GRAFTON, Ohio (AP) — Andre Drummond and his teammates leaned in and listened intently as if they were in a huddle during a timeout in the frantic closing seconds of a playoff game.
This time, the Cleveland Cavaliers didn't hear any strategy or talk of fouls or final shots. These messages were far more profound: tales of addiction, abuse, second chances and relapses, personal renewal.
Sitting in a large circle along with his teammates, coaches and members of Cleveland's front office, Drummond remained riveted for an hour as prisoners at the Grafton Correctional Institution talked about how their lives were changed by bad decisions — and their determination to help themselves and others.
Drummond was deeply moved.
“A lot of these guys have been through so much, the trials and tribulations,” the center said afterward. “So to be here and to be open to sharing their stories of what they’ve been through and have it resonate with all of us, it touched each and every one of us.”
On Friday, Drummond, Cavs guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, forwards Cedi Osman, Dante Exum and Dylan Windler, coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his entire staff, general manager Koby Altman and former Cleveland player and current broadcaster Jim Chones spent several hours visiting offenders at Grafton — a medium-security prison housing 1,700 offenders — to share fellowship as well as some hope and hoops.
This season, the NBA partnered with the “Play for Justice” initiative in bringing teams together with inmates at correctional facilities across the country. The goals are to spread education and awareness while exchanging ideas to better prepare incarcerated men for their futures and discuss potential reforms in the criminal justice system.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings participated in similar events.
After arriving at Grafton's sprawling campus about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland on a gray, blustery day, the Cavs passed through security checks before being briefed by prison officials. They then joined the offenders for the round-table discussion.
Upon entering the room along with state representatives, members of the prison's fellowship program and a White House aide, the group was warmly welcomed by the prisoners and staff members. Any preconceived barriers quickly melted away as many of the men shared common backgrounds.
At the start, every person was asked to identify themselves and express what they hoped to take away from the experience.
Sexton told the group he had friends and family members in the prison system and wanted to “help in any way I can.” Assistant coach Lindsay Gottlieb said she “wanted to be part of the human connection.”
“I’m here to listen,” said Bickerstaff, who recently took over the team following John Beilein's resignation. “I’m here to learn.”
One by one, the prisoners, one of whom has spent 41 years in confinement, spoke about the missteps that led to them being there. They described lives torn apart by drug use, mental illness, years spent bouncing from one foster home to the next without offering any specifics about their crimes.
The program was launched in conjunction with the film “Just Mercy,” about a wrongfully convicted black man on death row in Alabama.
“'Just Mercy' hits home,” assistant coach Antonio Lang said. “I’m from Alabama. You guys are not forgotten. You are loved."
Sexton, who played at Alabama, said the experience gave him an even greater perspective.
“I learned from them today,” he said. "I got here and listened to their opinions and how they felt about the system, and it’s going to be able to help me with my friends when they call me and we talk. We all need somebody to talk to and someone just to be there for you, especially when everybody else is against you. You need that one person to be there — that family member to be there, so I definitely understand exactly where they’re coming from.”
Following the session, the Cavaliers' coaching staff took part in a spirited game with some of the prisoners. Drummond led one of the teams and there was some playful trash-talking among coaches and players throughout the 24-minute game.
Warden Keith J. Foley said the program and others like it are making a difference.
“This is all about letting everybody know about second chances,” he said. "From the moment they wake up and until the moment they go to bed, they’re working on becoming restored citizens, back to our communities, back to our areas, our churches, our gyms, our workforce.
“We are doing everything we can to get them ready. We’re bringing normalcy to these guys. We’re giving these guys hope.”
For Drummond, the experience was enlightening.
“It makes you not want to take time for granted anymore,” he said. "At the end of the end of the day, you can be in their shoes and have time just sitting. You can be trying to develop and become better. ... Just to have that choice and see the steps we’re taking to help these guys out and show that second chances are welcome.”
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