By Kip Ioane, Head Men's Basketball Coach
As I cross through the third set of security check doors and into the yard, I still haven't figured out the answer to the question that has dogged my brain the entire 30-minute drive over: "Just what the hell am I going to say to these guys?"
Here I am, in the heart of a Federal Corrections Institution, assigned 40 inmates (doing bids of anywhere from one to 20 years), one ball rack, one full court, and two hours of rec-time to fill with basketball. I have no delusions of grandeur … I'm not going to change the heart and soul of anyone today. I'm not going to cause an awakening of morality because of some drill I use today. What exactly is my purpose for being here then? If it's as simple as providing two hours of enjoyable escape from a day-to-day monotony, am I ready to do that? With over a decade of coaching at the NCAA Division III level, as well as running hundreds of days of camps and clinics, is there enough in my coaching utility belt to make these 120 minutes work?
I hear a horn ring out, a muffled voice over an intercom announces "Rec Time starts now", and I am escorted through another gate of razor wire, through a mess hall type area and into a gym setting that immediately sets me at ease. Before me is a clean, tartan full court floor with glass backboards in surprisingly good condition. The college three-point line is clear, and around the circular arena are painted images of the game's legends … Bird, Magic, Dr. J, Kareem, Kobe, Lebron (and of course Jordan, who gets two images). Every NBA jersey is etched in color, by conference on the baseline walls, and 10 rows of bleachers sit new and cleaned on one sideline. A crew of inmates clad in tan jumpsuits sets up a scoreboard display and asks me "Coach, how many minutes you need for warm up?"
A steady stream of clinic participants begin filing in, some in white long tees with grey shorts or sweats, others still in the tan jumpsuits. The first 20 or so simply go to each end and start playing shooting games … all of which you would see my own D3 team do before a practice started at any point of our season. It dawns on me that maybe this session, despite its unique setting and circumstances, could actually resemble so many others I have done teaching this game.
Then a group of five inmates introduce themselves to me and pepper me with questions. "What's on the practice plan today, coach?" "We going to need a group of 5, 6, or 7?" "You at that school in the capital, right?" "Season was tough for ya, huh?" One man says, "I can assist in carrying out any of the drills coach. Let me know teaching points and we'll roll with you." I try to hide my mixed emotions of excitement and bewilderment, and stammer out, "Yeah, fellas, how about we start with dynamics and add some competition agilities to the last six minutes of that." To which they respond, "Good plan coach, we don't do static stretching lines very well here."
"Damn, Kip" I say to myself. "You're an idiot. You assumed that the fences, the wires, the guards would keep the game foreign to these guys. That the paths they chose that led them here couldn't possibly include hoops IQ or knowledge." Then I remember, "The game is a connector … the game is a translator … the game is UNIVERSAL," and immediately feel myself ease into my usual demeanor and the two hours fly by.
We utilize a setup that mimics a "Competition Tuesday" in our season, and we get four groups of 10 players going at each other (in many cases with a skill set and athleticism we don't have on our roster). We use small-sided games, with long staggers, pin-downs, and restrictions on ball screen entries. The guys either immediately react using the add-ons and new concepts, or I clarify as I would with my own team, allowing them to push through early errors and end up playing freely. We curl flops, slip switches, create isos, all with only a few of the puzzled looks or breakdowns you would expect even in a teenage camper setting. Whoever is responsible for educating these inmates to the language of basketball has done a fantastic job, and set me up for a great day.
When the final horn from the scoreboard crew blows, my time is up and it's time to say goodbyes and thank yous. Among the gestures of appreciation I am given ideas, "Coach, you should get a better whistle. That one you have isn't audible on the other end of the court," and suggestions, "I would have that shooter as the first screener in the stagger, then curl off him. They can't help on that." As I leave, I barely notice the checkpoints, stamp scans, and signatures needed to leave the FCI. I am too mentally engaged in trying to decide how can I share this experience with people when all cameras, recording devices, and names of inmates are prohibited from use or sharing. What did I learn? What should I have learned?
In the end, I settle on telling the story in this format, with as much allowable detail as possible. I decide that the true lesson wasn't necessarily, "Hey, prison is better than you think." No, I think the lesson was, as it usually is, the true soul of this game we all love crosses all boundaries, languages, and circumstance. The profession I exist in grants me usage of a unique tool in a world determined to separate. No matter where we are, who we are, or what we are, basketball can bring us together.