SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — Chris Paul went straight to the domino table. He took a seat on a steel bench bolted to the concrete, the connected tabletop covered by a white cloth.
Sitting across from him was Reginald Thorpe. Or simply, Reg. He’s been incarcerated for more than 23 years. Reg is 47 years old now. He’s got grays in his pencil mustache and in the roots of his locks, which are so long he wraps them around his head like a turban.
“You in trouble,” Reg told Paul while shuffling the dominoes.
The Warriors point guard smiled. He plays all the time on his phone. The occasion to slap bones in person excited him. That it was happening at San Quentin State Prison only added to the challenge. A crowd gathered, hovering over the table.
Paul’s black hat was turned to the back. His black hoodie and black sweats didn’t jive with the beaming Marin County sun. But they did match his energy at the domino table. A little of that Chris Paul locking-up-on-defense energy.
“You ain’t getting me,” Paul fired back, his eyes locked on the dominoes he selected.
Paul could have never imagined when the Warriors traded for him back in June that it would land him in prison surrounded by convicted criminals. Or that he’d be enjoying it.
It doesn’t matter that Reg is from East Oakland. Or what he did to end up in the carceral system. Reg sat down at the table, so Paul wanted to beat him. It was on.
“Hold up,” Paul said, getting up from the table to check out the hoopla on the court. “Hold up. They doing nicknames out here?”
The starting lineups were being announced for the resurrected annual game between the San Quentin Warriors basketball team and the intramural version of the Golden State Warriors — a squad comprised of front-office and staff personnel. The tradition began in 2012 and has grown into a partnership of sorts between the global sports franchise and this reputed rehabilitation facility. This game gained widespread notoriety as the subject of the Michael Tolajian-directed documentary “Q Ball,” executive produced by Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures.
The showdown quietly resumed last year. But this year, on a warm Wednesday in late September, was the first full-throttle affair since 2019. To mark the occasion, the Warriors brought with them four former incarcerated people from San Quentin. Rahsaan Thomas, released this past February after 21 years, co-hosted the Pulitzer Prize-winning podcast “Ear Hustle” and wrote about Golden State’s visits for the San Quentin News. Montrell Vines, released in January after 23 years, played in six of the nine games against the visiting Warriors. Rafael Cuevas, featured prominently in “Q Ball,” was the coach of the San Quentin Warriors before being released in January after 17 years.
Aaron Taylor, released in October 2020, was the play-by-play announcer for the annual showdown. It was Taylor, known as “Showtime,” who got Paul out of his seat. Showtime, who spent 28 years incarcerated, has become a freelance broadcast guru since getting paroled, known for his humor and flair, and hosts a podcast, “Hard In the Paint.”
He came back to where he honed his craft, this time as a free man.
“It means I’m keeping my word,” Taylor said. “To walk back inside means I haven’t forgotten them. Them knowing that I still care means something to me. I spent 26 years in there. I never plan on wearing blues again, but a piece of me is still in there. I walked out after 9,549 days. Me walking back out means that one day, they’ll walk out.”
As he did for years, Showtime brought life to the event, enough to distract Paul from the domino table. Warriors player development coach Noel Hightower was dubbed “Jesus Shuttlesworth” by Showtime and “K-Swizzle” was his name for assistant general manager Kent Lacob.
The event has been upgraded since Showtime was last on the mic there. A Behringer mixer and a pair of Yamaha speakers were brought over from the chapel. A digital scoreboard now joined the manual flip scoreboard. The anthem was played by a guitarist after a presentation of the flag from the Armed Forces Color Guard. A small section of chairs was set up in the corner for family, friends and San Quentin staffers.
The Golden State visit is a bit fancier now. As fancy as can be with a barbed-wire halo.
The shiniest new addition is Paul. This wasn’t the day he truly became a Warrior. That baptism must happen on the court, in the deep waters of the NBA playoffs. But what was clearer than the sky hovering over this infamous edifice is why Paul could work as a Warrior.
Because this once-sworn enemy of Golden State might be more like the Warriors’ championship core than anyone in these parts could have imagined.
This trip to San Quentin happens annually because this grungy prison — with a history of housing the most notorious, and still home to death row — is a model for rehabilitation possibilities. The incarcerated people participating have done and are doing the work of confronting their damaged selves, of addressing their traumas and fears, through intense therapy, counseling and self-improvement mechanisms.
On a much smaller level, and in a different way, it’s revealing for the visitors, too.
It’s jarringly clear where the prison experience begins — on the other side of a thunderous clang when the rusty barred gate closes. It’s a haunting thud just loud enough to rattle the soul.
No phones are allowed. No keys. No money. No anything. Those who walk through those doors only have an ID and faith in the protocols. (The media was allowed notebooks and a pen.) You learn about yourself there.
