Commentary

OVER AND BACK| FULL COUNT

Updated: July 10, 2012, 1:50 PM ET
By Chad Millman, D.S.

Derrick Curry got HIS pardon. HIS LIFE MAY BE A TOUGHER GET

In 1998, I co-authored a book with Lars Anderson titled Pickup Artists: Street Basketball in America. We told the stories of hoopsters ignored because of poor life choices, bad timing and plain tough luck. Their tales were sad, at times pathetic. But of all the stories we told, Derrick Curry's was the most infuriating. He'd had more advantages than the rest of them, but lost any chance at a pro career when he got caught in the net of mandatory drug sentences after being convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack. After I heard he'd received one of President Clinton's last-minute pardons, I went to Upper Marlboro, Md., to see what his plans were.

He'd done the research. God knows he had the time. He looked all the way back to Bush and Reagan and Carter. In between basketball games, a $35-a-month clerking gig and computer classes ("I studied the Internet. We just couldn't use it"), Derrick Curry had more time on his hands than a clock. He pored over the stats he'd requested from the Justice Department, but no matter how he decoded them, they never added up in his favor. Presidents don't grant pardons often; the wrong decision can get them into trouble. Thousands apply every year; tens are freed.

For Bill Clinton to decide to unlock the cell door, FCI Cumberland prisoner No. 27812-037 would have to be as lucky as a lottery winner. So Derrick Curry, convicted crack dealer, did the only logical thing he could think to do: He packed. A month before Clinton announced his final pardons, Curry bundled 8 1/2 years of property into two milk crates and shoved them in the corner of his cell. "I had to go with my gut," he says. When you have all that hard time under your belt, you get to trust your instincts. All your instincts care about are survival and freedom, and Curry's told him his days at Cumberland were numbered.

Early last December, when the prison chaplain announced he'd perform baptisms as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, Curry decided he'd be first in line. He was, after all, a New Year's Day baby. On his 31st birthday, in front of 50 convicts, congregants and friends, he was cleansed. Three weeks later, he was home.

Sharmba Mitchell begged Curry, pleaded with him like a homeless man tugging on a rich man's cuff. Only the roles were reversed: Mitchell was the man with the money and he wanted his best friend to take it. This was 12 years ago, when Mitchell's boxing career was taking off, and Curry was lost in college basketball's juco maze. He'd left Pratt J.C. in Pratt, Kan., where he averaged almost 20 a game against guys like Shawn Kemp and where, after a game against Larry Johnson, LJ told him they should go to UNLV together. But Curry came home instead, to Prince George's Community College, because he was homesick, and because Kansas is Kansas, and his home in Mt. Rainier, a middle-class suburb of D.C., was anything but.

Mitchell couldn't offer much, $100 here and there, but it was enough to keep Curry from doing what he was leaning toward doing. Curry saw the cars his friends were driving and their flash cash, and then he'd think about the $150 he had in the bank. "Peer pressure is hard, and people who don't come from where we do think that sounds weak," says Mitchell, who lost his super-lightweight title this past February. "When you're doing something legit and getting nothing for it while everyone around you is getting paid, it's hard to ignore."

But Mitchell knew it wasn't just the money for Curry. Curry liked to accommodate people. He was too nice to say no, too loyal to walk away. Mitchell was already an up-and-coming boxer when he first spied the thickly muscled Curry in the halls of Northwestern High. Like a lot of people, he mistook Curry for a boxer or a running back. He was built square and low to the ground. But Curry played hoops, which Mitchell came to realize made more sense, because Curry was a team guy. Ballers need someone to pass them the ball, someone to set screens. Curry needed to be needed.

If he'd been patient, it would have happened. Every sycophant from the old neighborhood needs the star to remember him. And Curry was a rising sun-the kind of player you had to pick up as soon as he crossed halfcourt, because he was as automatic from 25 feet as he was from 25 inches. Even though he was just six feet tall, he overpowered bigger players on the blocks. As a junior, he helped Northwestern win the Maryland state title. His pep roster-ready picture against Friendly High in 1988-flying from the free throw line for a monster slam, mouth open, legs splayed-made the front page of the Washington Post sports section. He once dunked over Manute Bol in a D.C. summer league game. Scouts from Kansas and Georgetown came around to watch. His father, Arthur, now a professor of education at Bowie State, was then a middle school principal who preached about staying in school. He thought his boy was safe. Especially when Curry graduated and went off to Pratt. (Low SATs kept him out of Division I.)

