The Golden State Warriors just finished the finest season in basketball history… by a team that failed to make the playoffs. In the epic Western Conference, G-State’s 48-34 record was only good enough for ninth place. The NBA universe is now mourning the fact that this high-octane crew from Oaktown won’t be pulling off any playoff miracles this season.
While it’s nice to see basketball matter again in the Bay Area, I had an entirely different kind of feeling last month when Warriors stars Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Monta Ellis and the now-retired Chris Webber appeared at a “Silence the Violence” rally in their backyard at Oakland Tech.
Jackson, who’s had his share of off-the-court troubles, said, “I’ve seen a lot of violence in my life, and it could have stopped me from being where I’m at today. If I can give some kids some knowledge that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, then I’m willing to do that.”
Oakland is a place where there are too many funerals–too many parents burying too many teenagers. As longtime community activist Todd Chretien said to me, “In the last five years around 700 people have been murdered in Oakland, out of a population of less than 400,000. About half of these murders have taken place within a two-mile radius of the fields and floors where the Oakland Raiders, the Oakland As and the Golden State Warriors play ball.
“What’s wrong? Poverty and racism,” he said. “Unemployment for young black and Latino men hovers between one-third and one-half. The cost of living is the highest in the country. The schools are underfunded and under attack from Bush’s No Child Left Behind. In the last thirty years the ruling elite in Oakland have de-industrialized and taken their jobs elsewhere (and now they’re taking the As with them).”
This issue hits close to home for me. Last fall, I walked into the Alameda County Juvenile Hall to talk sports with a room of about twenty-five 14- to 17-year-olds. It was part of a program called Write to Read, run by a remarkable librarian named Amy Cheney.
It was hard not to be struck by how much the Juvenile Hall resembles the high school where my wife teaches. There are inspirational posters that greet you on the outside and a metal detector that greets you on the inside. But it’s not a high school. It’s actually far newer, far cleaner and much better lit than many high schools. Another difference is that I was asked to take off my shoes when I went through the metal detector. I was told by the crew-cut police officer, “You could have multiple shanks hidden in the soles.”
Before the session began, I was given a tour of the prison. It was a bizarre combination of the old and the new.
First the new: the inmates stay in a “pod” system. If you’ve seen Oz, you know what that means: plexiglas doors framed with reinforced steel and rooms that fit one person uncomfortably. If you have to go to the bathroom or do anything else, you can been seen by everyone around you.
The old aspects of the prison are many: the books in the library, and anything that might actually be enjoyed. There are also the murals depicting people like Malcolm X.
Ms. Cheney explained to me, “We are so desperate to get them turned on to anything.”
When I met the young people, twenty-five of us sitting in a circle, the first thing I noticed was their focus. They amazed me. I thought they were more incisive, by far, than the college audiences I’ve encountered. Put them in an elite boarding school, and they’d be assessing whether Harvard makes more sense than Yale. Put them in law school, and they’d be fighting off job offers. Give them the skill sets to write a column like this one, and they’d make you laugh or break your heart.
When we talked about Michael Vick and his downfall, their insights reflected the streets, where dog-fighting is fairly common. When we talked about Muhammad Ali defeating George Foreman in Zaire, one young man told me, “I don’t think you’re here to teach us how to fight.”
Everyone was laughing, jawing, giving more than their two cents about the sports world which they’re viewing from behind Plexiglas. As I began to leave, I said without thinking, “I will talk to you when I come back.” One young man looked up at me and said, “When you come back, I hope none of us are here.”
On my way out, one youth counselor asked me if I got a good look at all their faces. I said of course. He said, “Good, because about one-third of them will be dead in five years.” Christ, I thought, I hope not.
If Jackson, Ellis and the rest of the Warriors can do anything to put a dent in the epidemic of youth violence in Oakland, it’s time that couldn’t be better spent. But I would also like to see them not just go to the high schools but to the youth prisons in Alameda County. No one needs a hand more than the ones who are falling, or being pushed, off a cliff.