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Tennis is serious sport in San Quentin Prison

This will be a cakewalk, I tell myself, even though I’m up against a pair of convicted killers.

I toss a tennis ball and swing, a familiar feeling. Years ago I was pretty good, but I don’t play much anymore. The guys on the other side, two members of a squad called the Inside Tennis Team, do.

This is tennis behind the broad, looming walls of San Quentin.

We’re on a forlorn court lined by a fence low enough to let bullets fly in from a nearby watchtower, should the need arise. The spectators are a handful of guards and a few dozen inmates. Many are serving life sentences, including Chris Schuhmacher and Nguyenly Nguyen, staring at me across the net.

Schuhmacher has spent the last 10 years behind bars. “I ended up taking a guy out,” he says. “A drug deal gone bad.” Nguyen, an accomplice in a killing over a girlfriend, has been in prison 18 years.

“Let’s beat the living daylights out of these guys,” says my partner, Don DeNevi. He isn’t a convict. Seventy-two years old, tall, lean and slightly stooped, he is the director of recreation at San Quentin. It was his idea to build this court and form the squad that for the last six years has played almost every day, “barring swine flu outbreaks or lockdowns,” as one of them notes.

I figure I shouldn’t play too hard. A gentleman doesn’t try to squash an overmatched opponent. Besides, it’s not easy to concentrate; I have agreed not to be considered a hostage in the event of a prison takeover. The court is in the middle of the main yard, which bustles with men — whites in one corner, Latinos in another, Asians in another, blacks in still another.

To the uninitiated, it does not seem tense. But if one guy disrespects another — spits in the wrong direction, hangs a hard look at the wrong face — mayhem could arrive in a flash.

DeNevi is immune to it. He comes to San Quentin six days a week, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. and starting his shift before daybreak.

He believes tennis can help these men. He tells them to give everything they’ve got. In victory, don’t gloat (well, not too much; DeNevi has a wiseacre’s habit of talking trash when he wins). In defeat, bottle the disappointment and anger.

My serve comes back as a low flutter. DeNevi twists his stiff back and uncorks a volley. His ball flies on a flat line straight between the two convicts.

He smiles. He pumps a fist. The match is on.

::

“I’m addicted to San Quentin,” DeNevi says. “To the rush you feel when you hear those iron doors clanking behind you when you go in. Hell, I’m probably going to die right here, on the court, after hitting a serve to an inmate. It would be fitting. Prisons and the people in them have been such a big part of my life.”

He was born in Stockton, where his father ran a hardware store and his mother was a homemaker. “I was a straight A-student who never got in trouble,” he says. “But I was always intrigued with the rougher crowd.”

At 14, he saw “My Six Convicts,” a Stanley Kramer movie filmed in San Quentin. It told the story of a prison psychologist who stubbornly believes he can rehabilitate the worst inmates. DeNevi was amazed by the premise — that prisoners are redeemable — and fascinated by the way they think.

“The criminal mind is so much the opposite of how I looked at things,” he says, peering intently through large eyeglasses. “I wanted to know: Why did some people think that way? Could they really change?”

In the late 1950s, interning as a teacher at a prison near Stockton, he thought he could alter the thinking of a group of white supremacists by showing them unedited footage of Nazi gas chambers. “They howled with laughter through the whole film,” he says. “It was the worst failure of my life. But I learned a lesson: Some people cannot be helped. They are simply too far gone.”

By the early ‘70s, with a PhD in education from UC Berkeley, DeNevi was teaching at Bay Area colleges. Eventually, he focused on the psychology of illegal behavior. He taught Criminal Profiling; Organized Crime in America; Classic Crime Cinema; and, from a Freudian perspective, Understanding the Criminal Mind.

When he wasn’t in the classroom, he was writing books, 36 in all, many of them mirroring his course work.

In 2001, he took the job at San Quentin rather than go into retirement. DeNevi considered it “the crown jewel of all prisons.” Irrepressible, he talks like a machine gun when he gets worked up. “You bet I wanted to be here! Who wouldn’t?”

Organizing ways for inmates to work off steam has a long history at the 158-year-old prison. “It’s vital to what we do,” says Vince Cullen, San Quentin’s warden, who views recreation as a way to ease prison tension while affording convicts “the opportunity to learn how to behave civilly” in difficult situations. Along with a baseball diamond, the main yard has several sets of pull-up bars, a punching bag, a zigzag path used as a track and a basketball court.

Separated from the rest of the prison, Death Row has its own basketball court — to which DeNevi routinely delivers new balls because the old ones get tossed with great frequency atop a razor-wire security fence.

Before DeNevi, prisoners had fashioned a rough approximation of a tennis court on a sloping slab of rock-strewn asphalt. There was no fence, so balls careened away and bounced off the tattooed backs of unsuspecting inmates nearby. This, of course, tended to cause problems.

“We played tennis,” says Ronnie Mohamed, a member of the Inside Team. “But it wasn’t really tennis.”

During his first day on the job, DeNevi spotted an unused expanse of flat pavement. Three years later, after he cajoled the United States Tennis Assn. and a local contractor to lay the asphalt and got prisoners to fence it, San Quentin had a bona-fide court.

