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Review: "Q Ball" Asks Tough Questions While Bringing Hope For Change

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

We are all missing sports dearly as we are counting the days of quarantine. The Michael Jordan documentary "The Last Dance" is helping withdrawals a little bit, but for many of us having basketball stripped away so suddenly requires more than a quick fix.

I present to you "Q Ball," a documentary on Netflix about the basketball team at California's San Quentin State Prison. You might expect scrappy pick-up games, but this film shows how the sport provides structure, discipline and an escape.

"Q Ball," released in 2019, was executive produced by Kevin Durant and his Thirty Five media group as part of Fox Sports' “MAGNIFY” series.

“My first visit to San Quentin with my teammates was an unforgettable experience that moved me and made me want to bring it to a larger audience,” Durant said. “This film shines a light on these individuals, their struggles and their connection through basketball.”

A running narrative throughout the documentary is the shattered hoop dreams that many of these men are mending through this team. The Golden State Warriors sponsor the San Quentin Warriors and the final game of the season is a face-off against team coaches and execs. It's a time of celebration for all as the inmates celebrate with the 2017 Championship trophy after winning their own big game.

"We got to do something Charles Barkley never did, Patrick Ewing never did, we touched the trophy," one of the San Quentin players remarks.

Coach Rafael Cuevas is in his first year at the helm of the Warriors and adopts a new policy where there's no cuts made to the roster. Anyone has a chance to play if they commit to a code of discipline and integrity. He grapples with his own sense of self-control as tensions at San Quentin are always high.

The question of race is evident in the documentary, showing how life circumstances for many of these prisoners stacked the odds against them. The teams of volunteers that come to play the Warriors seem to be predominately white men. The prisoners explain how the experience helps both sides break stereotypes and build respect for each other. The guiding voice of Lt. Sam Robinson, a Black officer who has spent more than 20 years on duty at San Quentin, shows how this is a story of unity and a commitment to rising above the cards given to you.

The men highlighted in "Q Ball" have committed various crimes and, through on-camera interviews, express how they're processing their personal choices, including murder, domestic violence and robbery.

Allan "Black" McIntosh is the team's highest scorer and is in San Quentin after being found in possession of a firearm while riding his bicycle to the grocery store. The standard sentence for such an offense would be three years maximum. But due to his previous convictions and California's controversial Three Strikes law, he is now behind bars for 25 years to life.

Faith is also a strong motivating factor in the film as the men seek to turn their lives around. There are frequent moments where the men pray either individually or together. One of the most powerful scenes shows the star player, Harry "ATL" Smith aka "The Phenom" preaching in the prison chapel sharing with his fellow inmates the story of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus to carry his cross to his execution. He challenges the audience to take ownership of their lives and help Jesus carry the cross toward redemption. One man suddenly stands up in the back, causing an elder to confront him, but Smith convinces him to back down as he hears out the parishioner's question of if Jesus helps each of them carry their own cross. "My cross is heavy right now," he says choking back tears. It's a gut-wrenching moment that shows how the prison is a community and safe space for these men to process and encourage each other.

The music of "Q Ball" helps guide the storyline. Utilizing Drake and Future's "Big Rings" ahead of the big matchup with the Golden State Warriors representatives creates the hype of the moment on par with any NBA Playoff game. A special touch is a few soulful tunes provided by inmate Eric "Maserati-E" Abercrombie who strums his guitar and croons stories about searching for personal redemption. The lyricism on "Break the Mold" is incredible. If I was an A&R, I would be doing all I can to figure out who this guy is. I found his Twitter, if that counts for anything. It seems that he's out of prison now and posting YouTube videos of new music he's been working on. You're welcome.

Smith also has his freedom now and although he doesn't end up accomplishing all the dreams he had about life after prison, looking at his Instagram now, it does appear that he's found his daughter and seems happy.

"Q Ball" is an honest take on the question of if people can truly change. The sport of basketball has a special ability to unite and empower. You can't change the past, but you can be locked up in San Quentin and celebrate your hope for the future with the NBA Finals trophy.

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