THEY WERE PLAYING one-on-one basketball. Their baby faces were only altered by determined drives to the basket. No more than 5-foot-4, no older than 16 or 17, they were having fun doing what many boys their age like to do.
One tried a killer crossover (a hard bounce to the left hand, in which your opponent moves with the fake, followed by another hard bounce to the right hand as you breeze by your dazzled defender), but lost control of the ball. Bad ball handling only increased the innocence of their play. They both laughed and prepared to square off again.
All-star attempts to outmaneuver each other on the basketball court did not erase their innocence; that vanished when they made the crossover from troubled teens to convicted murderers.
Their hoop dreams were enclosed by the imposing interior walls of a maximum security prison. They were guarded by armed officers in watchtowers on the outer fringes and scouted by seasoned jailhouse thinkers who manipulate youthful ignorance to meet their own perverse ends. This face-off left no opportunity for innocence to be rebounded. The game was over for them even if they didn't realize it.
They are under 21 and serving life sentences. I noticed them while exercising in the prison courtyard. I thought about a jump shot that hits the rim and goes into a spin. In an instant the bail falls in or spirals out of the rim.
I wondered if they would fall into or out of the loop of prison life.
To be in the loop is to be in motion with all that is prison: living by prison codes, running with a clique (a part of most everything that is negative) and trapped in an unwavering cycle of belligerence.
To be out of the loop is to be focused on self-improvement - spiritual, intellectual, emotional - compliant with rules and regulations, oblivious to internal conflicts and rivalries, eager to be involved in something positive and determined to keep the daily struggle of prison life in its proper perspective. The loop lures many who pass until they realize it is a roller coaster of self-destruction. Some never escape it. These teens may be no exception.
Their lives came in to focus again one evening while I was at dinner with two older inmates discussing why so many young men wind up in prison.
Blame became an issue.
One inmate blamed the government. The other said we were to blame. He blamed his generation (of incarcerated men) for not being there for my generation. My generation lost itself in drugs and violence and gave way to the many young faces staring back at us. I agreed with him, knowing from my own childhood how much a young male looks to an adult male for guidance and validation.
I asked two other inmates imprisoned as teens a simple question: What could have made the difference in your life?
Michael (his middle name) entered prison at 15. He took part in a botched purse snatching. The victim fell and hit her head. She died the next day. Michael received a life sentence plus 10 years for his role in the crime. He has been in prison for 25 years.
"Without any doubt," Michael said, "if I could ask God to change one thing in my past, it would be to have a father-and-son relationship that a senior and junior have in a normal family. I really needed that father guidance and leadership at home instead of getting it in the streets, where my father had gotten his.
"My father was definitely a good provider. He just wasn't around that much to help us grow up. He ran the streets, doing everything from running numbers to using and selling drugs. In the end, my mother received the bad news (or was it good news?) that my father was found dead in his girlfriend's bed.
"I know if I was with my father [in the truest sense of the word], I would not have been at the scene where I made the mistake of my life."
Joseph Nolan-El entered the Maryland Penitentiary in 1978, at 14. Convicted of murder, kidnapping and extortion, he was sentenced to life plus 10 years.
"I believe if my father would have spent more time with me, I would have never found myself in the situation that ultimately led to my incarceration.
"My father thought all he had to do was provide for his family and that was enough. I needed him to spend quality time with me. I did not have any older brothers. I had no one I could talk to when faced with problems. That left me to solve my problems the best way I knew how. I turned to my peers for answers. My father wasn't there. He was there for his family financially, but, spiritually and emotionally, he failed us."
I posed my question to Michael and Nolan separately. Neither knew I had asked the other. With little thought, both gave me the same answer. I still requested written responses, thinking introspection might bring forth something else.
The responses only gave more details about fathers who knew how to provide, but knew nothing of bonding, nurturing or guiding their sons through boyhood and into manhood by example, and by being there for them.
Neither condemned his father. Both said their fathers did as they could by virtue of what they knew. It was more about understanding what or who could have reshaped their destiny.
They have had ample time to think. I hope their insights will speak to the hearts of parents, ministers, educators who can reach troubled youths contemplating killer crossovers on and off the court, and before their hopes and dreams become confined by a maximum security prison.
Ricky Ricardo Williams, 32, born in Trinidad, raised in New York City and a Long Island suburb, is serving a 30-year sentence in the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup for a drug conviction in 1990. He is up for parole in March.