“I went around telling the men, ‘Hey, basketball, baseball and flag football are sissy sports,’” he says. “ ‘Why don’t you come out and try hitting a ball while you are running at a high rate of speed and placing it perfectly on the other side? Tennis, a sport for a real man....’

“These guys, of course, respond to being challenged.”

::

The 20 or so members of the Inside Tennis Team are racially mixed, unusual in California prisons. They are lifers who have committed the worst of crimes, and “three-strikers” serving at least 25 years for repeated but lesser offenses.

Few played tennis before being locked up. Now they can’t get enough. They use donated rackets and balls that DeNevi scrounges from the gutters of local courts. They practice as often as possible, whenever they aren’t taking a class or working a prison job, sometimes several hours a day for weeks.

They watch televised professional matches, pore over tennis magazines and instruction books, and pin up pictures of the likes of Serena Williams. They close their eyes and imagine hitting the perfect forehand of a Rafael Nadal.

They have a simple code, DeNevi says: Arguments should be resolved on court. To minimize tensions, they have never played a tournament among themselves. Nor is there a ranking of players from best to worst.

“Tennis is such a solo sport, it can threaten the psyche,” DeNevi says. “There’s a whole bunch who think they ought to be No. 1. Narcissism is a big part of the reason they’re here, after all.”

For competition, DeNevi arranges visits from outsiders. Players from swank Marin tennis clubs arrive on Saturday mornings — the only time women are allowed to compete against the inmates.

The volunteers are asked to avoid “over-familiarization” — use only first names and limit conversation to tennis. DeNevi won’t allow female guests inside the prison unless they wear sweat pants or leggings.

The visits are bright spots, but they sometimes cause grief. Some members of the Inside Tennis Team bristle at the notion that they can’t be trusted. One approached DeNevi recently and pointed to his blue baseball cap that read “San Quentin Coach.”

“If I were you, I would be ashamed to wear that hat,” the player said, listing his gripes. The team should have more rackets. The court was dirty. Seagulls had been using it for target practice.

“It’s embarrassing having outsiders come,” the prisoner said, working to contain his anger. “We should just go ahead and call this the Bird Crap Tennis Team. And I don’t see you doing anything, coach.”

DeNevi doesn’t like backtalk, and he makes a point of never showing fear. He let it be known that the prison budget was to blame. Besides, he said, with an edge to his voice, “The inmates are fortunate to even have a court.”

That kind of exchange is rare, he says. He has an easy familiarity with the players that sometimes turns into playful barbs.

He will lick his lips and talk about his favorite hamburger spot in San Francisco, asking when they can join him. They will walk behind him and demand, “What’s in your wallet, old man?” He’ll say he’s penniless, not worth robbing.

It’s sharp humor, a sign of mutual acceptance and respect. It’s also a way to deal with a job that often pulls hard on his conscience.

“Look,” he says, “about a third of those guys on death row, I would pull the plug on them personally. Richard Ramirez walked by the other day. Ramirez! The Night Stalker! And Richard Ng, who used to mutilate women while they were alive! I would pull the plug if I could.

“So it is not that I am a flaming liberal, do-gooder type. I have my limits. And yes, I also know, some of the guys on the tennis team have done terrible, terrible things. I don’t want to know the details, and I try not to know. But sometimes I end up finding out. I have to deal with it and do the best I can and keep trying to help them change. Just like ‘My Six Convicts.’”

Raphael Calix is serving a life term. “Calix is the best tennis player here,” DeNevi says. “When he first arrived, he was maybe the most hated man on the yard. Obstinate, arrogant and highly intelligent.... He was a pain in the rear, but he hadn’t hurt anyone, so I gave him a chance.

“Look at him now. Calix has his head on straight. Now he’s one of our ambassadors.”

::

On the morning DeNevi and I square off against Schuhmacher and Nguyen, we take an early, easy lead.

DeNevi beams when we win points and grimaces when we lose them. A ball whizzes past his head. He glowers.

We go up 2-0.

The convicts dig in, refusing to fold. Schuhmacher, 37, has been playing only three years, but he’s had plenty of time to practice. He has a good forehand. He laces one to win a point.

Nguyen, 42, moves faster than I thought he could — a lot faster. He runs down DeNevi’s spinning serve and throws a lob over my head. I look at Nguyen’s wide smile and notice that he is missing most of his front teeth.

A clamor spills from the sidelines: convicts shouting and slapping hands. “De-Neee-Veee! De-Neee-Veee!”

DeNevi grips his Prince racket tightly.

I’m a little rattled, hyper-aware of every tattooed tough near the court, particularly a group standing a foot behind the fence. Aryan Brotherhood? I hope not. I see a prisoner in handcuffs being escorted through the yard by a phalanx of guards, his head covered by a hood to keep him from spitting on them.

Because of his zeal, I forget that DeNevi is 72 and doesn’t cover much ground on our side of the court.

Finally, it is sudden death. Winner take all. I serve. They return. DeNevi punches a volley, and the ball comes back to me. I aim shoestring-low, but my reply goes waist-high — too high — and Schuhmacher tees it up for a put-away.

Just like that, we’ve lost.

“De-Neee-Veee!”

They aren’t going to let him forget.

“De-Neee-Veee!”

kurt.streeter@latimes.com


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