- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. Until he stepped on the court this weekend, it was about a month since Derrick Curry played basketball, the longest period of such abstinence in his life. He loves the game, but he's been kind of busy lately.

Curry was out getting his driver's license, opening a checking account, shopping. The things most of us take for granted or did long ago are new and different and special to Curry. Even chewing gum. He loves the stuff, but prison inmates can't have any. Something about jamming the locks. Now Curry, who had been imprisoned a total of 8 and 1/2 years, is always working on a piece. He's been chomping steadily since Jan. 20, the day after his sentence was commuted by President Clinton, the day his father and stepmother brought him home from the federal institution in Cumberland, Md., in a snowstorm.

Arrested in December 1990 just before his 20th birthday, Curry, a former basketball star at Northwestern High School and Prince George's Community College, was convicted of distributing crack cocaine and conspiracy. Although he had never before committed a crime nor even been loosely implicated, although everyone who knew him vouched for his character and his good intentions, although he was a nice, friendly, outgoing youngster from a concerned, loving, educated family, he was sentenced in 1993 to a term of 19 years, seven months.

At that point, Curry became more than just an ex-jock who took a wrong turn. He was a symbol of a hot-button legal issue, mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, an example of what can happen when good people run afoul of bad people and, eventually, the law. It took a lot of work by family, friends, lawyers and politicians to set him free.

Out of the big house, Curry now lives in his family's big house atop a hill amid six wooded acres. He can eat what he wants, when he wants, and he sleeps in a real bed as long as he wants. He can drive where he wants and talk on the phone to whomever he wants. He can go to the movies. He has even met a woman, through a friend. And yet, he said, "It really hasn't hit me yet that I'm out."

It hasn't entirely hit his family, either.

"There are times when we are sitting watching TV together, and I know he's there," said his father, Arthur Curry, "and I still have to look over and verify that he is there."

Once he arranges the building blocks of his life, Curry will get back to basketball, the first thing that got his name in the papers. As a guard at Northwestern, he helped lead his team to a state championship in 1987, his junior year. His grades weren't good, so he attended Pratt Junior College in Kansas and held his own against the likes of future NBA stars Larry Johnson and Shawn Kemp.

Curry left Pratt because he was homesick and didn't like the coach and transferred to Prince George's. He was called "the Rock" because of his solid build, but the nickname later would taken on a different, ironic meaning. He had his sights set on transferring to a four-year school. Georgetown, among others, was interested (former Hoyas coach John Thompson did not respond to an interview request). Once during a summer league game in D.C., the 6-foot Curry dunked over Manute Bol, the 7-6 Washington Bullets center.

Then things happened. If there are playground legends, then there must be prison legends, and Curry was just that. He dominated. Almost all his teams won league championships. He was known as "Grandmama" because that was a character Larry Johnson played in a commercial and Curry was a big LJ fan.

Now 31, Curry believes he can still play. At 215 pounds, he said he is in the best shape of his life. His vertical leap not long ago was measured at 43 inches, which basically means out-of-the-gym. He said his shooting range exceeds 25 feet. And, Curry said, he studied the game intently, watching and reading. He had the time.

Nate Peake, who runs a sports management firm in Maryland and boasts Houston Rockets and former Maryland star Steve Francis and boxing champion Sharmba Mitchell as clients, will try to help Curry land a job in one of several minor leagues. The new Maryland team in the United States Basketball League, which starts play in April, appears to be a perfect fit; Show Place Arena is located five minutes from Curry's home.

Curry nearly jumped 43 inches when he heard about that.

"I'm gonna do everything I can to make that team," he said. "It would be a dream come true. Playing professional basketball and playing right in my backyard."

But Curry's optimism, a lifelong trait, is tempered by a more recently acquired realism. Prison life is nothing if not real.

"I know it's a long shot," he said. "But I want to try. Just looking at the game and some of the players, I feel I can play with them."

No one knows whether it will happen, but to Curry's family, the big thing is being able to at least try.

"This is like winning the lottery," said his stepmother, Sandra Curry. "We are eternally grateful, eternally amazed."

His mother, Darlene Curry, said, "With prayer and the belief I have in prayer, I felt it was going to happen. But I wasn't actually sure until he was coming home."

Curry's release (he wasn't pardoned, as has been reported; his sentence was commuted) resulted from a team effort of family and friends. They built their appeal for clemency on the contention that Curry's sentence was far too severe for someone who not only was a first-time offender, but who never before got in any kind of trouble. Curry never took an illegal drug. He never even fought in school. His mother said that during high school, when youngsters can get into all kinds of mischief, harmless or otherwise, he and his two older sisters, Jennifer and Melanie, "were perfect children."

So what happened? Those who were close to the young Derrick Curry keep using the same word "naive."

"He really, truly believed that no one would hurt him," his father said.

That, along with peer pressure, wanting to fit in, led to trouble. So did Curry's only vice, basketball. School was a distant second, which didn't sit well with the family. A former principal, Arthur Curry is an assistant professor at Bowie State with a doctorate and directs a federal program that assists students making the transition to the workplace. Darlene Curry is a seventh-grade teacher. Sandra Curry is a retired teacher.

Curry's sisters both graduated from college and were excellent students. Not Derrick. He required tutors, and once while testifying before Congress against mandatory minimum drug sentences, Arthur Curry said his son had an IQ of 80. His parents thought Derrick might have a learning disability, but it could not be proven.

