Open Letter from Federal Prison

by July 19, 2013

I received a letter in the fall of 2012 from a gentleman named John Mitchell, an inmate at the Yazoo City Federal Correctional Complex in Mississippi. He wrote not to talk about himself, but about a fellow inmate of his, Quinton Bendion. He thought Quinton’s life story was one that every youngster should read and learn from. I then wrote back to John and told him to have Quinton reach out to me, detailing how he got there and what’s next. In late January of 2013, Quinton did just that, sending a 23-page hand-written letter. Having grown up in Brooklyn, Jay-Z’s “I’ve seen hoop dreams deflate” line has always resonated with me. A couple of basketball players that attended Bishop Loughlin HS when I was there just a few years ago are no longer alive after having been gunned down in the streets. Both did nothing to deserve that, but it reminds me how quickly dreams can disintegrate, and that not everyone gets a second shot at it. In the case of Quinton, he made a mistake that derailed his dream, but is nonetheless in a position to redeem himself and will indeed get a second shot at it. A quick internet search shows stats from when Quinton played ball at Northwest Shoals, seen here and here. The letter you’ll read below details how some mistakes end up catching up with you eventually, yet how one can still seize the moment by learning from the past, turning negative into positive. It has been condensed from its original 23-page letter—long but worth the read. We’d like to thank Mitchell for reaching out and Bendion for sharing his story with us. We hope everyone reading this, younger or older, takes something useful out of this. —Franklyn Calle

Dear Mr. Calle,

I want to thank you for responding to the letter that John Mitchell wrote to you. SLAM Magazine is my favorite basketball magazine, and I have enjoyed reading it from the start. Please keep up the good work.

The following is my story leading up to the present, from my first experience with basketball and how my dreams came to be, to how people helped me and how I want to help others once I am released from prison.

It all started the summer of 7th grade. I had been playing baseball for years and had played on a couple of teams and did well. My father and I were talking during the summer break about me doing something different. He was encouraging me to stay active and busy to stay out of trouble. He and I sat and talked on the front porch and he told me about a basketball summer camp at Homewood Rec. Center. The camp offered fundamentals to kids who had never played. During that camp, I played pretty badly—but I fell in love with the game.

When the 1998 school year started, I told my father that I wanted to play basketball for Homewood Middle. During the summer I had been practicing the skills that I had learned at the summer camp and my parents had bought me tapes of my heroes MJ and Kobe. I had got my dad to help put up a backboard and goal in which we nailed to a tree in our side yard. I practiced hard, trying to get ready for the school season, doing what I learned and saw on the videotapes.

During the summer prior to my 10th grade year, again, I showed marked improvement but my coach still thought I was not ready for a spot on the varsity team. Now I had grown taller and stronger, I could dunk and had a good set shot and was getting better. All in all, I had a much better season on the J.V. team than the year before.

My 11th grade year again I was playing for the J.V. team as a center in the 4/5 spots. I would practice everyday with the team and then go home and practice more on my own. I wanted that spot on varsity and I was going to get it, no matter what.

Finally, I went to the coach and just asked him what he needed from me to get a spot on varsity. He told me to continue to get stronger and work on my handling skills and my shot.

In those days, I could jump and dunk but I kept praying to get better. I even had NBA kind of tattooed on my arm. I knew God had plans for my life and I knew change would come in time.

The summer before my 12th grade year, the team went to a basketball camp at Clemson. I knew this would be my last chance to work and get on varsity permanently. The last season I played a few games and did well. So, I knew that I had to do all I could and then some to get Coach Shepler to allow me to stay on Varsity.

My 12th grade year finally arrived. At that time in my life I thought it would never come—the chance to be a senior and play varsity for Coach Shepler at Homewood High School. This was it, I had arrived. I had earned my varsity spot, not a 1/2 guard like I am now but as a 4/5.

The season ended and Coach Shepler told me that I needed to keep working on my overall game. One of my J.V coaches told me that I could not go on to the next level unless I perfected a jump shot and guard skills. I took his advice and perfected my jump shot and my 1/2 skills.

