More than 40 men and women sat in a circle at the Auerbach Center, with the lights dimmed and neon green lights as the backdrop. Every person told their story. Some were brief, just an introduction. Others were moving, as when former inmates gave their testimony how they got here. Why did they take the wrong turn?
The combination of Celtics players, team executives, coaches, former juvenile offenders, and those men who did hard prison time collaborated Thursday. There was no judgment. The former inmates talked of their dysfunctional childhoods filled with mental and sexual abuse.
Sometimes they talked of their backgrounds, or detailed relatives’ prison stints and how that impacted their lives.
The purpose of the Celtics’ Play for Justice event is to familiarize players with the journeys of young men who may have come from the same environments or even worse. It served as a wake-up call for some of these professional athletes that some young people in the community they represent are suffering.
Members of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and the Transformational Prison Project visited the Celtics to promote the “Raise The Age” bill that is being considered by the Massachusetts legislature. The bill would increase the age of juvenile offenders to 20, so they could be placed in juvenile facilities and not adult prisons.
“These things are going on right in our backyard,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “I’ve been here for seven years and I’m part of this community. I’m not born here. I was born in Atlanta, Ga., but I’ve been here for seven years and that’s a long time. I’m always looking for different ways I can help and involve myself in my community.”
The players and coaches sat next to the former offenders and those men who have rehabilitated their lives in an hour-long roundtable before a game of basketball, with teams filled with Celtics coaches and staff blended with those rehabilitated and returned citizens.
Grant Williams coached one team and Malcolm Brogdon the other while Jayson Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart walked over to take photos with family members of the released offenders. It was an eye-opening experience for the players, who are understandably living in a bubble where ball is their life.
Many players honestly have no idea about their potential impact on the Boston community or how significant it can be to shoot baskets or sign an autograph for kids in underrepresented communities. The Celtics engaged in many community-based projects throughout the year, but this was different.
The Celtics players and coaches were introduced to some men who made just one terrible mistake or were so caught up in dysfunction they felt crime was the best option. These weren’t stories on some crime show with an unflattering mugshot. These were real people, describing their horrific childhoods, and who admitted fault in their crimes.
Sam Lewis was released from prison in 2012 and eventually became executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which attempts to prevent former inmates from returning to prison. He believes throwing 18- and 19-year-old offenders in dangerous prisons provides no means of rehabilitation.
He was part of that powerful circle and the hope is these professional athletes, some of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, can bond with those who may not have the same athletic prowess.
“It’s hugely important for the young [former inmates] to hear the stories that some of these players have been through struggles and had to overcome things in order for them to succeed. That gives these young men the confidence and belief they can do the same,” Lewis said. “And for the players to hear the stories of these young men, that allows them to also see themselves in these young men and get more involved in different things in their community that can change the way the communities are and how our system works.”
Smart, Vice President of Player Development Allison Feaster, and Celtics assistant Aaron Miles talked of relatives in the prison system. Tatum said of the 10 players on his St. Louis-based AAU team, two are in prison and one is dead.
“This reminds me of [Bill Russell] and how active he was in the community,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said. “And it makes you feel more comfortable to be involved and more willing to be involved. I feel like it shines light on things players don’t necessarily get to see every day unless they’re directly affected. It’s something that strikes me immediately and it’s something that I want to be involved with.”
Several Celtics players approached ARC founder Scott Budnick, who produced movies such as “The Hangover,” about how they could become more involved. The answer was visiting a juvenile youth facility, and a handful are expected to visit a Boston-area center Tuesday.
“It gives hope,” said Emmanuel ‘Noble’ Williams, Coordinator of the Transformational Prison Project, who was released from prison two years ago. " Without hope, you’re not alive. It allows the opportunity to dream. For myself, I never had an opportunity to dream because I was living a nightmare. For the Black and Brown community, we’ve been in survival for so long. And when we go get the help, that’s how we’re able to get to the next level.
“My story is way too common and it shouldn’t be. Before I committed my first crime, there were so many crimes committed against me first, which allowed me to justify what I did. We never ask the youth what do they need and how we could help them. We tell them what they need to do.”
The players came away from this event knowing they have the ability to foster change, become more socially and even politically active, and perhaps not be so consumed with their brand. Fighting for change requires risk, but there is a tangible benefit to that risk, and those in their communities and communities they have never seen can prosper from that change.
“From the kids that I worked with who I knew when they were incarcerated and facing all of these years and to see their incredible turnaround in life, to see them in that circle with their heroes and idols, almost made me want to cry,” Budnick said. “Then to see the Celtics, the ones that have experiences in their life and to see how much [the talk] touched them and to hear their words and to hear them speak from the heart, that was very special.”