"Then I made my biggest mistake," says Curry. "I came home." And Arthur Curry realized that atrisk" wasn't just about kids from the inner city, or kids with one parent. It was about friends of those kids as well. Kids who wanted to be liked, the ones whose loyalty outweighed good judgment. Kids like Derrick.

While playing for Prince George's, he ran with friends who played for themselves. That's when Mitchell begged Curry to move in with him, 20 minutes from where they grew up. Walk away, he said, you're not a drug dealer. No, but he was a bagman, shuttling product between dealers, just helping the team. "I couldn't say no," says Curry.

He was crashing with Norman Brown, who was known to be a drug dealer. Curry moved in with Brown even though his dad was against it. There they were, the proverbial angel and devil on Curry's shoulders, Arthur offering the support he thought his son needed, Norman offering the street cred every kid wants.

Only getting your door kicked in by the FBI at 5 a.m. on a cold December morning is a little more streetwise than Curry ever wanted to be. When they hauled him into the interrogation room, his cabled forearms cuffed in metal bracelets, he thought he was there for murder. The night before, his best friend and former Northwestern teammate, Jay Bias (the late Len Bias' younger brother), had been shot and killed as he bought a ring for his girlfriend. Curry was supposed to go with Jay, but went to play ball instead. "I figured they thought I had some information," he says.

Then they told him he'd been arrested as part of a county-wide drug ring. They told him about wiretaps on Brown's cell phone, about hearing Brown tell Curry to make sure drugs in the dealer's car had been moved. "When I heard about the wiretaps," says Arthur, "I knew that my son was going to jail."

Depending on which side of the benefit-of-doubt fence you stand, Curry was at worst a package-delivering flunky-which is what the arresting agent called him-or a careless kid banghanging with the wrong crowd. But Curry was sentenced to serve 19 years, 7 months in federal prison for conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Without chance of parole, his sentence was three times longer than what the average murderer in the U.S. serves, five times longer than what the average rapist serves. It didn't matter that this was his first arrest, that he had no history of drug abuse, that the judge said he wouldn't normally hand down such a harsh sentence for such a tangential player. It didn't matter because federal mandatory sentencing minimums for crimes involving crack cocaine don't allow for judicial discretion. "I sat at the table when they sentenced me, and I almost laughed," remembers Curry. "I was like, this has to be a mistake. This can't be how the system works."

Derrick Curry was 23 year old. If he served his full sentence, he'd be 42 when he got out. For an athlete, it was a life sentence.

Who do you play for inside? You spend your life trying to fit in, but suddenly your options are less inviting: the old guys, the gamblers, the junkies, the dealers, the gays or the snitches. "The way you walk in says a lot about who you are," says Curry. "Act too tough and people test you. Act too scared, people prey on you. If you're a snitch, you don't have a chance. My only hope was not getting into anything that would keep me from getting out. There were days I wanted to fight, guys pushing me, but I pulled back."

He holed up in his cell and waited. Lying on his bunk, staring at the sand-colored walls and loors, he tried to think positive. Of course, the razor wire,the five daily count-offs of the 1,400 prisoners, the 10 minutes he had to commute from cell to job in the morning and job to cell in the afternoon all made full-on daydreaming impossible. But the pity party he held for himself lasted as long as it takes for a cell door to slam shut. Thinking about what's gone keeps you locked up. Thinking about what's next sets you free. "If you don't let it go-fast," says Curry, "you'll lose it before you get out." He'd seen it: The happiest guy one day would wake up catatonic the next, the personality medicated right out of him. So Curry buried himself in the routine, hoping monotony would blur one day into the next until 20 years had gone by. He clerked in the warehouse business office from 7:30 to 3:30, napped until 4:30, ate dinner. And then, it was time to play.

Curry practiced alone, running drills that had been part of him since junior high. He'd run screens around imaginary picks, dribble around imaginary cones. "The first time I saw him, I could tell he had skills," says Mike Peckham, a former ecreation spepostercialist at Cumberland. "Most guys in prison don't show that kind of discipline. It's a sign of weakness." Peckham played JV at North Carolina in the late '70s, and was an assistant coach of women's basketball at Chapel Hill and later at Wisconsin. "I envisioned him in a Kansas Jayhawk uniform," P eckham says. "He'd make moves along the baseline with three guys hanging on him as he floated to the hoop. It made me want to shake him and ask, 'How could you screw up?'"

