The legend speaks
Imagine being the baddest of the bad in a world of complete and utter chaos. Imagine having the worst of the worst, the toughest of the tough and the hardest of the hard catering to you because of your skills with the rock. Imagine being able to bring down the house with one move, one spectacular play, one awesome dunk or earth-defying leap. Imagine being admired, respected, envied, sought after, hated on and a legend in your own time. Sounds like Michael Jordan in modern-day basketball terms – the fame, the notoriety, the money.
But we're talking about a player who plied his trade in the hardcore penitentiary. A player whose skills were in such awe and demand that a bulletproof legend that was thought of as more myth than fact evolved and spiraled throughout prisons across America. When dudes in the pen talk about the baddest of the bad, they talk only of one man. Purple. And we got a chance to meet him.
"My real name is Ricardo Eley," Purple says. "I am 45 years old and I was born in Panama, but came to America when I was 4. I grew up in SE Washington DC."
After graduating from St. Anthony’s High, which is like the little brother of Georgetown University, Purple was incarcerated at Lorton, the notorious DC pen, in 1979 on a second-degree murder charge. Instead of playing Division I college – yes, there were multiple scholarship offers – he was in the pen with all the predators.
"This was my very first encounter with the criminal justice system," Purple says. "I had never been to juvie or even bee arrested, so I was not in any way prepared for the Hill (which the Max at Lorton was called). When I first came to the Hill, I was the youngest person. Weren't any inmates or residents, just straight convicts. A lot of things went on that I had never experienced before. I thought I was on another planet."
And in the heart of the fearsome pen, Purple turned to what he did best.
"Balling was my escape," he says. "Being inside that 90-feet rectangle was my oasis, my comfort zone, the place where I could find peace of mind in the midst of a raging storm. But also playing ball at Lorton was as close as I got to celebrity status. Intramurals were big shit at Lorton and the perks and benefits of being the player I was is unbelievable."
In his prime, Purple was a sight to behold. He was Showtime before Magic came on the scene. He was exhibiting extraordinary hangtime while Jordan was still in high school. Purple had supernatural basketball intelligence. He had the uncanny ability to see the play develop ten steps before everyone else in the gym. And his achievements were not recorded or storied on any SportsCenter archives, they are only imprinted on the minds and memories of his fellow prisoners.
Based on some of his exploits, people have always assumed that Purple was 6-foot-5 or something, but in truth he sets the record straight: "I'm only 5-foot-11."
From 1979 to 1999, this phenomenal baller performed amazing feats for a captured audience.
"I was a very competent guard and floor general," Purple says. "I was an exceptional ballhandler who could pass the ball like nobody you've ever seen. In high school they called me The Wizard because of my passing. I was more of a scorer than I was shooter. I was scoring 50 and 60 regularly against viable competition before they had the three-point line. People were always so mesmerized by my dazzling moves and unnatural hangtime that they somehow failed to notice that I was a tenacious defender."
Purple just didn't do it in prison. When he got out in 1991, he regularly played in the Jelluf, Urban Coalition and Barry Farms summer leagues against the likes of Dennis Scott, Sherman Douglas, Sidney Lowe, Penny Hardaway and Allen Iverson. And in jail, teams were constantly coming into the pen to play Purple's prison All-Stars. The WHUR radio station brought its undefeated team to Lorton, which featured Jo Jo Hunter, Stacy Robinson, Barry Frazier and Carlos Terry. And you know Purple won the game dropping 77 on them and dunking on 6-foot-10 Terry and 6-foot-10 Dorian Dent. All 5-foot-11 of him.
"Absolutely I could have played in the NBA," Purple says when asked. "Not only did I have the talent, but I also had the dedication, humility, attitude and social etiquette. See, what most guys don't understand is that is takes a great deal more than just raw talent."
When asked about his nickname and where it came from, Purple offers this...
"Most of the youngsters on the Hill were unruly, rambunctious and incorrigible. Most of them were faking, acting other than themselves to keep the pressure off them. This old self-educated numbers runner who I used to always talk to told me that I was well-mannered and courteous as if I came from royalty. He started calling me Purple because the color purple represented royalty in the old days, so he said anyways and the nickname just stuck."
After all these years, we have to know if Purple has any regrets.
"I used to, but at this stage in my life I have no regrets because I now understand that God had a purpose for my life and all the things that I've been through and experienced – good and bad – were only preparing me to successfully achieve this purpose. However, I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be a star athlete on a Division I college campus."
But Purple is living life now and helping others. His life is stable and he is content.
"I'm married to the most amazing woman and I have three boys," he says. "I'm working in a group home for boys, but I am earnestly seeking funding for a proposal I wrote for a program to assist at risk youth. I am also working on a book called Misconceptions of Manhood."
And still the legends remain. Purple reminisces back on those days.
"I was a source of professional entertainment for dudes who were looking for a temporary escape from their hopeless situation," he says. "I had a fanatical fan base like you wouldn't believe. That is how my legend has been spread across the country."
He remembers the environment at Lorton as being basketball-crazy.
"Dudes kept me in fresh sneaks, kept money in my pocket and kept my canteen locker on full," he says of his days as a prison basketball superstar. "There were all kinds of bets being wagered on intramural games. But when teams came in from the streets, that’s when the heavy bettors came out. Guys would be betting five grand a game easy."
That’s just how it goes in prison. If it ain't rough, it ain't right. And you got it straight from HoopsHype – the legend of Purple, one of the greatest prison ballers ever.
Seth "Soul Man" Ferranti, federal prison number 18205-083, is housed at FCI Loretto. Previously he resided at FCI Fairton, FCI Fort Dix, FCI Beckley and FCI Manchester. He has been a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com since 2003
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