West Takes His Message to Prison
Three of the kids wanted no part of it. Given the option of listening to the man who had come to speak to them or going to the rec center to play basketball, they had no doubt which would be more fun.
Carl Nicks wasn't having it, though. He met them in the back of the room and began pleading. “Do you guys realize what you're doing?!” he asked. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! You can play basketball any day! Come on, use your mind! Stay here and listen to this!”
The kids hemmed, then hawed and finally decided to stay and listen to David West. The Pacers forward had driven to the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility following the team's practice last week for the very purpose of getting a message through to kids like them – kids who would rather play ball than listen to authority figures.
West knows about kids like that, because he's done this just about every year in his NBA career. The NBA requires players to participate in community service events throughout the season, but that includes a wide spectrum of possibilities. Some visit sick kids in hospitals, some help serve Thanksgiving dinners, some drop by schools. West prefers this sort of thing, talking to “young guys who have been written off” by most of society.
“Nobody takes the time to encourage them and meet them where they are,” he said.
West does. Rather than viewing them as “bad kids” who need to be locked away from the rest of society, he sees them as young men who have grown up in difficult circumstances, haven't been taught how to deal with challenges and perhaps made just one bad mistake. He has friends and relatives, and even a college teammate, who have spent time in prisons, so he knows how perilous the journey can be for some. But he also can recall a few friends who were headed down a bad road, but were saved because someone stepped in to make a difference.
He's a fan of stepping in, or, as he puts it, “butting in.” He might not have played basketball beyond his freshman year in high school if someone hadn't butted in to his world and convinced him to join the team after his family moved to North Carolina for his sophomore year. His season on the junior varsity at his previous school in New Jersey had not gone well, and being in a new town where nobody knew him afforded an easy opportunity to quit the game anonymously. But, a coach who was curious about the new tall kid in school pulled him into the hallway and practically ordered him into the gymnasium.
Butting in can make a big difference in a kid's life, but adults have to take the initiative. Kids rarely ask for advice, and some, like the three kids in the back of the room, practically have to be begged to hear it.
West's steps toward involvement began in college, at Xavier, where he had to visit a juvenile center a few times as a requirement for one of his classes. He also helped counsel young boys whose mothers were living in a battered women's shelter. Kids like that, he realized, were off to bad starts, and were going to need a lot of help to catch up before they were hopelessly out of the game.
He began visiting prisons in the New Orleans area after he was drafted into the NBA in 2003. In the off-seasons, back in Garner, N.C., he visited men who were in the halfway houses, making the transition from prison back into society. He also began sponsoring an AAU team, providing an outlet for some kids who might be tempted into less desirable activities. He shifted his attention toward the kids in Pendleton after signing a free agent contract with the Pacers in 2011.
“I don't know what everybody's circumstance is, but I know words have a lot of power,” he said while driving to Pendleton. “Just a gesture. I don't have to come out here, but I feel like it's worth it, just to let them know not everybody has written them off. Just because you made a mistake as a 14-year-old, you don't have to be confined here for the rest of your life.”
And so here he was, speaking with 39 kids inside the walls of a chapel/meeting room within the compound that sits inside the barbed wire fences of Pendleton. John Gray, the Pacers' head of security accompanied him, as did Nicks, a player relations manager. Nicks – a teammate of Larry Bird's at Indiana State – has a feel for kids such as these because he worked for the federal prison in Terre Haute for four years before joining the Pacers. That's why he refused to let three potential strays get away.
West speaks to one of the young men at the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility. (Photo: Mark Montieth)
West harbors no delusions. He has no magic words for these kids, no way to guarantee they won't spend the majority of their lives behind bars. He knows some of them don't want to change, or don't have it in them to change. They're too damaged.
Some of them haven't put up all their walls, though. West would settle for one.
“I know I'm not going to reach all of you,” he said, standing behind a podium at the front of the room. “I'm just trying to strike a match in one of your minds, to change one of your minds – just one of you guys, not all of you, because some of you guys are set in your ways.”
The kids sat quietly, in various stages of repose, having just finished dinner. Nearly all of them wore prison-issued green sweatshirts and beige pants. Some were alert, some slumped deep into their chair. A few yawned now and then. None of them talked. Nearly all of them seemed attentive.
West spoke quietly and firmly. He had prepared notes inside a folder, but spoke mostly from memory. His message was hopeful, yet realistic. They needed to start valuing their life, he said. Clearly they hadn't been doing that, or they wouldn't have made the decisions that led them to prison. They needed to change their direction by changing their thought process.
“The first thing is to be excuse-free,” he said. “Don't make excuses. Decide right here, right now there are no more excuses for me.
“It's hard, because you have to work at responsibility. You have to work at accountability. Nobody's going to feel sorry for you.”
West reminded the boys they were part of a system that profits from them being locked up. People who build prisons, make clothes for prisoners and work in prisons need prisoners to keep their jobs, and therefore are fine with them being there. The motivation to get out and stay out of prison can only come from prisoners.
“Someone wants to make a dollar off of you,” West said. “The prison industrial complex is real. It's an absolute reality. You know what you guys are doing now? You're feeding somebody.
“If you want to continue on this path, the industrial prison complex is never going to turn you away. You guys are at a low point right now? Some people don't care. Some people are looking to benefit from you being at a low point.”
Time in prison, West said, should be used as both a wake-up call and an opportunity. They have time to think, time to plan, time to convince themselves their present circumstance is unacceptable. They will have to rid their minds of the negative thoughts weighing them down, and find something around which to base a positive self-image. A skill, a talent, a characteristic. Something.
“Figure out who you are and what you want to be and don't let anybody compromise that,” he said. “Think of positive outcome-based solutions. No matter who you're hanging with, don't hang with them if they're not bringing positive outcomes. You have family members who aren't doing right, every time you're hanging with them something goes wrong? You have to have the courage to stand alone. When you change you, it's not your fault who moves away from you. Those who aren't willing to adjust to your change (don't need to be in your life).
“You're not getting rich in here. You're not getting strong in here. You're not enriching your life in here. You're doing that for someone else. The decisions you made to get yourself in this situation, they're not helping you. They're not bettering you.
“You've got to show a willingness to value your own existence.”
The boys clapped politely when West finished his 40-minute speech. Prodded by the superintendent to ask questions, a few hands went up. One boy asked for tickets to a game. Another asked if Paul George was coming back this season (probably not). Another asked for an autograph, and drew immediate allies.
Blank paper was brought forth, the boys lined up, and West signed from behind the podium. Most of the boys mumbled a thank you as they passed by, but one in particular spoke up.
“Hey, man, I was listening,” he said, quickly and quietly, so as not to be overheard. “I really appreciated it.”
Maybe he was the one.
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