With all respect due Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse, New Mexico's Pit and all those archaic bandboxes back east that smell like the inside of an old sneaker, when it comes to formidable places to play basketball, they ain't Alcatraz Island. They ain't The Rock.
Shall I remind you of the warden's speech in "Escape From Alcatraz"? Take it away, Patrick McGoohan:
"Alcatraz was built to keep all the rotten eggs in one basket, and I was specially chosen to make sure that the stink from the basket does not escape. Since I've been warden, a few people have tried to escape. Most of them have been recaptured; those that haven't have been killed or drowned in the bay. No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz. And no one ever will ..."
Las Vegas resident Derrick Lemuel recently experienced the stink of the basket firsthand.
It stinks trying to make a basket from 3-point range on Alcatraz, said Lemuel, one of 64 qualifiers for the Red Bull King of the Rock one-on-one tournament that was held Sept. 24 in Alcatraz's crumbling exercise yard, at night, in eerie, amber light cast from the old cell blocks. Rajon Rondo of the Celtics was host; there was a first prize of $10,000 and, I presume, a carton of Camels.
Lemuel's first 3-pointer was ruled a 2 by the warden -- er, referee. Might as well have been the warden, Lemuel said. There was no reasoning with this guy. His second attempt at a trey was rejected -- not by his opponent, but by the icy wind coming off San Francisco Bay. Lemuel's shot went flying back over his head, he said, and nearly wound up in Marin County.
This is why it behooves one to take it to the hole while on Alcatraz. But not the one in Cell Block D. The only guy who ever enjoyed The Hole -- Alcatraz's sensory depriving isolation ward -- was an actor named Lenny von Dohlen, who made out with Virginia Madsen during an Alcatraz tour in the 1984 movie "Electric Dreams." This was when Madsen was 23, totally alluring and played the cello, a combination any man would find hard to resist.
So Lemuel, a 6-foot-4-inch former guard from Mesa State College in Colorado, took it to the other hole. He still lost, 10-9, to a guy named Dalane Finley, who got to the final eight and beat last year's King of the Rock champion, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, a former member of Ma Barker's gang who spent a record 26 years on Alcatraz before it was shut down in 1963 by then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy because it cost too much to maintain. (Actually, last year's champion was Izeah "Clutch" Bowman, and the only thing creepy about him was the way he played defense.)
Another Las Vegan, Miles Martinez, the guy Lemuel beat in the regional finals at Doolittle Park in August, also lost in the first round -- to Sarah "Acid Tongue" Cummard, wife of former Brigham Young basketball star Lee Cummard, who helped instigate a brawl at the Thomas & Mack Center a few years back. (Actually, Martinez lost to a Lithuanian named Dainius Novickas, because not even Alcatraz's forbidding walls, abject isolation and chilly, shark-infested waters could have rehabilitated Mrs. Cummard in the eyes of UNLV fans.)
Lemuel, on the other hand, felt the forlornness of the place. He wanted the full Alcatraz experience. He wanted to know what it felt like to sit in that dining hall among the baddest apples in the bunch, among Creepy Karpis and George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the notorious "Birdman of Alcatraz" who spent six years in segregation on D Block and 11 years in the prison hospital, with the alluring, cello-playing Virginia Madsen nowhere to be found.
"You definitely put yourself in that spot, to know what those guys might have felt like every day," said Lemuel, the son of an abusive Army sergeant. Lemuel got into a little trouble himself -- mostly with his fists -- after his father died of colon cancer when Derrick was 16. He was suspended from high school 12 times, a record that still stands, he says.
Now 29, Lemuel has turned his life around, has a steady job working the front desk at 24-Hour Fitness, rides his bicycle wherever he goes, is built like a Greek god, speaks in a Barry White baritone, still dreams of playing pro ball overseas and can joke about his violent past. But just to mess with the other players, he broke a spoon in half while they were eating, because broken spoons make good shanks, he said. And then he laughed a sinister laugh, like Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.
As the ferry motored back toward Pier 33 on Fisherman's Wharf -- escaping from Alcatraz these days is a lot easier than it used to be -- Derrick Lemuel looked off into the icy waters of San Francisco Bay and tried to convince himself that the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris could have survived when they went over The Rock's notorious wall on June 11, 1962, that perhaps they were still living on a beach somewhere with Andy Dufresne and Red from "The Shawshank Redemption."
Lemuel also made a mental note: That should he qualify for next year's King of the Rock, he must bring a heavier jacket.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.