I’m watching the Knicks’ playoff run from prison

The New York Knicks hype squad performs in Game 1 of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden.
The New York Knicks hype squad performs in Game 1 of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden.

This article was published in partnership with Prison Journalism Project, a national nonprofit organization which trains incarcerated writers in journalism and publishes their work.

The last time the New York Knicks played an NBA Finals game, in 1999, I rooted for them from my cellblock on Rikers Island. The play-by-play broadcast echoed from everyone’s transistor radios down the tier.

People cheered for the Knicks’ highlight plays and jeered the opposing team. Once in a while, someone placed a bet with the person in the next cell.

“I’ll bet you an ice cream he misses the next free throw,” they would say, promising an item from the prison commissary store.

When we were allowed to leave our cells, we watched the game on the recreation room’s tube TV, locked in a transparent box and mounted high on the wall out of reach. We sat, craning our necks toward the box, munching on honey buns and ramen noodle soups. We were locked up in one of the most unsafe jails in the U.S. but, like every other New Yorker that year, Knicks fever had gripped Rikers Island.

That run made NBA history. To make the postseason, the team won an improbable six of their last eight regular season games. Then they upset the Miami Heat, the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They lost their star player, Patrick Ewing, to injury, but somehow still made the Finals, becoming the first-ever No. 8 seed to do so. Their season ended with a quick series loss to the San Antonio Spurs, but they almost pulled off the unthinkable.

At that point, I thought the Knicks would make another Finals and win a title. I expected to be watching them as a free man alongside nearly 20,000 other fans in Madison Square Garden. Back then, I was still in denial about my culpability in the crime I was sent to prison for. I thought I would serve little to no time.

I should have known better for the Knicks — and for me. Since that Finals run, the Knicks have only made it past the first round three times. During this time period, they have lost the second most games of any NBA team, despite spending more money on player salaries than all the other franchises except one. They have handed out terrible contracts and made foolish trades. As one book put it, the Knicks have been a “laughingstock franchise” for an entire generation.

Meanwhile, in 2001, I began a prison sentence of life without parole — the most severe punishment my state doles out. There are about 30,000 people incarcerated in New York; of those, 300 are sentenced to die in prison.

The Knicks won their last championship over half a century ago, when I was just 7 years old. Back then, I wore Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s No. 10 in my youth basketball league. After Knicks games, I rushed to the park near my Harlem home to practice Earl “The Pearl” Monroe’s signature spin move and Willis Reed’s silky hook shot.

Then, as I grew up, their decades-long dry spell began, and I lost my way, and landed myself in prison. For more than 20 years, I served one of the most miserable sentences while rooting for one of the most miserable teams in sports.

But things have started to turn for the Knicks, who have made the playoffs three of the last four seasons. In some ways, I have seen my own life reflected in the ups and downs of my favorite basketball team. Being a Knicks fan hasn’t been easy. Neither is serving life without parole. But I can't give up on the Knicks, and I can't give up on myself.

The long rebuild

Prior to my arrest I had led a decent life. I was a sanitation worker for New York City, making a solid salary, with a family. But I had surrounded myself with bad influences and dabbled in petty crime, including ticket scalping outside Madison Square Garden.

When a local drug dealer asked me to find someone to kill another drug dealer that he owed a debt to, I passed along his offer to my brother-in-law. He ended up killing the wrong person, a 43-year-old man who was not involved in the drug trade.

Before I went to trial, my lawyer advised me to reject a plea bargain for a prison sentence of nine to 18 years. He told me to take my chances in court. I thought my distance from the killing would be a compelling mitigating factor that would lead to a more lenient punishment. Instead, the opposite happened. I passed on a deal to spend less than 20 years in prison, and wound up sentenced to die there.

I was bitter, and unwilling to take responsibility for my role in the killing. I blamed my brother-in-law, who died in prison in 2022, for killing the wrong man. I blamed my lawyer for giving me bad advice. And I blamed the judge for a sentence I didn’t feel I deserved.

It took years to take responsibility for my actions, but today I accept I was the key link that led to a lethal outcome. Various prison programs have helped with this. I have learned how to develop healthy relationships. I have mentored local youth. And I have worked with dying patients in the prison hospice.

Around 2011, I was part of a group of dozens of prisoners at Green Haven Correctional Facility. We discussed the decisions that led us to prison. Sharing my past regrets with the group served as a purge and allowed me to reach a new level of vulnerability.

Around the same time, after a six-year playoff drought, one of the NBA’s all-time best players, Carmelo Anthony, joined the New York Knicks in 2011. The team made the playoffs the first three years of Anthony’s tenure.

I knew that our accomplishments had nothing to do with each other, but the Knicks' success made me feel like we were on a journey together. They have been an escape and comfort throughout.

Still, there were setbacks, for both me and the Knicks.

While the Knicks endured another seven-year playoff drought, I continued to serve a sentence without an end. Time moves the same as on the outside, but when you’re in for life, you struggle to find purpose. Every day I wake up, I need to find a reason to keep living. Rooting for the Knicks has been one of the few things that keeps me going.

And, in the last five years, the Knicks have rebuilt the team and become particularly inspirational. They changed managers and coaches. They signed All-Star forward Julius Randle in 2019 and then all-star guard Jalen Brunson in 2022, both of whom have been incredibly productive. They have added role players that brought defensive versatility, rebounding and 3-point shooting to the team.

I too have revamped my life. I severed relationships with people involved in criminal behavior. I became a Muslim and learned to lean on my faith community for guidance. And in early May, I will graduate from college with a liberal arts degree.

This year, the Knicks recorded their second 50-win season of the 2000’s. The Knicks are the second seed in the Eastern Conference, poised to make an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. They haven’t made it this far in the playoffs since my prison sentence began.

Beating the odds

On Monday night, the Knicks pulled off an incredible rally against the Philadelphia 76ers to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven first round series. Down five points with 30 seconds left, the Knicks reeled off six points in less than 15 seconds for the win. The Elias Sports Bureau reported that it was only the fourth time in the last 25 seasons that a team has won a playoff game after trailing by at least five points in the game's final 30 seconds.

Like the Knicks, I'm searching for some comeback magic myself. I'm searching for a buzzer-beater shot at freedom. There are two possible avenues. I can be resentenced by the Manhattan district attorney's office. Or I can be granted clemency by the governor.

In 2021, with the help of students at City University of New York School of Law, I submitted an exhaustive clemency application to the governor’s office. My application is stuffed with recommendations and accomplishments.

My lawyer told me that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has expressed support to the governor’s office for my case for clemency; he recommends a sentence commutation that would make me immediately eligible for parole.

But the statistics show that I face long odds.

During his 10 years in office, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo only granted 41 sentence commutations to people in prison, despite fielding thousands of applications. And since taking office in August 2021, Gov. Kathy Hochul has only granted 14 people sentence commutations, despite fielding more than 1,100 applications.

My freedom rests in the state’s hands. I’ve given it all I’ve got and must live with the results.

When I listen to the broadcast of Knicks games in my prison cell now, I try to imagine myself back in Madison Square Garden. I used to sit up in the cheap nosebleed seats, surrounded by diehard fans like the ones I hear chanting.

One of the first things I want to do when I leave prison is see a game there with my 89-year-old mother. I hope my nieces and nephews whom I’ve never met will come too. I want them to learn the life lessons that basketball taught me: toughness, resilience, determination.

While I wait to learn my fate, I will keep rooting for the Knicks and rooting for myself. If they can beat the odds, maybe I can too.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: One longtime Knicks fan is watching their playoff run from prison