I’ve watched “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Escape from Alcatraz” and “The Longest Yard” on television. That’s about it as far as prison experiences go.
Now my adrenaline-rushed body, filled with butterflies, is leaving my cozy, comfortable condominium in Medina, getting into my car and, 25 minutes later, making a left-hand turn off state Route 83 and into the Grafton Correctional Institution.
My assignment: Referee a basketball game between a prison team and a visiting squad put together by former Medina County resident Jeff Andrews, who now works for Rock of Ages Prison Ministries.
My pay: $25 — and a memory that, I hope, will last a long and healthy lifetime.
I am told to get there at 5:45 p.m., which will afford me time to clear security prior to the 6:15 tipoff. One of those people who feels late if I’m not at least a half-hour early, I arrive at 5.
Now, for the past two years I have driven past the Grafton Correctional Institution several times a week en route to Elyria, where The Gazette’s sister paper, The Chronicle-Telegram, is located.
Often, I’m with fellow sportswriter Albert Grindle, whose noisy 1972 Buick Riviera usually draws a number of waves from inmates walking in the exercise yard closest to Route 83.
But this is the first time I’ve driven “in” to the facility. Immediately, I am struck by just how immense the place is. (A later check of Grafton’s website informs me it is 1,782 acres and contains approximately 1,500 inmates, virtually all of them classified as low and medium level.)
Since my only directions are “turn left off 83,” I’m not exactly sure where I should be going, so I follow — and follow — the road all the way back to the visitor parking lot. Forty-five minutes early, I sit in my car and wait.
Finally, another vehicle pulls in, this one containing my two fellow officials. Then another, this one driven by former Medina High boys basketball coach Keith Sooy, who is on hand to watch a handful of his former players on the visiting team.
The first visit to Grafton for all of us, we decide to walk into the nearest building, which indeed is the security check-in point. I immediately head to the restroom, my nerves — and the
20-ounce Coke I have just finished — getting the best of me.
The woman at the front desk is extremely cordial, but two problems arise. One, my fellow officials arrive wearing only their black referee shorts, and visitors are not allowed to walk into the facility without long pants. Two, the mild-mannered Sooy, who never received a technical foul in his lengthy coaching career, has medication in his coat pocket.
Fortunately, one of the officials has a pair of work pants and a pair of sweatpants in his car and heads back out into the cold — the land is flat, and the wind is extremely brisk — to retrieve them. Sooy leaves his medication at the front desk. I make trip No. 2 to the restroom.
Eventually, we clear security and are joined by Andrews and a number of his incoming players, including Medina products Dontaie Anthony, Paul Glass, Lonnie Neal and A.J. Hawkins. We are all handed visitor passes — and good-naturedly (I think) told not to lose them if we want to get back out.
Accompanied by a prison chaplain, we go through one door, wait for it to close, then exit through another door and into the yard.
There are dozens and dozens of inmates mulling about, all wearing blue pants and blue hooded sweatshirts. A number of them tell the incoming players they’re going to lose. Several others tell the officials to be fair. Everyone is smiling (I think).
After walking several hundred yards, we arrive at a building marked “Recreation Area.” The door opens, we walk in and … wow! Nothing I’ve done in four years of officiating has prepared me for this. Nothing!
There must be 300 inmates crammed into this tiny gym, but it feels like 30,000. The prison team is already warming up. One guy is 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds. Another is 6-9 and can’t weigh 200. Music is blasting. The noise, made louder by an ever-present echo, is almost deafening.
There are three or four rows of bleachers on each end of the court. They are crammed with inmates, and those sitting in the front row have their feet so close to the end line I can only pray I don’t step on someone’s toes.
Opposite the scorer’s table, running the length of the court, is a huge fence, behind which is a workout room filled with guys who could be on the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine.
Once again in desperate need, I don’t see a bathroom. Trip No. 3 will have to wait.
Starting lineups are introduced by a public address announcer who is so good he should be working at New York City’s famed Rucker Park. Even the officials are introduced. The first gives his name as “Andy O.” The second says “Pat.” Ever the conformist, I quickly settle on “Rick.”
There is a short prayer, after which two security guards quickly huddle the only three guys in striped shirts and tell us to let them know if anyone, players or fans, says or does anything we find offensive. They’ll handle things, they assure us. (Secretly, I wish I could take these guys with me for a fourth-grade AAU tournament.)
The game begins — and the noise increases. My mouth is so dry I feel like I’m in the Sahara. A minute or two in, already dripping with sweat, I blow my whistle for the first time and call a foul on the prison team that results in two free throws. There is not a single word of complaint.
A few moments later, the lightning-quick Anthony, The Gazette’s MVP for boys basketball in 2005, breaks a defender’s ankles and the place goes nuts. The PA announcer, who is functioning more like a play-by-play man, goes Joe Tait circa 1973.
The game, fast-paced and physical but remarkably clean and well played, is a battle of contrasting styles. The visiting team, smaller but quicker, goes up eight behind solid 3-point shooting. The prison team, bigger and stronger, battles back by pounding the ball inside.
During timeouts, Andy O, Pat and I huddle and agree we are having the time of our lives. We are relishing the experience, but we are also simply officiating a basketball game between two good teams with a great crowd on hand.
At one point, Anthony, who finishes with 32 points, tries a crossover move, but I blow my whistle and call him for palming the ball. Instantly, I am the most popular person in the Grafton Correctional Institution, though I privately wonder what the reaction will be if I have to make the same call at the other end.
As the game progresses, we make a few calls that are questioned, some by the visiting team, some by the prison team, but the reactions are no different than at any game at any level. If anything, the players and spectators are more knowledgeable and seem to realize some calls can go either way.
Heading into the final seconds, the visiting team holds a two-point lead, but the prison team is shooting the one-and-one. The first free throw is good, but the second is short.
Glass, an All-Gazette choice in 2006, is eventually fouled and sinks both free throws to put the visitors up three. The prison team, out of timeouts, fails to score and the game ends, the visiting team winning 69-66.
Another brief prayer is held, after which prison players, coaches and more than a few spectators thank Andy O, Pat and me for coming in.
The pleasure, we tell them, was ours.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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