Like so many others, Curry channeled all his energy into basketball. He was good at it, which can be a two-edged sword in urban areas because of the shady characters the game often attracts. "The one thing about basketball is it makes you known to people," Sandra Curry said. "And Derrick was known to a variety of people."

One of those Derrick knew was Norman Brown, who also had attended Northwestern. Brown befriended Curry and "seemed to be a nice, respectable young man," Darlene Curry said. The two would share an apartment. Only later did Darlene Curry and other members of the family learn that Norman Brown was a major player in a 29-member drug ring.

Derrick Curry was a minor player, a gofer, really. Twice he passed crack to undercover agents. Just doing a favor, he said. Because a sting operation was ongoing, he wasn't arrested. When he finally was arrested, driving Brown's station wagon because his own car had broken down, a 1-pound rock of crack was found under the seat. Curry said he didn't know it was there.

Brown wasn't the only dubious type with whom Curry associated. There was Brian Tribble, who was accused in 1986 of supplying former Maryland basketball star Len Bias the cocaine that killed him. Tribble was acquitted, although he later was convicted of drug charges and served several years in prison. Curry knew Len Bias, too, up until the day he died after celebrating being drafted by the Boston Celtics.

Curry and Jay Bias, Len's brother, were friends and teammates at Northwestern. After beating Crossland (and future Maryland star Walt Williams) to win the Class AA championship in '87, they simultaneously dunked a basketball and hung on the rim at Cole Field House, shattering a backboard. Len Bias was dead, and on Dec. 4, 1990, Jay Bias was shot and killed by a man who thought Bias was hitting on his girlfriend. Coincidentally, the next day Curry was arrested. "I couldn't even go to the funeral," he said.

Because he was part of a large operation, it took more than two years for Curry to be tried and sentenced. The prison term was stunning. Yet the judge said he had no choice because of laws enacted in 1986 and 1988 designed to target the possession and sale of crack.

The family was devastated. They acknowledged Derrick's guilt and expected him to pay the price but nothing this steep. So Arthur Curry, who didn't even want to talk about his son after he was arrested, hid his shame and took action. He joined Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the nation's largest sentencing reform organization.

"Initially, it was a place I could go to get comfort," Arthur Curry said. "FAMM offered the opportunity to talk about it."

The view of FAMM on mandatory minimums is this: They haven't worked. "Especially for first-time, nonviolent offenders," said Arthur Curry, who made speeches and testified before Congress. "It does not help the country. It certainly does not help the families and individuals who are part of it.

"I'm not at all saying you have to legalize drugs. But you have to make absolutely certain the punishment fits the crime. The disparity [in sentences] is totally unbelievable."

Appeals for a retrial and resentencing were denied. Derrick Curry was transferred to several institutions before ending up at Cumberland, which is actually two prisons. One is moderate to high security; Curry didn't stay there long. The other is a minimum-security camp known as a "country club" to those who don't have to live there. Before Curry arrived, one of the inmates was lawyer Webb Hubbell, a close friend of President Clinton who served 18 months on mail fraud and tax evasion charges.

Curry is the first to say prison life wasn't terrible. He had hoops. He had a job. He read more than ever and was able to earn college credits. The worst was when, during his early stay at Cumberland, he was placed in the "Hole," solitary confinement. No reason was given, but Arthur Curry noted a correlation with his public appearances against mandatory sentences.

Hope wavered among Curry's family, but Derrick always kept the faith. It was more than basketball that kept him going. "I prayed on it," he said. "And a lot of guys at the prison, everywhere, were praying. I kept my faith and trust in God and basically relied on Him."

He had other help. Once the appeals were exhausted, the only way out for Curry was clemency, a process that required an intense effort. Letters on his behalf, supporting his character, were written to national, state and local politicians. Family members, friends, teachers and Curry himself all wrote. Arthur Curry and FAMM continued to talk long and loud about his son and others. Eventually, the information on Curry's behalf was gathered into a packet and sent to the office of the pardon attorney in the Justice Department.

Then came the waiting. Presidents usually issue pardons and clemency toward the end of their terms. With the Clinton administration, Thanksgiving and Christmas would be two notable occasions. But nothing happened for Curry, and that, his father said, "was a very, very low time." One hope remained, that Clinton would take action immediately before leaving office.

"The 18th and 19th [of January] were probably the two most difficult days of my life," Arthur Curry said. "I just felt like I wanted to scream, to release the pressure."

Late on the night of Jan. 19, Curry learned from a "legislator" [he said he can't reveal the name] that Clinton would grant clemency to more people, a significant number. Arthur Curry couldn't sleep. He made a pot of coffee and began to scour the Internet looking for names. At about 9:30 a.m., there it was: Derrick Curry was free. "I cried," his father said. "Then we started to get ready to make the trip to Cumberland." Back home, the cooking started crab legs and crab balls, two types of chicken, a feast, all of Curry's favorites.

In some ways, the Derrick Curry who left prison is the same as when he entered. "He's always been a happy person," Sandra Curry said. "And I think we thought he would become jaded or cynical. But that has not happened."

There are, however, some notable changes. Curry is a lot smarter now because of books and because of life.

"There are consequences to everything," he said, "whether good or bad. The choices you make in life are going to affect your future. If you have a dream, you need to follow it. But you have to have to have your priorities together and, you know, do the right thing."

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