One fall when he was working in a small coastal town in Maine, my father spotted an ad in the local paper that read something like this:
OUR BASKETBALL TEAM NEEDS OPPONENTS
*we play home games only*
Maine State Prison
My dad, a high school administrator, is an educator in the truest sense of that word: He loves to shake things up and see what happens. So when he read the ad, he compiled a list of everyone he knew who, in his estimation, needed the rigor of playing prison basketball. Then he pared the list down to those whom he might conceivably convince to do such a thing. The only people who survived the cut were relatives: my two cousins, my brother and me. Then my father answered the ad.
In the weeks before Christmas, Dad made vague allusions to the upcoming contest. He talked about "challenge"; he talked about "service"; he talked about "giving something back."
"Are we actually playing in the prison?" I asked my brother, Sam.
"Maybe it's against the staff at the prison, like the guards and the warden," Sam answered.
But we were kidding ourselves. We knew we would be on the court with kidnappers and arsonists, killers and rapists—and that while my dad was educating us, they would be the ones taking us to school.
When the day came, the five of us—a pale, scrawny five—traveled together to the prison. We chatted away about the weather, the road conditions, the upcoming holiday, everything except the game. But when we got to the prison and a poker-faced guard led us to the gym through a seemingly endless series of iron-gated doors, we quieted down.
We stayed in tight single file behind the guard; he was our new best friend. Then we were outside again, in the bracing December cold, but not really outside: We were standing on the prison grounds, enclosed by towering walls. It was a bleak landscape dotted by patches of ice and snow. On the west side of the grounds was a crude baseball diamond, weathered and neglected. "You hit a ball over that wall, and it's gone," said the guard. We looked out at the western wall of the prison, complete with an imposing watchtower at each end. Ahead of us was the gym, without windows, a small version of the prison itself.
The locker room was cold and sparsely furnished, with two benches, one toilet stall, a urinal and a sink with a mirror. As we undressed, I ran down our lineup.