The two players I remember best were a fellow nicknamed Frosty, a towering, near albino center with Scandinavian features who may have scored 50 points, and Ed, a box-shaped man of brute strength who rarely shot but had enormous tattooed arms that relentlessly hauled in rebounds. Frosty had recently begun serving a 30-year sentence for murder. We were told he had dismembered his victim and dumped the body in a granite quarry. Ed was well into a life sentence for rape and murder, crimes he had reportedly committed against his mother. The inmates' point guard was doing five-to-15 on manslaughter charges. We were told his first trip to Maine had been on a Navy ship that docked in Portland for a short period of leave time. He and another sailor had gotten drunk, stolen a car and run over someone.
No question they had a home court advantage. Convicted criminals in the stands above the court cheered for their more athletic peers. We were clearly outsiders: civilians who had either sheepishly followed the rules or not been caught breaking them. We imagined the cheers of these fans were founded in envy or resentment, until a remarkable thing happened.
Our point total was still in the single digits, and we had just endured a swift five or six breakaway baskets. Our opponents were weaving, making an extra two or three passes to excite the crowd. Their fast breaks had tired them, and in the absence of their press we set up something resembling an offense. On one possession my father, out of breath, was the last to make it down the court, and we swung the ball around their zone to him. He caught it in midstride and came to an awkward halt, his front foot slapping down well ahead of his back foot. But he positioned himself, and his defender backed off a bit, challenging him to shoot. The place was silent. Then a fan yelled out, "Chuck it up, Pops."
Cued by this spectator, my dad rocked back and let fly a set shot. I watched its trajectory the way I watched the path of the last shot in Hoosiers (which was in slow motion). It fell cleanly through the net. The crowd again went wild—this time for us. My dad, the educator, raised a fist.
In the eyes of the fans, my dad's shot helped to define us as the struggling underdog. Even our opponents on the court began to encourage us in an older-brother kind of way. The 10 competitors on the court began to play the game of basketball: running, jumping, shooting, scoring (though the inmates did most of the scoring). There were about 10 minutes at the end in which the game actually flowed.
When it was over, we shook hands, and the inmates thanked us for coming "inside." As we returned to our locker room, we had no profound thoughts. We felt only exhaustion, soreness and satisfaction.
Nowadays the prison basketball story comes up in family conversation from time to time. We talk about the bleakness of the prison grounds, our first glances at our opponents and the hollowness we felt when the iron gates closed behind us. Remarkably, my dad puts no educational spin on the episode and offers no moral to the story. The fans found something in both teams to root for, and, at least for a few minutes, we were all just playing a game.