SAN QUENTIN, Calif. - San Quentin state prison is one of the most infamous lockups in the nation. Inside the gate, barbed wire and watchful guards monitor incarcerated people around the clock. That group includes the nation’s largest death row population, a system the state is dismantling. But on this Wednesday morning, none of that matters.
All eyes are on the basketball court in the recreation yard where the home team San Quentin Warriors squared off against the Golden State Warriors in an annual game. "It’s a win-win, the Warriors are winning," said one of the inmates greeting the crowd.
The visiting team is made up coaches and support staff from a franchise that’s won four of the last eight NBA championships. "There’s excitement on our end to be here, because it’s a different experience for everybody," said Warriors general manager, Mike Dunleavy Jr.
The team on the blacktop also joined on the sidelines by some of Golden State’s biggest stars including all-star guard and major offseason acquisition Chris Paul, Moses Moody and Klay Thompson. "It’s honestly really inspiring how hard they play," said Thompson. "The teamwork they play with, this didn’t happen overnight."
This is the ninth time this game has been played at San Quentin. The official record stands at Golden State: 5, San Quentin: 3. But the annual visit, is about much more than a game. "A lot of these guys got way more wisdom than I have," said Paul. "They’ve had experiences I’ve never had, and they’re talking about perseverance and how they keep their mind strong and whatnot."
"Man, it gives us life," said Tyree Hundley, one of the men incarcerated at the prison. "This stuff makes us feel like we’re still human."
That message, resonating before and throughout the game. "I’ve been incarcerated for 25 years, 25 years, and this is me everyday," shared one of the men on the court. "So if I can persevere through that, the small things you go through are nothing."
"These guys go through it every day, not being able to see their families, chase their dreams," said Thompson. "It just puts life in perspective."
Many of the men we spoke to, say programs like the basketball team and other life groups help them stay hopeful and focused on the future. "The fact we’ve been able to bring in our community and impact this community means a ton," said Kirk Lacob, the assistant general manager of the Warriors. "A lot of people I played against are now out."
People like Rahsaan Thomas, who used to look forward to the game every year. He was released in February. His 55 years to life sentence, commuted by Governor Newsom. "When society pours into a prison, they forgive you for what you’ve done," said Thomas. "They give you unconditional opportunities and love, bond with you on the basketball court where the only thing that matters is, can you play."
Like normal, fans gathered around the players asking them to sign autographs and take pictures. Moody took a seat at the chess board. "It’s cool just coming out to hang out with some guys, cool dudes, just coming out to kick it," said Moody.
Paul, the veteran guard and newcomer to the Warriors received a tour of the prison’s facilities including death row, where he stopped to hear powerful stories from some of the men. Cameras were not allowed but this reporter walked along with him, seeing his emotion firsthand, because for Paul, this is personal. "I actually have an uncle of mine who was an inmate here for some years ago, when I was a kid," said Paul. "To get in here and get a chance to meet with these men who get another chance, rehabilitate themselves, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
After four quarters, San Quentin’s team defended home court, 85-80. While the game is now over, the man-to-man conversations, the self-reflection and the joining of these Warriors’ families created memories that won’t soon fade away. "Long as my career been, it’s the first time I had the opportunity to do something like this and come spend time with these men," said Paul. "It’s a day I’ll never forget."