Little big man
In prison, dudes mistake kindness for weakness. If you get exposed, the vultures will circle. It's a dog-eat-dog world where predators pounce if they see a chink in your armor. So it pays to be viewed as strong, solid, and about your business. Because weak dudes don't last. They get turned out, checked in, and extorted. That’s just life in the belly of the beast.
In here, you can't take no man for granted because size doesn't matter. In the pen they have a saying – boys fight and men kill. And you don't have to be a giant to be a killer. To take it to the wall, all it takes is a little bit of nerve and a whole lot of heart. This holds true for every aspect of prison life. Because the ideals reflect downward, spiraling to encompass every situation. So if you went hard in the streets, then most likely you'll go hard on the pound. And if you went hard in court, then odds are you'll go hard on the court. The basketball court, that is.
Because prison ball is where it's at on the inside and they don't be suffering no suckers. You just gotta have mad heart like my man Polo, the little big man.
Polo stands about 5-foot-7 and weighs around 165 lbs. – more less the size of Spud Webb, the one-time NBA slam-dunk champion. Like the former Atlanta Hawk, he proves the maxim that size doesn't matter.
Did I tell you he is the undisputed best player on the pound at FCI Fairton, a medium-to-high security federal prison in South Jersey about 45 minutes away from Atlantic City, the gambling capitol of the Eastern sea board.
Like the gamblers in Atlantic City, the prisoners at FCI Fairton put it all on the line. But instead of money, they gambled their freedom – and lost. So now they are paying the price of losing that bet.
FCI Fairton houses prisoners from New Jersey, New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia. An assortment of hustlers, hitmen, mobsters, bank robbers, thugs, parole violators, drug smugglers, kingpins, players, and stick-up kids populate the compound. The sentences range from a couple of years for parole violators to life for the drug kingpins and hitmen. The compound is pretty mellow, but it's still prison and you always gotta watch your back and be aware of who you're dealing with even when you're playing basketball.
Polo – government name Jade Best and federal prison number 48228-066 – hails from North Philly and has seen his share of jails. He is 29 years old now and has been doing time since he was a teenager. So he's a schooled convict who carries it old-school. He's done time at Graterford, Dallas, Camp Hill, and Green County – all PA state joints – for a variety of cases involving drugs or guns. He's been down on this new bid, a 20-year crack conspiracy beef, since 2001. All combined, he has 11 years in. And 11 years in prison means 11 seasons of playing prison basketball at different institutions and facilities. So Polo is what you call a prison ball veteran and expert on the rough house-type battles that take place within these walls.
Jail basketball is aggressive, according to Polo. Just like the streets.
"Every jail got like two or four real ball players," Polo says. "But a lot of the rest are some cut."
He claims playing in the leagues at FCI Fairton is a "mediocre time" and that "state ball is a lot different" and the "competition way better."
He's talking about his days at Graterford, the PA state joint profiled in the pages of Slam magazine by Ben Osborne and featured in Sports Illustrated a ways back.
"I was a young killer back then," Polo says. "It was all about scoring."
A scorer is what Polo is. The cat has mad handle, is quick and ambidextrous, and is a blur on the court. Leading the break as he whirls through the air like a cyclone, twisting and turning, as he slashes to the rack, challenging the bigger and stronger players as he throws it down. He'll cut through the lane, elevate, initiate the contact, stay in the air, and slam it in the opposing players grill.
His hangtime is surreal and he just kind of floats in the air. Polo is a beast down low too, strong in the paint and not conceding anything on D. Like he says, "I'm going to the rack."
That's his M.O. because he has no jump shot. But that doesn't faze him.
"Since I don't got no jump shot, they think they gonna stop me. But they can't. On the real, I been a big-time player since I been playing. My biggest joint was like 60 (points) upstate at Camp Hill."
The way he plays you gotta believe it. And when the game is on the line, Polo wants the ball.
"They know who the ball going to. When the ball is in my hand, I feel comfortable with it."
At FCI Fairton, he has taken multiple A-League championships and says in “all regular season games I’ve only lost like three or four games. When I step on the court everybody know they gonna lose.”
But lately, conflicts with the recreation cop who heads the basketball league have managed to keep Polo off the court and out of the league.
"The recreation cop want a nigga to suck his ass,” Polo says. “He don’t want no real nigga. He don’t want a nigga to be nothing.”