Instantly, the capacity to push aside comforts is measured. It takes something to look into hardened eyes, shake calloused hands, listen to devastating stories and care to see the humans in front of you and not just the past behind them.
And Paul hopped right in as if it wasn’t hard. As if he wanted the opportunity. It was the same way Durant and Draymond Green handled it in 2016. And JaVale McGee in 2017.
“I wasn’t always a basketball player, and I’m not only a basketball player,” Paul said. “The way I was raised, the family I grew up in, we were always just people first before anything else.”
Paul had a connection to San Quentin. His uncle served time there years ago, he said. It’s a tidbit that contextualizes the person behind the persona. He isn’t just the ultra-competitive point guard whose fiery ways have been known to burn. This is a man with some texture to his life, with plenty of joy and some hurt, with rampant success anchored by pivotal trials and tough lessons.
And nothing about him suggests he is afraid to connect with any of it. It’s as if he knows the texture makes him a real one. Paul moves with a certainty about who he is and his purpose.
For those who’ve followed Paul’s career, saw the years of charity work, the humility he can turn on in a blink, and his emphasis on family, this side of him isn’t foreign. But it has felt revelatory in the Warriors’ ecosystem, where Paul was always a villain. They marvel at how he recently took a 6 a.m. flight from Los Angeles so he could work out with Stephen Curry the one day No. 30 was in town. And how Paul joined the San Quentin trip of his own volition. No one solicited his participation. He got the internal email about it like everyone else and signed up.
This is how he’s approached his entire Warriors experience thus far — all in. He’s been fully invested in ingratiating himself with his new fellowship.
The team has responded to Paul in kind, especially the trio of future Hall of Famers. What’s been evident so far is how much he fits in the culture.
The Warriors make this 30-minute trek to San Quentin as a community service, but also partly to cultivate the kind of people they want in the front office, on the coaching staff and the roster. It’s all about adding to their perspective. This day isn’t about them, but about honoring the work these incarcerated people have done to earn this small privilege. The day belongs to the San Quentin Warriors.
“Thanks for having us, but I’m working today,” new general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr. declared when asked to give a few words before the game. “Checking you guys out. See who can play.”
And “Steez” was showing off.
Keyshawn Strickland, 25, was convicted in December 2020 of “willful, deliberate, and premeditated attempted murder” from a 2017 drive-by shooting of victim Jonathan Swift. Strickland’s conviction also included shooting at an inhabited house and assault with a semiautomatic firearm. He was sentenced to an aggregate term of 32 years to life in prison. He isn’t eligible for parole until 2038.
But on the court, they call him Steez. On this day, he’s a star athlete again, as he was for the Natomas High football team in Sacramento. He’s about 6-foot-2, thin and quick. “Will Barton vibes,” as Lacob put it. And Steez’s jumper is clicking in the first couple of minutes. He follows a left-wing 3-pointer with a pull-up 3 in transition from the right wing. The San Quentin Warriors take an 8-0 lead.
“I was ready for this two weeks ago,” Strickland said after leading San Quentin with 24 points and eight rebounds.
This event is a hit because the Warriors have the kind of people who can get comfortable in such a setting. Such as assistant coach Chris DeMarco, a regular in the game and a favorite among the incarcerated. And David Fatoki, the Santa Cruz Warriors general manager. Hannah Heiring, the assistant coach and data specialist, is the only woman on the court and looks completely unfazed.
Paul fits the mold perfectly. He dove right in. He and Klay Thompson were the big draws.
Thompson, by the way, was a rock star in his San Quentin debut. He fulfilled every autograph request. He agreed to every photo. He listened to every story, absorbed every praise. And he did it with a grin and display of happiness he most often flashes on a boat.
“It was special,” Thompson said. “A long time coming. A long time overdue. I love to see how what we do inspires people. I’m going back with all the motivation I need this season.”
Paul was sloshing the dominoes around with his hands, known as “washing the bones.” He lost the first game 100-60. One misplay, and Reg went on a run.
Paul made the right read, passing up points in favor of defense. “All money ain’t good money,” he said as he turned down 15 points. But he didn’t cover up the five-five domino — dubbed “big five” — and paid the price. (In dominoes, points are counted in multiples of five, so “big five” is of high value.)
Reg was on a roll. He was already ahead in the second game, and Paul was shuffling for the next hand. After Paul finished washing the bones, they each chose seven. (For the uninitiated, the other 14 dominoes go off to the side. When a player doesn’t have a move, the penalty is to pull from those 14, known as “the boneyard.”)
Reg started the new hand by slamming six-four to get 10 points. Paul was fed up. He picked up the domino and held it up as he started bantering to the audience.
“All his points came off this same bone,” Paul said. He examined the domino further. “What’s up with this bone? Is there some kind of secret mark on here or something? All his points coming off this one domino. Next time I come, I’m bringing some bones.”
