The latest Criminal Law News Roundup posted by UNC School of Government covers an unusual sporting event: Raleigh Central Prison’s annual “Ball ‘Til We Fall” tournament in which the players, the coaches, and the referrees are all death row inmates. Here are some highlights from a tournament summary written by one of the players, Lyle May:
[We] did not have a strong season. The Nubians were 4-9 for the year, and it was widely believed we would lose in the first round of the … tournament. Not that our starting five of condemned prisoners were incapable of playing well; they just spazzed out at the worst possible moments and struggled to function as a unit.
In one game, we led by seven points over the number-one seed, the 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 b******t on me?” he said. “That s***’s crazy, yo! Who the h**l paid you off?”
Toni continued to melt down, getting in the face of the ref, 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 win the game.
Another teammate of ours, named J-Roc, frequently threw his water bottle at the fence or kicked over a chair. Tyreke, our coach … screamed at all of us from the sideline, often drawing a technical foul. …
The second time we played the Dream Team, we lost by 30 points. … Coach drew a tech for walking onto the court. By the end of the game we were re-named the Cellar Dwellers. … Tyreke was in the hole for 15 days, so we were without a coach; nobody asked why he went, because Coach went to lock-up so often that it meant nothing.
May occasionally digresses to talk about prison life outside the context of the tournament:
I began playing 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 believed he was going to die, but six months later he was back and as obnoxious as ever, a zig-zag scar spanning half his head like a zipper. …
I’d first gotten started with the activities on the yard when Harvey, a middle-aged black man with a gap between his front teeth, got me lifting weights twice a week. We didn’t talk much and focused on the tasks of moving weights, running, push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. …
One day, Harvey and I were doing squats on the yard when he was called to the office. He returned nearly an hour later, his movements jerky, eyes glazed. Mumbling something about getting a date, he grabbed his towel from the bench and left. It took a moment for me to realize that my friend’s final days had come. …
May’s focus, however, is the tournament itself, which seems to have been taken very seriously by everyone involved despite the death sentences hanging over them:
The chatter before the start of the … tournament was how the Dream Team would use the Cellar Dwellers for a warm-up before beating the other teams. Their point guard, the “Phenom,” was the best baller on death row, and averaged half of his team’s score by himself.
But in the first quarter of our playoff game against them, it was obvious we were a different squad. J-Roc led the way, draining threes from a yard beyond the arc as if he’d done it the entire season; Pit controlled the paint, made (most of) his layups, and snatched rebounds. Our team looked like a team. We won.We played the Blazers next, a fast and savvy team with good shooters. The game began slowly, and they took the lead, but we came back and overtook them. Toward the end, the Blazers lost the ball, we recovered and played keep-away for the remaining seconds.
We had made it to the championship round! …
All we had to do was win one game: the championship. It would be the first upset in the “Ball ’Til We Fall” tournament’s 14-year history. Energized by back-to-back playoff wins, the Cellar Dwellers talked trash to the opposing team. We were so certain of victory, we didn’t bother to practice. We were not ready. The wait stole the energy from our previous wins. Our starters were sluggish, mouthing meaningless reassurances to one another. We lost. But there is a desire in us that cannot be walled off, or drained by the expectation of an execution date. Maybe it will lead us to victory next year.
May’s a pretty good sportswriter. He’s also also a convicted murderer who’s awaiting execution for killing a mother and her 4-year-old child!