Basketball did afford Curry special privileges. A new pair of shoes or a shirt from the rec room always found him, like they do any all-star from playground to NBA. Occasionally, guards let him run in their game, in a gym off-limits to prisoners.

But prison games aren't recreation, they're turf wars. In prison, where self-esteem is at a premium, anyone playing with the winner is perceived as a winner. The prison newspaper covered and previewed games. Trash talk erupted in the cell block and on the chow line, how Unit A was going to kick Unit B's butt. And being the best makes you a target. Before big games, word would get out that someone new was joining one of the teams-a dangerous guy who didn't mind taking five fouls for five quick takeout shots on the other team's go-to guy. Goons would appear on playoff rosters, thinly veiled threats against Curry. Sometimes, he'd come down with a turned ankle or migraine. "Derrick couldn't afford to get hurt or be in a position where he couldn't be on his best behavior," remembers Peckham. "If his record stayed clean, there was hope he'd get out."

At Cumberland, eight-team leagues played through every winter and summer. Guys in the stands bet on the games, usually for cigarettes or pushups, the loser dropping at center court as the crowd counted off. Curry loved watching these guys who had the nerve to bet against him struggle as their arms and egos weakened. With his tightly trimmed beard, gapped-tooth smile and powerful low-post game, Curry earned the jailhouse moniker Granmama, after LJ's shoe-commercial character. In some games, the righthanded Curry used only his left. During the playoffs, the gym was standing room only, 700 inmates filling the sweatbox. On their days off, guards would come in just to watch.

Curry never stopped playing because he never stopped believing that the game was his ticket out. Back home, Arthur never stopped lobbying for his son's release. He testified in front of Capitol Hill committees on the harshness of mandatory sentences. He buttonholed senators and congressmen, explaining how five grams of crack-a teaspoon- gets five years in prison, while 500 grams of powder cocaine draws the same sentence. He'd point out that 90% of people sentenced for crack crimes are minorities.

On Clinton's last day in the Oval Office, he gave Curry his freedom. Arthur drove three hours fromUpper Marlboro to Cumberland in a snowstorm to bring his son home. The warden asked Arthur if he'd like a hotel room to wait out the weather. "I thought Derrick had spent enough nights in Cumberland," says Arthur. "We declined the offer."

Now 31, Curry is not ashamed to be an ex-con. "I don't broadcast it," he says, "but I don't walk away from it." When he fills out the employment form at his local rec center and checks the box that indicates he's a felon, he believes he'll get a fair shake. Just get to know me, he thinks. Of course, the rec center job, if he gets it, is a means to an end. A place to work out, access to a court. He wants to ball with the big boys. NBA, ABA, IBL, USBL, Europe-it doesn't matter. Curry's time in prison stole his career. Now he wants it back.

Shortly after his release, he went to the gym at Prince George's Community College, looking for a game. He found his old team in the first round of the playoffs. Head coach John Wiley and assistant Joel Dearing spotted Curry in the stands, and asked their old star if he wanted to help them out. "Coach?" Curry asked. "I'm ready to play."

Curry works out twice a day at his parents' home. Four times a week, he heads to PGCC for a pickup game with some of the team's players. Before one playoff game, Dearing asked Curry to give a pep talk. "I used to tell my players it wasn't the worst thing to lose," says Wiley. "It was worse not to learn why you lost. I think Derrick has figured out why he lost." Curry sounded like his father as he spoke frankly about the perils of street life; he's got street cred to spare now. He told them how he'd been influenced by peers, how people look to align themselves with you when you play ball. Some asked him how he could have been so stupid. "But, really, they all just wondered how I lived withoutplaying," Curry says. "They think losing my shot would be the end of the world. I tell them it's not."

That's just a line, and the kids know it. They don't know from pushups at center court, but they can see that Curry plays as though every point scored against him is a personal affront. One afternoon, Curry took up against James Mackey, one of PGCC's best players. They matched each other shot for shot, the over-30 ex-con and the 22-year-old D1 hopeful. A three-pointer. A dribble drive. A pull-up from 15 and, of course, a sweet jumper off the screen. A bunch of scouts who came to watch Mackey started to ask Dearing about the other guy, the one with the beard. When Curry made asteal at halfcourt, threw himself an alley-oop off the backboard, and did his best Granmama impersonation, they asked if Curry had any eligibility left. "He's never been told he can't make it, and until someone says no, there will always be that feeling of what if," says Arthur. "He knows he's 31, but he thinks he's the exceptional 31."