Moments later, Paul is in more trouble. Reg, who’d figured out the dominoes Paul didn’t have, orchestrated a series of moves that sent Paul to the boneyard. He had no choice but to pull every last one. Reg is good. He had just two dominoes left. Paul had 11. In dominoes, the first player to play all their bones is awarded however many points remain in their opponent’s hand.
It looked bad for the Warriors point guard.
Reg led 75-55. He was two plays from winning the best-of-three series, from beating one of the great point guards of all time. So, his trash talk escalated. Reg flipped over his dominoes, revealing his hand.
“Here, let me help you,” Reg said, his smile dripping with condescension.
“I don’t need that,” Paul barked back. “I’m a point guard. I don’t need that. I can read the game.”
In dominoes, it’s an advantage to know the other player’s hand. But for Paul, the reveal was an insult. When you’re a future first-ballot Hall of Fame point guard who’s spent 18 seasons conducting offenses and solving defenses, figuring it out is the whole point.
When he was traded to the Warriors, he made a bit of a splash by seeming to buck at the idea of coming off the bench. But his role wasn’t the issue as much as who was purporting to decide it.
The answer to who starts won’t come from the media or fans on Twitter. It will come from their inner circle: the legendary players, the coach whom they trust, the strategy they concoct. Paul didn’t come to the Warriors to be dictated to but additive to what’s been built. This won’t be decided without him. It shouldn’t be. That’s not how he works. That’s not how they work.
The art of what the Warriors do, the foundation of their dynasty, is in the strategic maneuvering complementing their talent. From the way each of the core players calculated their path to greatness. To the read-and-react offense. To their respective ambitious ventures off the court. They’re here because they are masters of analysis.
Even their roster requires symbiosis, which is why the Warriors stocked their lineup with veterans. Deciphering who plays well with whom, and the best attack, and the deft counter move, is central to Warriors basketball.
And Paul has earned the right to figure it out with them.
“He’s nervous,” Paul taunted back to Reg. “This is not gon’ feel good.”
Paul flipped Reg’s dominoes back over so he couldn’t see them. Reg smiled. Paul hasn’t played yet, but Reg is savvy enough to recognize the look on Paul’s face. Reg saw his vulnerability if his opponent played this right.
But the crowd around Paul was talking, too. While he was plotting, they were telling him of the last cocky domino player from the Warriors who sat down in that seat.
“We ran Draymond Green up outta here last time,” someone shouted. Another added: “We had him walking laps.”
After one more Green comment, Paul fired back.
“What that gotta do with me?”
Paul got off three consecutive plays, forcing Reg to pass after each. Paul had figured it out. He then dropped “big five” for 25 points and the win.
He stood up to talk trash about Reg to the audience. After the hole Paul had just pulled himself out of, even Reg was nodding and smiling.
On the court, the Golden State contingency had to pull themselves out of a hole, too. In the third quarter, the visitors in the basic green jerseys mounted a comeback. Ex-NBA players led the way.
One of them was Bracey Wright, an assistant coach for the Santa Cruz Warriors. He was selected No. 47 in the 2005 draft and had a cup of coffee in the NBA with Minnesota. He sure looked like it.
Wright pulled out the one-legged step-back jumper. Then followed with back-to-back 3s. The hosts were reeling.
The other former pro was new Warriors assistant GM Chuck Hayes. The Oakland native was known in his 11-year career for defense and toughness as a small-ball center. In his San Quentin debut, he was the big man, filling the role vacated by former Warriors GM Bob Myers.
During Golden State’s third-quarter rally, Hayes switched on to San Quentin’s best player, Mason Ryan, for three straight possessions. Each time, Hayes got the stop.
Ryan, just 22, played at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose before finishing his high school career at Golden State Prep in Napa. Five months after the final game of his first season at San Jose City College, Ryan was in prison. His game is still fresh. He’s sneakily athletic with good size, a nice handle and a smooth jumper.
Thompson noticed him immediately in warm-ups and switched sides.
“My money is on the San Quentin Dubs,” Thompson said before the game. “Sorry, fellas.”
Hayes, after his defensive wizardry, subbed himself out. He was gassed. He is a tad wider than his 6-foot-6, 240-pound playing weight, and prison-yard ball is extra physical.
“I got hit every time,” Hayes would later say. “Every single time the ball went up, I got hit.”
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Jermaine Hunter and Steven Warren aren’t so much interested in the game going on. Their focus is on the cause giving them purpose. They’ve wandered away from the court to talk with the day’s guests about the nonprofit they’ve started.
They’d already gotten several autographs, all on a pair of Curry’s white and black signature sneakers Hunter had draped over his shoulder. The purpose isn’t just fandom. Hunter and Warren recently started ARMs Down, aimed at teaching gun violence awareness to inner-city youth. Hunter’s autographed shoes will go to the cause.
