by Omer Haim
Once a prison reserved for the hardest of criminals, Alcatraz Island is now just a popular tourist trap. This past Saturday evening, for one night only, it transformed into something else altogether: a hub of basketball.
For the second straight year, the Red Bull King of the Rock one-on-one basketball tournament was hosted in San Francisco Bay on the island-turned-prison-turned-attraction also known as The Rock.
“Last year was a lot of fun, maybe more than I was expecting,” says Rajon Rondo, host of the tournament and Red Bull endorser. “This year’s competition was better, though. At least, I think so.”
Featuring 64 competitors from 13 countries, all who qualified in regional tournaments around the globe, King of the Rock pitted the players in a tournament-style series of one-on-ones battles. While the level of talent was high for this type of tournament (the winner, Hugh “Baby Shaq” Jones, looked unstoppable), and while the prize for winning ($10,000) was high for this type of tournament, that’s not what separated King of the Rock from all the other tourneys.
The location did that.
“Playing here, in the prison yard at Alcatraz, with all of the history, with Al Capone having been a prisoner here, this is the most amazing experience I have ever had with basketball,” says Tal Karples, 21, a 6-4 guard from Israel who qualified early in the summer and advanced to the second round before falling to Olushala Ajanaku (Atlanta, GA).
With the wind howling, the temperatures frigid and falling by the minute and the fog dense and thick, the conditions in the old prison yard weren’t perfect for basketball. Yet, that’s what made the basketball so perfect. Yes, sloppy play ruled. But so did heart, hustle and muscle.
Donning an assortment of beanies, hats, hoodies and long and short-sleeved t-shirts, the 64 players battled it out for the Red Bull throne over the course of a late and long Saturday night. Though the 6-3, 240-pound, Baby Shaq (Washington, DC) won the final with ease, outmuscling New Orleans native Lance Perique, 18-9, there were plenty of other standouts. Amidst a slew of former college players and park and rec center heroes, Brian Centella (Chicago, IL), Aaron Duncan (Canada) and Michael McCowan (Oklahoma City, OK) impressed. All of them demonstrated a superior ability to battle their opponent—and the elements.
“Being able to take it inside was key,” says Karples, a shooter who battled the wind during his games. “Everybody was so aggressive.”
Fitting for a tournament hosted on a former prison by an energy drink company.
As the Island emptied and the ferry set sail for return to the other side of the bay, the prison yard and The Rock as a whole reverted to its tortured tourist form. For at least one night, though, 64-plus people were happy to call it their home(court).
For more on Red Bull’s King of the Rock tournament, click here. You’ll find details about the historic event and players.