I’m a tennis nut. In fact, my license plate frame says, Tennis Forever, Housework Whenever. I try to honor that discipline as often as possible. I’ve played tennis on hard courts for the past 30 years and I have the knees to prove it. In Florida I played on grass courts (a complete disaster) and also tried sliding (not so gracefully) on clay. I attended a Nike tennis camp in Santa Cruz, played in the high altitude of Lake Tahoe, the dry heat of Palm Desert, and on a picturesque cliffside in Maui.
Still, I’d say the most memorable place where I’ve played tennis has to be San Quentin Prison. No, I’ve never been incarcerated but I’ve hit with those currently residing in the big house, as we who are pretending to know the lingo like to say.
You see, a member of my tennis club is the recreation director at the prison. He rounds up volunteers to play various sports with prisoners who have earned the privilege. One of those sports is tennis. This court was unique in its location and condition — cracked cement riddled with fist-sized potholes scattered within rudimentary painted sidelines.
Tennis at the big house is a trip. We had to acquire what’s called a Brown Card (clearance) then we receive instructions on attire and general protocol when inside the gates. Friends ask whether I was nervous being around convicted criminals, some incarcerated for rather horrendous crimes. I can’t say that I was. I think attending a Dodger’s game wearing a Giant’s jersey is scarier.
Guards are everywhere on the grounds and armed in towers above. Besides, the men allowed to play tennis treasure it, knowing that any misconduct results in a suspension of that privilege. The last place they want to be is back in their cells.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not condoning what any of the men did to get there. But I feel, with some exceptions, most of the guys we met were incarcerated because of bad choices, not necessarily because they’re bad men. Anyway, they’re paying the price for those choices and from the looks of it, a stiff one. San Quentin is no country club.
The Inside Tennis Team (their moniker, whose motto on court is integrity), is led by Juan. Our first day there he read a letter he’d penned for the volunteers. Basically, he said we had nothing to worry about; each man would put their lives on the line to protect us. And you know what? I believe they would. They so appreciate visits from outsiders that they act like mother hens. If a prisoner off court seemed to be leering a little too much, they’d be told to keep moving.
The “season” lasts from March-October. We’d arrive early on Sunday mornings and play for 2 hours, rotating in and out with different partners. Some were quite good, others had little clue what they were doing but loved every minute of it.
We once obtained permission for Burt, a gregarious and personable 39-year-old, to give us a tour of his cell block. Now THAT was an eye-opener. Two men crammed in cells meant for one. The noise level was almost deafening; everyone had something to say and always at the top of their lungs. I couldn’t imagine spending 21 years there, as Burt has.
Back on court, while we waited our turn to play, some of the men shared their stories of what life is like on the inside. Sometimes they shared what they did to get there. Actually, I preferred not knowing. They, on the other hand, are not allowed to ask volunteers personal questions, and they didn’t.
I love playing tennis. It’s good exercise and a fun challenge where you meet active, interesting people and can play on a variety of surfaces all over the country. But without a doubt, of all the locations where I’ve hit a tennis ball, San Quentin is, and will most likely remain, the most memorable.