Thug life. Prison ball. Going hard. That’s what being in the netherworld of corruption and violence is about. Dudes can fake about that Lexus they had on the street but they can’t fake about their b-ball game. Either they got one or not. In the pen you can’t front on the court because if you do you will get exposed. And don’t get it twisted. Different joints got different styles of play. Some go harder than others. And one of the hardest joints in the nation was Lorton Penitentiary, the DC jail. Everything was notched up a couple of levels there – the violence, the corruption and the basketball. Let’s take a look back at what they called Lorton Ball.
“As you know, there are different levels of ballers in prison,” says Lorton legend and prison hoops expert Purple. “The level I played on was the cream of the crop. At this level it was very intense, extremely competitive with gifted athletes relentlessly going at each other. Then they had what they called Lorton Ball, which was just about anything goes. There were hard fouls on every play. But this kind of ball was based on men’s own insecurities, shortcomings and misconceptions about manhood. They thought that by them being in jail, they had to maintain a certain tough. I don’t go for nothing image. Not understanding that that barbaric style of ball took away from the beauty and artistry of the most magnificent game ever created.”
And maybe it can’t be broken down more specifically than that. But still in the pen dudes are going hard.
“It was dangerous because convicts ran the joint,” Purple says. “Also the majority of the dudes had some astronomical sentences so there was generally a pervasive attitude of don’t go for nothing and fuck the world. Then DC is a very small enclave and everyone at Lorton was from DC, both inmates and correctional officers. So beefs that may have started in the streets were carried over and it was no way to duck the drama. I’ve seen wars break out and the law just stand back and watch. I’ve seen the C/O’s get robbed at knifepoint and they even pulled a dead C/O out of a manhole. But there is a universal law that applies all around the world. If you are a real man in every sense of the word, then man recognizes man and respect is instantly established and reciprocated.”
On the court and on the pound.
But to understand the Lorton ethos you have to understand the environment.
“In terms of quality of life compared to other joints, Lorton was a five-star resort,” Purple says. “We had everything that people had in the streets except freedom of movement. You could get as many food packages as your people could afford to send. We wore street clothes. Any drug you can think of was always readily available and we had visits seven days a week. So if a dude just had to do some time, this is where he wanted to do it because there is no other joint in the country like Lorton.”
And for prison basketball superstars like Purple life was sweet.
“We wore street clothes so dudes were walking around in alligator shoes, Hugo Boss jeans and one dude even had a full-length white Mink coat. Don’t forget we were doing time. We had visits seven days a week and if you were in the loop, you had the opportunity to have sex with your woman seven days a week. It wasn’t nothing for a dude to be walking around the Hill with two or three thousand in his pocket. I remember a shakedown where the law found 48 grand in the ceiling. Now, this isn’t no hearsay that I’m passing on. This some stuff seen with my own eyes. So you can sort of imagine how life was for the baddest baller in this little project where b-ball was everything. I’ve had dudes pay me hundreds of dollars to play for their dorm. Games that I was part of have had as much as five G’s betted on them. There were all kinds of bets being wagered on intramural games. I know because I got a G for winning a game against the Madness shop team. Then before I came to the Hill there was this guy Arrilias Gregg, who was the incumbent King of the Hill. His man MF wanted to bet my man MB 5 G’s on a best two out of three one-on-one, but Gregg always came up with an excuse to duck the rec because he knew in his heart that he really couldn’t get in my business no matter how hard he tried to make everyone else think that he could. He just couldn’t bring himself to accept the responsibility of losing MF’s money.”
And a lot of money was won and lost on b-ball behind Lorton’s wall. But a lot of heads were busted too.
“I pretty much came up like any other underprivileged kid in SE Washington,” Purple says. “Single-parent household where mom raised five of us on her meager salary. The only difference was that I had a thirst for knowledge and big dreams. However, there is a degree of truth to man being a product of his environment. Because going to that Catholic school was my opportunity to rise above my situation and circumstances. But I would always run back to the hood seeking admiration and acceptance of dudes that I looked up to, dudes that didn’t mean me any good, dudes that I looked up to because of the misconceptions of manhood that were passed down to me in the hood because there was no man in my household to teach me how to be a real man. So I made a lot of bad decisions under the impression that they were good ones because they were derived from a faulty belief system.”
So the dude that once blocked a dude’s shot and busted his chin on the backboard and the dude that once scored 47 in a game that he played entirely with his left hand didn’t make the league because he bought into the Lorton Ball mentality before he was even incarcerated.
It’s sad but it’s a fact and circumstance that happens everyday in the inner city. As they say, if it ain’t rough it ain’t right. And you got to pay the cost to be the boss. In the hood and in prison it’s about intimidation and a false sense of respect that derives from the streets and the dog-eat-dog culture.
Purple’s seen plenty of stories like his where bad decisions robbed talented youngsters of the chance to show their skills to the world.
“There was this guy named Rock who played at Springarn who is the best ballhandler that I’ve ever seen,” Purple says. “He taught me how to dribble. I became fundamentally sound at St. Anthony’s High, but the raw essence of my game was honed on the playgrounds of DC. Coming up there were two dudes I idolized. My brother Jose and a cat named Stacy Robinson who could flat out do the damn thing. Both should have unquestionably played in the NBA, but both became victims of the drug game. Stacy had over 60 Division 1 scholarship offers. To this day Digger Phelps still talks about him. He’s the baddest dude I ever played against. But so was Terry Tibbs. Coincidently they both are Dunbar alumni. I have played against and with other dudes that could flat out do it. Like George “Snowball” Minnit, Curt Smith, Greg Jones, Arrilias Greg and Randolph “Machinegun” Milan.”
And understandably all of these dudes are legends in their own right. Forged in the cauldron of the hood and the belly of the beast.