would take years. Decades. They didn’t lock us down because it had always been that way. “Death row is just a legal status,” he said. “Why punish us at an institutional level?” The stunning revelation of my future was that I would do time like any other lifer, except maybe someday I would be put to death.
If my days were spent in isolation and despair without any meaningful humane contact, I wouldn’t have survived. The county jail was like that in Asheville and 23 hour lockdown in a 7’x9’ cell almost killed me. I made an honest effort at suicide but the second failure was enough to convince me the universe had other plans. As miserable as solitary confinement was some tiny, diamond-hard part of me wanted to live through the emotional pain and despair to see what the future held.
The trauma of arriving on death row was obscured by immaturity, ignorance and a heavy dose of psych meds. Most of the time I read fantasy novels or watched sitcoms on TV to avoid thinking about where I was or how I ended up in the lowest place on earth. Harvey, a middle-aged black man with a space between his front teeth, got me lifting weights twice a week whereas Earl, a former drill instructor, had me doing calisthenics he taught recruits in the Army. It was discipline and direction I desperately needed. We didn’t talk much and focused on the task of moving weights, running, push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups.
One day Harvey and I were doing squats in the rec yard when he was called to the office. He returned nearly an hour later his movements jerky, eyes glazed. Harvey mumbled something about a date, grabbed his towel from the bench and left. It took a moment for me to realize my friend’s time had come.
Everyone knew it was coming, but the execution is something you try to block out until news coverage, your attorney and that inner clock tell you it is time. Worry drove plenty of us to chain smoke, pace or brood but once a man was called to the warden’s office and told the day and hour he would die, there could be no more denials. Harvey was quiet and stared off into the distance for several days then calmly went about giving away books and magazines he collected over the years, discarding an accumulation of useless legal papers and preparing to leave as if . . . he were getting out of prison. A solid Christian, Harvey professed to be ready to meet Jesus. “I’ve been ready for years and now it’s finally here.”
When the guards came for him they wheeled an empty hand cart with squeaky wheels onto a silent block. The stares of the warden and deputy warden kept everyone at bay. Harvey placed two white plastic bags of personal property on the cart. Letters and pictures from loved ones, a Bible and some artwork—to be collected by family when they came to witness his execution. He turned to the warden. “Give me a minute?” Men in red jumpsuits, people Harvey came to know as friends and brothers, gathered to shake his hand or gave him a hug. When it was my turn, I saw tears dripping from his dark cheeks. Not knowing what to say, I stuttered a goodbye and gave my friend a final hug. It hurt. A lot.
After they executed Harvey, something awakened in me. There was a realization his fate is mine. After all of the legal wrangling fails and no relief is granted by the appellate court, it will be THE END. For all of us. I couldn’t help but take notice of this and if Harvey taught me anything it’s that death row is my last chance to live . . . .
The chatter before the start of the double elimination “Ball ‘Til We Fall” tournament was how the Dream Team would use the Cellar Dwellers for warm-up before beating the other teams. Their point guard, the “Phenom” was the best baller on the row and averaged half of his team’s score by himself. Since Earl created the tournament and received permission from the administration in ‘02, the Phenom’s skills were unmatched. It was he who suggested the Nubians be renamed the Cellar Dwellers.
Within minutes of the first quarter, it was obvious we were a different team. J-Roc led and drained threes from a yard beyond the arc as if he’d done it the entire season. Pit controlled the paint, made most of his lay ups and snatched rebounds. Our team looked like a team and smothered the Phenom, sending our opponents reeling. By the end of the third period, we had a fifteen point lead on a team expected to win the tournament. The Dream Team attempted a last minute come back, cutting our lead to three, but it wasn’t enough. We won.
We played the Blazers next. A fast and savvy team with good shooters, the game began slowly, but the Blazers took the lead. Tyreke yelled from the sideline at the refs. “You’re scared to death! Somebody bribed you! No one’s that blind! I promise they won’t take your honey buns! Make the damn call!” He was finally warned by one of the refs to sit down and shut up or he would get a technical foul.