Of course, there are the times Curry is reminded how absurd it is for a 31-year-old, six-foot convicted felon to think he can play in the pros, no matter what level. Like when an old friend asked if he wanted to join Upper Marlboro's over-30 league. That's when he reminds himself that if he doesn't make any team at all, he'll still be okay. "I lived for eight years in prison," he says. "I can take care of myself now."

Friday night of NBA All-Star Weekend in D.C., Steve Francis and his business manager, Nate Peake, are holding a bash for 4,000 of their closest friends at the swank Omni Shoreham Hotel. Curry has a VIP?pass. The party is spread over two ballrooms, all flowered carpets and sturdy columns and fine women. After years of living inside walls painted the color of the desert, Curry has landed in a rain forest. Elton Brand is there. So are Shawn Marion, Baron Davis, Cuttino Mobley and Monty and Walt Williams, both of whom played AAU ball with Curry. They all hang in the VIP room, and the players-NBA players!-tell him he could still do it, could still play if he keeps his head straight and gets back to ballin'. The access, the praise and the freedom to go wherever he'd like are overwhelming.

"I was in shock," Curry says, "knowing I used to be in this crowd." Then, he pauses as the realization hits. "I could still be in this crowd."

FULL COUNT

WILLIE MAYS AIKENS' CLEMENCY BID HAS GOTTEN HIM NOWHERE BUT OLD

He lives in cell block A3502 in a high-security prison in Atlanta. You can't phone, and if you visit in khakis you'll be sent to a nearby store to buy another pair of pants, so you can't switch yours for his. Also, you can't bring him anything-not even gum.

Willie Mays Aikens isn't as lucky as Derrick Curry.

Aikens had a nice eight-year career at first base for the Angels, Royals and Blue Jays. In the 1980 Philly-K.C. World Series, he batted .400 and is still the onlyplayer to have hit multiple homers in multiple games in a Series. Now, he's spent almost as much time in those prison khakis as he did in MLB double knits, and the only number that concerns him is 11-the years left on his 20-year, 8-month sentence at this federal penitentiary.

Since his '94 conviction on four counts of distributing crack, one count of gun possession and one count of bribery, Aikens has been back and forth through the courts, getting nowhere but old. His case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, but nobody thinks it'll be taken up. That's why, late last year, President Clinton received a plea for commutation. "It's not that he wasn't guilty," says Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "But enough is enough. Unfortunately, we never heard a word."

The appeal for clemency included letters from Fehr, MLB?president Paul Beeston, former teammate Hal McRae, Dusty Baker and Aikens' 10-year-old daughter, Gretchem. The file also contained certificates showing that Aikens has completed drug rehab and correspondence courses in Bible studies, along with a sad letter in neat longhand from the convict himself: "Mr. President, I have two beautiful young daughters, who need a father figure. My mom is about 80 years old. I support my family financially, emotionally and spiritually while I am incarcerated. I made some bad choices. Does the time of 20 years fit the crime I committed?"

Marcia Stein, Aikens' lawyer,has a strong case for entrapment.

According to court filings, Aikens was living in Kansas City, hooked on coke, when a woman came to his door asking for directions. She began to phone Aikens regularly, leading him "to believe a relationship was possible." Soon after she asked him to sell her an eighth of an ounce of crack for $200. Aikens had powder cocaine, which he cooked into crack. Three more times she asked him for crack; on each occasion, Aikens had to leave home to buy the drugs. When the woman, an undercover cop, collared him, Aikens was also cited for having a shotgun, adding five years to his sentence. (His filings claim a gun wasn't mentioned in reports, a charge the government denies.) The entrapment claim swayed no judges in Aikens' first round of appeals.

"Our only hope is a presidential commutation," says Ron Shapiro, Aikens' former agent. "The first ime I met Willie I was struck by his kindness. Now I find him inspirational, how he's dealt with his mistakes and the frustration of imprisonment."

At some point, Aikens' case will be sent to President Bush for another try. Nobody is hopeful.