I met him on the Con-Air transit plane. We were flying from the Federal Transit Center in Oklahoma City to the airdrop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where the United States Penitentiary Lewisberg bus crew picked us up. Little did I imagine as I sat next to him on the prison transport plane shackled, handcuffed, and chained up that I would be writing about him. We were both designated to Federal Correctional Institution Loretto, a low-security prison in the foothills of Pennsylvania.
Mike Helm is an unassuming type dude. Very humble and low key with a gentleman’s demeanor. He’s a big dude, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 230 pounds. When I sat next to him on the plane full of federal prisoners and US Marshalls watching our every move, I never figured him for a basketball player. I mean, there’s a lot of big guys in prison and not all of them play basketball. You’d be surprised how many big dudes there don’t play any sports at all. They just lift weights or spend their time watching soap operas. There was nothing about Mike that screamed basketball player. And in no way did I have thoughts that the dude sitting next to me on the plane was a prison basketball superstar. But after we arrived at FCI Loretto, I would find out otherwise.
“I do think I could have played in the NBA,” the 35-year-old Indianapolis, native says. “I could play in the ABA or CBA right now.”
And he might be right. With his smooth, silky game and picture-perfect jumper, I can see him playing against pros. He just looks like he belongs in the league. He has all the moves, the jump shot, the handle and the size. All the tools are there. And the man is a straight two-guard.
And for real, it’s like he told me, “I’m not even in good shape right now.”
He’s correct. So I could just imagine him slimmed down and really killing it on the court.
“Shooting guard, that’s my position.” Mike says. “I can shoot the ball and I can play any position you need me to play. I do everything on the court real smooth.”
His versatility shows. And talk about smooth. This man walked off Con-Air, into the prison and onto the prison’s varsity team, which is a collection of the best players there (1,400 inmates) who play games against outside teams for the prisoners’ entertainment. Just like that. And within a couple of games, he made the varsity team his by lighting it up on the regular, scoring 30 or more points a game with a combination of spot-up treys, pull-up jumpers, floaters in the lane and post-up buckets. The man can do it all and looks effortless as he does it.
There’s nothing fancy about his game either.
“My game is more about scoring,” he says. “Putting the ball in the basket. That’s what I love to do. Score, score and score some more.”
He’s been scoring against some pretty good competition, too. The players at FCI Loretto are mediocre at best, but the varsity team here regularly plays Division III college teams like Penn State-Altoona, which marches in their 18- and 19-year-old skinny and tall kids. I’m talking about potential Division I players that go 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-9, and Mike kills these guys. He’s led the varsity to a 10-2 record since November playing against the college teams and teams of ex-Division I and II players who come into the prison for the competition. But it’s really no contest. It's boys against men. The mostly white college players against the black prison players who might lack the 6-foot-8 or more height, but more than make up for it with their brawn.
The recreation officer who coaches the varsity team has said that Mike is the best prison ball player he’s seen in a long time, and he’s not lying. He knows Mike has led him to all those victories. And his instructions to Mike game in and game out, “Shoot the ball.” And shoot the ball Mike does and very well, and efficiently too. Mike could fuck with any of HoopsHype.com's prison ballers of fame – because you know we only feature the best prison ballers in the nation – and Mike is right there at the top of the heap. And to Mike, it's all about respect.
“It’s about playing hard,” he says. “Letting people know you’re the best. Whenever I’m on the court, I go hard. There’s no other way.”
About prison ball Mike says, “It’s different just because it’s more contact in prison. Everyone has not played organized ball, or under the whistle, so they get a little crazy at times.”
But that doesn’t faze Mike. He has pedigree.
“I was second team all-state, first team all-city, and first team all-sectional,” he says of his high school career at Manual in the basketball crazy state of Indiana. “I played AAU in the Las Vegas International and Nike Arc Leagues in '88 to '90. I also played at Lincoln Trails Junior College and IUPUI from '91 to '93.”
Mike has played with some pros, too.
But in prison all that means nothing, because in here you’re only as good as your last game. And things can get rough in a New York minute.
“Dudes go hard,” Mike says. “Mainly that’s because basketball is all we got and everybody wants to come at the best and be the best on the pound. Dudes get in their feelings. Like I said, I feel like I’m the best, so you always have people or players that want to try and come at you hard.”
And that’s an understatement.
In prison when you’re the best the haters hate, and the jealously comes out. Dudes are gunning for you and trying to take your crown. Sometimes even your own teammates are hating on you. But for real, when you meet a dude with so much talent, legitimate NBA size and a game like his, you have to think... What the hell went wrong?
“It was a dream of mine growing up to play in the NBA,” Mike says. “After I left college, I turned to street life and started making fast money, though.”
So his NBA dreams went up in smoke, and now Mike is back in prison on a parole violation serving out his term, and letting prisoners here at FCI Loretto see what real talent is. And when it’s crunch time, you know what’s up.
“For sure I want the ball in my hands. All great players do,” Mike says. “I’m all about winning, whatever it takes to get the W.”
But Mike also realizes that there is more to life than basketball, the streets and prison.
“I have four beautiful kids that I want to spend more time with, that I need to spend more time with," Mike says. "Two of my kids – my 11-year-old daughter and my 10-year-old son – both love the game and play ball, so I’m excited to get back out there and teach them the game and watch them play.”
So in the end it does all come back to basketball for Mike. Let’s just hope he can stay out and stay with his kids. He sure has a lot to share with them – basketball and otherwise.
Mike, who is so smooth that he doesn’t even have a nickname in a world where many prison ballers take on cartoon-like names and personas – leaves us with this: “I feel like whenever I’m playing all eyes is on me, cause I play hard and can drop big numbers at any time.”
The dude is not fronting. It’s for this reason that prisoners on the pound have started calling him Gilbert as in Gilbert Arenas, because it’s like they say, “Mike can score inside, outside, anyway he wants to just like Gilbert.”
And on this compound here at FCI Loretto, Mike is like Tupac and all eyes are really on him. He puts on a show for the inmate population and puts the rock in the bucket. Just ask those college players from Penn State. And by the way, Mike just dropped 40 something on them the other night. So yeah, they know what’s up too.
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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