The Cellar Dwellers caught up and frustrated the Blazers, taking the lead with a minute on the clock. On the bench, we prepared for the expected loss at the buzzer. Easy brought the ball down the court and everyone knew he would score until he tripped over a crack in the concrete and lost the ball. Toni recovered it and the Cellar Dwellers played keep away for the remaining seconds until the buzzer sounded. We made it to the championship round!
My brothers, the ones who wear the same red jumpsuit and dream of freedom from the executioner just like me, are a family of a different sort. We are all flawed human beings, some of whom have earned ostracism and incarceration, but not death. While many of us will never leave prison, many more deserve another chance to prove they are worthy of life and freedom someday. Since my arrival on death row eight of my friends were exonerated and set free, providing hope for all of us. Death and horrible circumstance may bind us within a dysfunctional criminal justice system, but humanity is how we connect with the rest of society—our ability to make mistakes, suffer, learn, regret and grow to love one another.
If I were to point out a specific reason why North Carolina’s death row is so different from others that are locked down and isolated, it’s the opportunity we have to build a community, grieve together, and share a common fate drawn out over many years. Prison encourages self-reflection and dependency so we struggle through the time alongside one another, contemplating the past like some bad rerun we wish had a different ending. We watch because there is nothing else, and the mind imagines what could have happened had the main character chosen a different path leading to a happier ending.
All we had to do was win one game in the championship round. It would be the first such upset in the Ball ‘Til We Fall tournament’s fourteen year history. Excited from back-to-back playoff wins the Cellar Dweller starters—not the benchwarmers, Henry and I knew better--talked a lot of trash to the opposing team. They were so certain of victory they didn’t bother to practice or make plans for the final game. “It’s just a game” J-Roc said, “We got this.” Except it wasn’t just another game. Team Dog Pound really wanted to win, and Squirrel, their coach, planned like a good general. He watched all of the games, took notes and held strategy meetings with his players, and invested a great deal of emotion into the preparation. Game day arrived two weeks late because of several rain delays, but this only helped Dog Pound.
We were not ready. The wait stole the energy from our previous wins. Our starters were sluggish and indifferent about the game, mouthing meaningless reassurances to one another about winning. Several of them were late and didn’t even warm up. The moment J-Roc stepped on the court he was double-teamed by the tenacious defenders, virtually eliminating him from the game as we did with the Phenom. Frustrated and fouled, not receiving any favorable calls J-Roc struggled to keep it together and finally broke on his team. “Pass the damn ball! Don’t worry about who’s guarding me!” He was sort of right. Forever and Chanton didn’t and we fell behind. “Why are you standing still, Pit?! Move! MOVE!”
Toni threw his hands up, “I can’t play like this! Take me out of the game, Coach!” and walked off the court. Team Dog Pound scored again, putting them up fifteen points.
“Sub!” hollered Tyreke, which is when I got in for a few minutes.
“What the hell is wrong with you people?” Ayatollah fumed on the bench during a timeout. “We’re a team! We came all this way and you wanna give up?! Play some dang defense!” It wasn’t enough. The Dog Pound players were simply better prepared. They knew how to cooperate and win. We lost because at some point we expected this was our lot and, underlying all of our problems was a lack of knowledge about how to fix what needed fixing.
North Carolina’s death row has developed an intimacy bred from decades of imprisonment in the most challenging of circumstances. In a place where we have been sent to die for the damage done to the victims, their families, our families and the State a chance at a half-life has emerged from the shadows of vengeance. However flawed we may be, however much the world would prefer to forget about us, there is a simple truth that cannot be ignored, walled off or executed. It is our ever-present desire to be seen as human beings worthy of life and redemption. This is what we cellar dwellers share with each other, and if there needs to be a better reason to end capital punishment and restructure life sentences without the possibility of parole, that would be it.
Maybe next season.
This essay was published by The Marshall Project (www.themarshallproject.org), and revised by staff writer Eli Hager, under the title Death Row Basketball League on 3-6-17.