“We’ve gotta teach somebody else what the OGs were scared to tell us,” said Hunter, a Fresno native in year 22 of a 34-year sentence. He’s eligible for parole in 2026. “They left us blind because they were married to the game.”
They want to be part of the solution. They believe it’s time for people like them, gun violence offenders, to get back into the communities and spread the truth they were denied.
Hunter was convicted of attempted murder with a firearm and great bodily injury enhancements. He knows firsthand the overwhelming collision of fear and power, of faulty ideologies and indoctrination, that comes into play when a youngster lives by the gun.
And one thing they’ve learned behind these walls is just how ridiculous the mindset is about gun violence in their communities.
“On the streets, they’re shooting at each other,” Hunter said. “Then they come in here and be friends with the same people they’re shooting at. Out there, you’re divided. But in here, you need each other. They don’t tell you that part.”
That’s the thing about San Quentin. Without question, the danger is still ever-present. But the truth is the talent and depth inside this place can be mind-blowing. Here, they’re getting mental health treatment, education, arts and skill development, self-help groups, recreation and so much more.
When Paul asked about the setup and was told there’d be a few thousand people in the yard with them, he was a bit confused. He needed more explanation. What he knew about San Quentin was its reputation. His uncle was here, and he knew how his uncle operated. The idea of incarcerated people with his uncle’s mindset just walking around seemed dangerous.
Then he learned this isn’t the San Quentin from the movies. It’s the oldest prison in California, but it’s being built up as a future model of how the carceral system could evolve. This past March, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared it the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. The hundreds of people on death row will be moved to another prison. It’s going to become a test balloon for what happens when rehabilitation is prioritized over punishment (with those who have proven ready to rehabilitate).
The very concept was on display as Paul battled with Reg in their rubber match. Reg asked Paul how he keeps his body up and how his mentality has changed after all these years. And Paul was fully engaged with piercing eye contact, regaling Reg with stories of the old days they both revere.
“Shaq would lay you down just to send a message,” Paul told Reg, speaking about Shaquille O’Neal. “And I’m like, ‘You’re bigger than me. But we gon’ have to do something.’”
The audience laughed. They respected Paul’s toughness.
Reg has two associate’s degrees. He’s working on a sociology degree. (In San Quentin, earned degrees knock time off a sentence.) He gets down in dominoes and chess. Like Paul, he’s a thinker. And he was telling the Warriors’ point guard about the way prison attacks your mind.
“It’s rough,” Reg said. “You’re thinking about suicide. You’re traumatized in here, man. My faith is the only thing keeping me.”
Suddenly, Reg quickly slammed down a domino. Paul shook his head.
“Give me 10,” Reg said. “You’re down 25.”
Over at the basketball game, the Golden State staffers would eventually lose despite 30 from Wright.
With 57.5 seconds remaining, Delvon Adams stepped to the free-throw line for San Quentin. It was approaching 90 degrees but he was completely layered up: a long-sleeve shirt under a t-shirt, under a jersey, and tights underneath his shorts and tucked into socks. His locks wrapped up. A mask covered his mouth, his hands in gardening gloves. He said COVID made him this cautious.
In the most clutch moment of the game, not long after Fatoki missed a wide-open 3 from the top, Adams swished both free throws. San Quentin led 82-77 with less than a minute remaining.
“This a birthday win for me,” said Adams, who turned 34 the next day.
Wright put a little scare into San Quentin with a desperation 3 to make it 85-80. Then Lacob got a steal but missed the transition layup. After another Golden State turnover, the San Quentin bench was doing the Soulja Boy dance together as “Crank That” blasted through the speakers.
“I get to say I’m 1-0 against the Warriors,” Ryan said.
But you know who didn’t lose?
Out of nowhere, Paul stood up and started talking to the audience again. It’s his turn, but he doesn’t play.
“See,” Paul said, “he’s been doing all that talking.”
He and Reg each still had a few bones. So why did Paul stop playing?
There was one domino, face down on his side of the table. All by itself. Reg pointed to the seat, inviting Paul to sit back down and finish playing. But Paul told Reg to turn over the domino. Reg did. Immediately, his defeat was clear. Dagger.
“Twenty,” Paul said. “That’s game.”
The move was so cold, the crowd around the table groaned.
“Aye! Aye! Listen here!” he said playfully, with both arms in the air. He smiled as he put his arms down. He was just messing around.
Paul and Reg hugged, like old friends. Reg expressed his appreciation for the time and the conversation. Paul responded with thanks of his own. He also explained why victory was important.
“I had to redeem my dog Draymond.”
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(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic. Photos: Vincent O’Bannon / San Quentin News; Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)