Even though Polo is the best player on the pound, he is regularly left off the varsity team.
“Varsity ain’t nothing,” Polo says. Then he admits to suiting up a few times a while back.
“Rec here ain’t fun no more,” Polo says. “When I feel there’s competition out there, I go out there and bust their ass. Theses dudes got game, but they don’t got no heart so they get taken out their game. When dudes play against me, they play hard. But when they play with me, they don’t be doing nothing.”
Except standing around and watching him.
Polo claims everyone wanted him out of the league because he was winning so much. He doesn't play for exercise.
“I play to win,” he says. “I’m not playing for rec. I’m playing to win and I’ll do whatever it takes.”
That is why Polo is known for going hard. He displays that mad braveheart and his game mirrors another Philly player – Allen Iverson.
“I can’t compare my game but I compare my heart to AI,” Polo says. “Shorty ain’t backing down none. It’s whatever with him. My heart can get me as far as I wanna go.
When I ask Polo about dudes taking it to the next level and getting in their feelings, he tells me: “See they do but then again, you can’t avoid it because I’m a part of this world. This is my world. What come that way come that.”
Polo isn’t adverse to going to the hole, where they put prisoners for institutional infractions – 24-hour lockdown.
"I ain’t no killer,” Polo says. “But I ain’t no sucka either.”
Because of that go-hard demeanor and won’t-back-down attitude – attributes that serve him well on the basketball court and make him the player he is – Polo spends a lot of time in the hole and has conflicts with staff and the recreation cop who runs the basketball program.
But instead of compromising his principles, Polo stays true to himself. Because in prison as in life, there's a bunch of jokers, bammers, busters, and haters waiting around every corner trying to infuse their brand of doubt, weak-mindedness, and self-deceit into the game – be it basketball or thuglife.
Like Polo says, "I'm a real dude and until you cross me I'm 100 percent down with a nigga. I'll give a nigga I fuck with my last, but I'm my own man and being in jail, I'm stuck. But my number one goal is going home."
Polo is as real as real can get, but he does have some regrets.
"On the real, I think about it. It's about my lifestyle though," Polo says when we talk about the NBA.
He shakes his head.
"But yeah, I could of. Really, my game didn't excel until I was 14. I was too short. Plus the street life was all I knew. I did this when I wanted to do it. I love this game. It's what I do."
Regrets or no regrets, Polo's going to do his thing on the court and on the pound. If you're built like that, then you're built like that.
Polo is no cardboard gangsta either faking and fronting on the streetball thing. He doesn't play for the crowd, he's doing him. But he's a crowd pleaser anyway.
Like he says, "I can't knock it (streetball) but it's different from my ball game. When I'm out there, I can't play no games. I been there, done that in my younger days."
Polo's trying to win – be it free rec, twenty-one, one-on-one, or and A-League championship. That’s what it’s all about to him. The competition, the battle, the gladiator aspects of the prison game. Polo is taking all comers and not backing down.
When Polo's on the court, he's about scoring. But in a team context.
"I can score two points and dictate the floor and if we win, it's all good."
What players on the pound does he admire?
"I love Little Karim's game. He's nice. He needs more heart though and needs to run the floor better. But he's nice. It ain't about game, it's about heart."
Polo tells me he played one year in high school, but then the streets swallowed him. Still he balled. He has fond memories of playing in the Sonny Hill League and balling down at Dackery playground with "Rasheed and them."
Quite a step from sharing the court with a future NBA player to being locked down in the feds. But that’s what Polo deals with everyday.
In the basketball wastelands of federal prison, so much talent is lost, frozen in time, and stuck in limbo. The vacuum of the streets sucks up promising young players like Polo and what could have been is never to be. Who knows, if circumstances were different Polo could have been AI or at least Spud Webb. Because surely he has the talent and natural ability. But the lure of the streets and the trappings of thuglife draw a young man into the game. And I'm not talking about basketball. Once drawn in, it's hard for him to escape the clutches of the prison system. And once within these walls, it's even harder to escape or succeed.
What goes on in the street, stays in the street. The same holds true in prison. But when a talent like Polo – whose heart, determination, and will to win separates him from others similarly confined – it gets complicated. That is why I've brought you the story of the little big man. Because his game (basketball) demands recognition no matter his past indiscretions in the game of thuglife.
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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