Posted: Thursday June 16, 2011 12:54PM ; Updated: Thursday June 16, 2011 12:54PM

Lessons in integrity with San Quentin State Prison's tennis team

Story Highlights

The author played tennis with the team at California's San Quentin State Prison

The level of play varies widely, but the top three players can all hit a heavy ball

The team's motto ('integrity') is reflected in the players' remarkable self-control

By Marc Howard, Special to SI.com

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The level of play varies among then members of the San Quentin State Prison tennis team, but their respect for the game is uniform.
The level of play varies among then members of the San Quentin State Prison tennis team, but their respect for the game is uniform.
Courtesy of Martin Silverman

I've played tennis in countless venues and in what I thought was every imaginable setting. The dusty red clay courts in Paris, immaculate grass outside of London, Ivan Lendl's backyard U.S. Open replica court, numerous stuffy clubs and decrepit public courts with weeds growing through the cracks in the surface. But until recently I had never associated the sport with concertina wire, constant loud alarms and tower guards with rifles.

Having heard about a tennis court at California's San Quentin State Prison, I contacted Martin Silverman, a Bay Area volunteer who brings in players from the outside world. As a professor who teaches a course on "Prisons and Punishment," I considered it a perfect opportunity to bring together my passion for tennis and my interest in prisons. I arranged a visit that would coincide with an academic conference I would be attending at UC-Berkeley. My plan was to "escape" from a mind-numbing academic panel to hit some balls with convicted felons.

I arrived on a beautiful but brisk Saturday morning, along with Martin (an avid tennis player who recently "aged-up," with great enthusiasm, into the 80-and-over division) and two other outsiders who take part in a weekly tennis "league" (of sorts), where inmates and outsiders play doubles together against another "mixed" pair. I had heard that they were always in need of more racquets, so I brought a bag filled with a dozen sticks to donate to the inmates (these would have to be delivered later, after being checked for contraband).

Playing tennis in the notorious San Quentin sounds oxymoronic. But within the confines of a tennis court, these men are learning to play inside the lines. And tennis may be giving some of them the hope of finding a new direction in their lives.

My day at San Quentin coincided with the first day of the "season," and everyone was upbeat. When they saw me warming up, the Inside Tennis Team players were excited to have a "ringer" in their midst.

The Inside Team's rules are clear: sets are regular scoring, first to four games, without a tie-break. The idea is to keep circulating the players, making as many combinations as possible within the two-hour period.

The level of play at San Quentin varies widely. The top three players can all hit a heavy ball, and they have great movement and anticipation. Team captain Raphael Calix, short and stocky and in his late 40s, has bursts of speed that belie his build. He has been a tennis fanatic since watching Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors play at UCLA -- long before drugs took him down a path of crime he wishes he could undo.

James "Mac" McCartney, in his 50s and sporting a thick, white mustache and a big smile, has quick hands at the net and is a force in doubles. And my first doubles partner, Nguyenly Nguyen, soft-spoken, athletic, in his 40s and displaying a magnetic smile despite missing his four front teeth, can rip a college-level backhand. He runs around his much weaker forehand at every opportunity. Several other players have unusual-looking strokes, but can still make solid contact and hit effective shots. And still others have just started to play recently, and they are still figuring out the game.

But the point of tennis at San Quentin is not the competition. It is the appreciation of this great game, in which all players strive for perfection, inevitably fall short, yet enjoy the physical and psychological struggle so much that they go right back out there to try again.

The action was intense, but always good-spirited, and the sets went by quickly. I adjusted my shots to the levels of the other players, mixing in the lobs and drop shots typical of "hit and giggle" tennis with the occasional "heater" serve or return that some players requested.

At one point, I ran down a lob over my partner's head and, facing the back fence, hit an acrobatic behind the back shot that went straight down the line for a clean winner. The reaction from the guys watching (including those milling around in the yard) was electric and lasted several minutes. I felt like I'd won Wimbledon, as the high fives kept coming, and one guy screamed out "Did you see that? Roger Federer couldn't have made that shot!"

Later, I ran down another lob, this one deeper, but before I knew it I'd collided at full speed with the fence, which is only about eight feet behind the baseline on the tight court ("Nadal would have a hard time playing here," someone had told me earlier). I got a little cut on my hand, with a small trickle of blood. The jovial Chris Schuhmacher, a surfer-dude-type in his late-30s, with long, wavy hair and sporty sunglasses, teased me: "Hey, you come to San Quentin, you're gonna get cut!" Not long afterwards, a scrappy player named Geno caught me napping at the net and hit me with a "body blow" volley that connected with my left arm -- and he quickly raised his racquet to apologize.

In between the sets I played, I sat with some other San Quentin players -- J.T., Jason, Mohamed, Troy (who was formerly known as "Bone," but now wants to leave that name and those days behind) -- and talked about all kinds of subjects, from prison life to Georgetown basketball to professional tennis. They crave watching tennis, but only get to see the parts of the Slams that are shown on broadcast channels on a grainy television set. Overall, I was impressed by their knowledge of the outside world and their thirst for interaction with it. After quite some time had passed, I looked around and realized that I didn't even see any guards; but it had never even crossed my mind to feel threatened. We were just interacting as humans and tennis players.

Looking for some coaching tips, Chris and Geno asked for my advice about hitting a two-handed backhand. They listened earnestly and attentively as I explained the importance of turning their shoulders, getting their feet set, and how the left arm (for a righty) generates the power, while the right provides control. As they practiced the motion over and over, I was struck by the contrast to many players on the outside, who take tennis lessons in order to be entertained and complimented. The San Quentin guys really wanted to learn the stroke and improve their games.

Like other prisoners who play on the San Quentin baseball or soccer teams, the 20 or so members of the Inside Team all have records of good behavior within the prison as a condition of their participation. But they aren't angels either. Many of them are in prison for murder -- yet they will likely have a chance at parole one day. They come from every conceivable racial or ethnic background. Most important, they are united by an unlikely -- and, for most of them, previously undiscovered -- passion for tennis.

 
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