'Q Ball': Film Review

Justin Keena
A different kind of sports documentary.
5/24/2019

Michael Tolajian's documentary spotlights San Quentin State Prison's inmate basketball team.

California's notorious San Quentin used to be the setting for Hollywood prison dramas. Now it provides the backdrop for Michael Tolajian's inspirational documentary about the inmate basketball team. The fifth entry in Fox Sports' Magnify documentary series, Q Ball delivers a stirring and moving portrait of a program that provides inmates an opportunity to channel their energy in nonviolent fashion.

"Basketball is a bridge between worlds," we hear early in the film, and in this case the bridge must be metaphorically bigger than most. San Quentin, opened in 1852, is the oldest prison in California and is the home of the state's death row. Among its former inmates are such notorious figures as Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson and "Night Stalker" serial killer Richard Ramirez.

The prison's basketball team, named the San Quentin Warriors, is sponsored by Oakland's Golden State Warriors. "We're like a little brother to them," one of the inmate players comments. Among the NBA team's stars who have played a major role in fostering the program is Kevin Durant, who serves as one of the documentary's executive producers.

The film concentrates on several figures, including the team's coach, Rafael Cuevas, who is serving a murder sentence. Staring directly at the camera, Cuevas provides a harrowing account of the crime for which he was convicted. "I was walking around a long time waiting to kill somebody before I killed somebody," he recalls of his volatile younger years. Cuevas eventually fulfilled his goal, stabbing a stranger to death after a minor altercation in a parking lot. To its credit, the film also gives the victim's family members an opportunity to express their grief and anger, and question why their loved one's killer should ever be paroled and have the opportunity to start a new life.

Another inmate, Allan McIntosh, has a far different story. He was convicted of gun possession, a relatively minor offense that resulted in his getting a 25-year sentence because of California's controversial "three strikes" law, which has since been substantially amended.

The star of the team is Harry "ATL" Smith, who is serving a seven-year sentence and is due for release in six months. Despite being 31 years old, Smith still dreams of playing for the NBA, or, as he puts it, to be "the first convicted felon to suit up in an NBA jersey."

Although the San Quentin team competes against different visiting players once a week, the documentary largely focuses on their annual match against the members of the Golden State Warriors' coaching and administration staff. The film's final segment features footage from one of those games, and while it doesn't exactly rival The Longest Yard in terms of cinematic prison sports excitement, director Tolajian infuses it with stylistic flair.

Production: Heist, Thirty Five Ventures, Hunting Lane Films
Distributor: Fox Sports Films
Director-screenwriter: Michael Tolajian
Producers: Rebekah Fergusson, Jordan deBree, Michael Tolajian
Executive producers: Kevin Durant, Rich Kleiman, Jordan deBree, Jamie Patricof, Katie McNeill, Chrlie Dixon, Eric Shanks, Mark Silverman, Michael Tolajian
Director of photography: James Niebuhr
Editor: Michael Long
Composer: Joel Goodman

96 minutes