The summer of 2002, I continued to practice on my own, working on my skills and my jump shot. Later on, I went to visit a girl friend of mine at Northwest Shoals Community College. While there, she told me about a tryout and said this would be my chance to play in college. I had finished high school with a certificate of completion only because I did not pass the math on the exit exam.

During warm-ups the Coach took an interest in me after a few warmups. After the tryout, he said if I made the team he would call. Later, I recall the coach calling and telling me I made the team and when to show up.

I was so thankful to God that I made the team. My parents were so proud of me for making the team, we all were so happy. I remember that being a great weekend with my parents buying all the darn stuff. The day the coach had told me to be there had finally arrived and I was ready to give Coach Pace 200%.

After a hard practice, Coach Pace calls me to his office and sits me down. He starts by saying he really likes me and my game and sees so much potential and that he can help my game, but he sees that I do not have a high school diploma or a GED, only a certificate of completion. And this does not meet the requirement of the school athletic policy.

Coach Pace sincerely believed in me and said he would get it worked out and that if I passed the math for the GED he would let me stay on the team. Again, I felt God’s spirit with me and told him that I would work hard and get my math scores. I worked with a tutor doing extra work each day.

I had a good year at Northwest Shoals playing the 1/2 guard where I play best, playing the best teams like Bevill State.

At the close of the year, I had played well for Coach Pace—but my math scores were coming up short. If I needed 450, I would make 440. I just could not get it then.

Coach Pace was very distraught when he called me into his office. I could see it in his face and in the way he spoke. He told me I would be losing my scholarship due to my math scores.

It broke my heart to hear him say this. All I could think of was telling my parents and how I had let them down; How I disappointed them. As the day went on and I was clearing out my dorm, all I could think about was how I was going to play college ball again.

It came to me that the coach at Bevill State had approached me twice to come play for him. So, I thought this was my second chance.

As soon as I could, I went to see the Coach at Bevill State. It was now the summer and Bevill was having open tryouts. I came back on the day of the tryout. There were some very good players on Bevill State’s team and had many good players trying out. Coach Baldwin said he would be in contact if I made the team.

I made the team. I was so thankful and thanked God for my second chance.

After having moved into the dorms and with school starting, I started working on math and other classes. Basketball was going good, practice was going great. Coach Baldwin even told me that if I get my stuff together I had a chance of going pro. After he told me this, I took off with practice, harder and harder, becoming one of the two best players on our team.

The other player was a friend and we worked out together each day. We were unofficially the team leaders. The other team members were very good but had to work hard to keep up with us.

Resentment was building between the players because my friend and I would come late to team meetings when they were called.

A school break came and all the other players left. My friend and I stayed at school. During the break my roommate’s TV was stolen.

During the time the TV was stolen, the dorms were under 24/7 video surveillance. The only person seen leaving the building dorm room was me carrying my back pack. My roommate’s TV was a 42-inch flat screen. Our dorm was on the second floor. The dorm cameras face inside and out.

When everyone returned from break my roommate noticed his TV was gone. I was accused of stealing it. The police were called and an investigation was completed. The police viewed the video surveillance recording and I was cleared of the charge. I did not steal his TV.

Even though the police cleared me of the crime, the team had a team meeting without Coach Baldwin. The team voted to kick me and my friend off the team. We both felt they used this as an excuse to get rid of us because of the resentment some of the players were having for us. We didn’t have a choice and the coach could do nothing to help. So, again, I lost my scholarship without ever playing a game for Bevill State and Coach Baldwin.

I had to pack my bags and go home. I cried and prayed to God to give me another chance somewhere, sometime. I knew that it was not over for me. I just had to keep fighting.

Little did I know, things could get worse and that they did.

Months after leaving Bevill State, my aunt in Atlanta told me about a junior college there and had a really good school and basketball program.

I had never given up the practicing of my skills or jump shot. I knew that God would provide and I had to be ready.

I called the school my aunt told me about many times and being told by an assistant in the basketball program that the team was away at camps and the coach would call when he got back in about tryouts.

Things never materialized with that school, but God had plans for me. It just seemed that I kept changing them.