Q. What is your occupation, Skip? A. Professional athlete. Q. Specifically, what sport do you play? A. Basketball. Q. How long have you been playing basketball? A. All my life. From the transcript: United States vs. Allen Harper Wise (aka Skip Wise), Dec. 7, 1977
Summer's sun sears the asphalt court where Skip Wise plays basketball these days. Scarred, and sloping, hard by chain-link and wire-topped fence and visible from nearby guard towers, the court is deserted on this late afternoon.
It is too hot and sullen a moment for games. Perhaps later, in twilight's flickering glow, the inmates of the federal prison camp will summon the energy for such exertion. Perhaps then, with the baseline move, a feathery jump shot, a twisting drive, Skip Wise will recreate a memory of his brief encounter with stardom and fame.
Skip Wise, leader of Clemson's 1974-75 basketball squad, only freshman ever to make All-Atlantic Coast Conference, lured from college after one year by the temptations of big money and a pro career.
All that is behind him, fading like the print on yesterday's newspaper clippings. Now he is a convicted felon, federal prisoner 37120-118 at this facility near petersburg, about 30 miles south of Richmond. Now he serves a 12-year sentence for distribution of heroin. Now he plays basketball for therapy, not for glory.
Skip Wise ambles forward, offers a limp handshake, sits with an elbow propped on the outdoor table. He smokes a cigarette and talks laconically. A shrug is his most demonstrative gesture. Twenty-four years old, still slender and fit, he has been painting today at the prison staff's residential area. In his time, he also has worked at the prison dairy and repaired farm equipment.
Wise has been at this minimum-security camp for 15 months. Previously, he was housed in the adjacent penitentiary. Here, at the camp, there are few physical restraints or barriers to prevent him from roaming the grounds. He is permitted two unescorted day-long town trips a month. He sleeps in a dormitory, not a cell.
But this is no college campus; it is a prison. And life here has a numbing effect. "I get down," he said, "real down. You want to be alone sometimes, but you can't go far. And you get so complacent, seeing the same things every day. You almost have to be inhuman not to get down."
Basketball helps. There is the outdoor court. And occasionally he is a star attraction in the gleaming penitentiary gymnasium.
"The inmates go crazy with him," said a recreation worker. "When he plays here, the place is packed."
These opportunities, and the media interviews he grants -- Sport magazine, the New York Post and the hometown Baltimore News-American in recent months -- help to satisfy his athlete's needs for attention, for the spotlight. So do the oohs and ahhs he draws from fans at a junior high school gym in nearby Hopewell when he leads the prison camp team to victory in the City League. Playing against the Teamsters Union, Allied Fibers, Continental Can and other blue-collar squads. Wise was last season's league MVP. He got a trophy.
"My game -- I ain't lost nothing," he said. "If anything, I've worked more on it, perfected some things I was weak at. And I'm stronger."
"I'm in good shape," he added earnestly, "not enough to jump back in the thing right now, but good shape. There's a lot of good ballplayers out there, you know. It's really the breaks."
Does he focus on basketball as being his future beyond his prison term?
"It's something I would like to focus on," he replied. "It's something I would like to do." He dropped his cigarette to the grass and crushed it out.
At Clemson, where he was a marginal student but no troublemaker, basketball's hold on Skip Wise was total. "He didn't take time to sort out the other things in his life," said one-time teammate Stan Rome. Added Clemson Coach Bill Foster, who arrived at the school several months before Wise's departure: "He thought that ball was magic, that it could open any door."
On a 17-11 team, Clemson's best to that juncture in a decade, Wise was a star. A 6-foot-3 guard, he averaged 18.5 points per game, scored 17 and 30 in watershed home-court victories against North Carolina and N.C. State, and was selected ALL-ACC over most consummate players.
Despite his obvious talent, he had deficiencies: His defense needed work, and his 44 assists in 28 games reflected an unrefined court sense. Yet, these were not fatal flaws. And he was, after all, only a freshman.
In September 1975, the natural progression was derailed. Offered a professional contract by the fledgling Baltimore Claws of the American Basketball Association, Wise accepted and left Clemson. His claims of the contract's worth have ranged from $750,000 to $1 million, questionable figures. c
Whatever the combination of money, pro basketball and a triumphant return home was intoxicating. Disregarding his attorney's advice and his mother's wishes, Skip Wise signed the contract. He bought an El Dorado with his modest bonus.
He says he would do it again, "If it would've been a booming success," he said, "I might not be here." The Claws collapsed financially before the regular season began. He hooked on with the San Antonio Spurs in December, lasted two months and appeared in two games before being released.
The following fall, 1976, he tried out with the Golden State Warriors. He was the last player cut.
"In Skip's case, it was a matter of coming out too soon," said Golden State Coach Al Attles. "He could've used more seasoning." Given that appraisal and a one-way plane ticket from San Francisco to Baltimore, Skip Wise returned home, confused and bitter.
By East Baltimore standards, Skip Wise's fall from grace was no upset. Product of a broken home, resident from birth of the same five-room apartment in a decaying public housing project, he grew up in a harsh and callous neighborhood, amid crime and squalor.
For him, basketball was the difference. It provided notoriety, status, a way out. Exiled from the game, footloose and jobless, he surrendered to the environment.
It didn't take long. Early in 1977, he was convicted of larceny, then possession of heroin. Each time, he escaped with a suspended sentence. finally, on a Tuesday afternoon in May, in the parking lot in front of his apartment building, he and another man sold 12 grams of heroin for $150 to a federal undercover agent.
At the trial, Wise denied any role in the transaction, but the jury found the evidence against him to be conclusive. The result: conviction and a 12-year-sentence.
"It was shocking, but I had prepared myself for it," he said of the sentence."I just prepared myself for coming to the penitentiary. You go to do that.
"The hardest part was the start of it, accepting it, actually believing I was here. That was the hardest thing."
He looked up and scanned the open space that separates him from the prison gates. "Playing ball, things went so fast I didn't have time to think about what I was doing, where I was going," he said. He flashed a brief, rueful smile. He will have time to think about where he is going at least until May 14, 1981, his projected parole date.
But for the moment, his thoughts turn to the past and basketball -- his triumphant moments at Clemson, the big games, the packed arenas.
"Like beating N.C. State," he said. "Just running into the locker room after the game, and everybody is jumping up and down and hugging each other and crying."
"You've got to miss that. To be there . . . I dream about it. I gave up some of my most important years -- not just basketball, as a person, too -- to sign with this team that's defunct, to do nothing. Oh, yeah, I miss it.
"Like it's in the heart. I try to put basketball out of my mind, but it's in the heart."
It should be. He's been playing the game all his life.