This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
Our death-row basketball league team 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 “Ball ’Til we Fall” 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 (also an inmate) blew his whistle, catching Toni’s retaliation. Foul.
“How you gonna call that bullshit on me?” he said. “That shit’s crazy, yo! Who the hell 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 and himself another inmate, screamed at all of us from the sideline, often drawing a technical foul. Then the other players would gaze off as if they wanted to be anywhere else, maybe even the hole.
I’m not much of a ball player — I’m a benchwarmer, in fact. Good defense, attention and hustle, but that’s it. 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.
Lifting weights was my passion before basketball. Neither were activities I had ever once considered before the judge declared, “This court hereby sentences you to death. May God have mercy on your soul.”
But in a place where we have been sent to die for the damage we have done, a chance at a half-life has emerged out here on the rec yard.
The second time we played the Dream Team, we lost by 30 points. A guy named “Forever” fouled out in the first half. Coach drew a tech for walking onto the court. By the end of the game we were re-named the Cellar Dwellers.
Smokey, our assistant coach, tried to get us organized, but quit when the starters ignored him. 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.
And the four games we somehow won were not much different from our losses. Turmoil, finger-pointing, bad attitudes, and tantrums.
North Carolina’s death row is nothing like the movies. When I first arrived over a decade ago, I was shocked to see men playing cards, dominoes, and Scrabble at the steel tables, or holding quiet conversations while they smoked. It was more like a county jail.
The revelation was that I would do my time just like any other lifer, except that maybe someday I would be put to death.
The chatter before the start of the double-elimination “Ball ’Til we Fall” 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 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!
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. For a brief time, death row disappeared.
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.
When the guards came for him, they wheeled an empty handcart with squeaky wheels onto the silent cell block. He placed two white plastic bags of personal property onto the cart, full of letters and pictures from loved ones, a Bible, and some artwork, to be collected by his family when they came to witness the execution.
Harvey turned to the warden. “Give me a minute?” he said. Men in red jumpsuits, the inmates he had come to know out on the rec yard, gathered to shake his hand and give him a hug. When it was my turn, I stuttered a goodbye and saw the tears in his eyes.
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.
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.
Lyle May, 39, is incarcerated on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., where he is awaiting execution for two counts of first-degree murder. He was convicted of killing a mother and her 4-year-old child.