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Nothin' but Net

The NBA tournament begins this week, but the players in the Denver County Jail have their own championship to worry about.

In the only game Mark Skipper plays at Madison Square Garden, the cathedral of basketball, the seventeen-year-old sees an apparition of sorts.

The godlike images of Walt Frazier, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe and Bill Bradley dribble through his mind.

"Here I am," Skipper says to himself, "playing on the same court as them. Here I am. In Madison Square Garden."

Skipper's team is playing for a championship in a New York City summer tournament that attracts the best ball-handlers from the boroughs. Skipper's opponents from Manhattan, the Gouchos, are the perennial champions who are known to recruit players from outside their boundaries--most notably, the McCray brothers, Scooter and Rodney, who are from Mount Vernon.

Skipper and his buddies come from the New Brighton neighborhood on Staten Island, and their team has gone 14-0 to earn its spot. Skipper is the point guard and captain, a role he cherishes.

"I'm the general. I'm in charge, plain and simple. I gotta get the ball to you. I gotta create the shot. See, the big guys can shoot low, bang around on the inside and in the paint. And they can rebound. But not too many big guys can create their own shot. And especially not from one end of the court to the other."

And Skipper's got a game of behind-the-back dribbles, through-the-legs, no-look passes and quick moves to the hole. He's also got some defense--not a lot, but some.

The Gouchos, however, are simply too much for the kids from the Island.
In one play late in the game, Skipper defends with his back to the basket, preventing his man from running the baseline. Squarely in position, Skipper turns to check the ball action. From the corner of his eye, he sees Rodney McCray break to the inside. (Three years later, McCray will win an NCAA national championship with the University of Louisville Cardinal as one of the "Doctors of Dunk.") Skipper spins around to defend the hole, but he's too late. McCray jams the ball hard and lets his body hang from the rim for emphasis. Skipper opens his eyes and sees abdomen everywhere, getting a mouthful of thundering belly for no extra cost.

Skipper's team loses badly, by a score he can't remember. However, he says, "just being there and playing in the Garden was like we won anyway."

Now 39, Skipper stands up six feet tall in his new uniform, a felon-green jumpsuit issued by the Denver County Jail.

Skipper smiles wide and puts his hand up to his waist.
"The second-place trophy was this big," he says, a child's voice escaping.
That summer night, Skipper caught the No. 2 train at Penn Station to downtown and jumped a ferry to cross the Hudson river. He stood on the deck in the cool breeze, eager to get home to show his mother, Lillian, what he got from his game.

Today Mark Skipper plays basketball for a chance to eat a slice of pizza.

The ripe stench of body odor hangs heavy inside the small gymnasium of the Denver County Jail.

There are no windows, and the red brick walls that encase the basketball court don't do much for ventilation. The floor is cement. An armed guard occasionally mans the only entrance to and from the acrid arena.

On March 1, the first day of the tenth annual Denver County Jail basketball tournament, the referee, sheriff's deputy Al Murray, summons the teams representing two cell blocks to center court.

"All right, everybody listen up," Murray says in a serious tone. "We've been doing this ten years. We ain't never had no problems, and we ain't gonna have no problems. There'll be no saggin', no bitchin', no gripin' to the referee."

Murray slowly scans the faces of all fourteen inmates who gather around him in a semi-circle. "So don't trip," he warns.

Teams from fifteen cell blocks have entered the three-and-a-half-month tournament. Dwayne Burris, programs coordinator for the jail--the David Stern of this league--watches the first game from behind the scorekeeper's table. Burris started the tournament ten years ago to give the inmates something to do, something to look forward to. Something, he says, to relieve the tension and stress that builds up inside those who are incarcerated. He asked a popular inmate to help him organize and promote the first tournament, which was gladly approved by Denver corrections chief John Simonet. "The tournament has proven to be a very positive thing for us," Simonet says on the first day of this year's contest.

A squad of shabby misdemeanors is playing with a lot more hustle than skill; their uncoordinated bodies keep missing the strip of padding beneath the rim. The sound of flesh and bones slapping into a brick wall is hard to ignore.

"I don't know why some of these guys play so hard," Burris observes. "They're not going to be here for the championship. It's pride?" he asks, eyebrows raised. "I don't know."

Each Friday, cell blocks submit a list of inmates who will play on game day, the following Monday. Some blocks hold as many as fifty inmates in dorm-style barracks, and Burris lets cell-block justice determine which seven players and one coach will compete.

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