Izeah Bowman works on some basketball tricks at Holly Park, where he learned… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Izeah Bowman sensed the ghosts of Alcatraz as the ferry delivered him to the island in the San Francisco Bay. An "eerie energy," he called it.
He'd never been to a prison before and certainly never to Alcatraz, once the final stop for the nation's most-wanted murderers, mobsters and criminals. "You felt this presence of lives being taken," said Bowman, an Inglewood native and a grade school teacher in Gardena.
Last September, Bowman, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard, and 63 others from the West Coast visited the closed federal prison to play basketball in an inaugural one-on-one, single-elimination, one-day tournament for a chance to win $10,000.
The half-court games were held in the old prison's recreation yard, where the surrounding high walls made Bowman uneasy.
And as his seventh and final game of the day began near midnight, a heavy fog blanketed the court, slicking the ball and the ancient cracked concrete. It was so cold Bowman thought he might get pneumonia, but he won the tournament on a last-second shot, living up to his nickname, "Clutch."
On Saturday he'll confidently return to Alcatraz to defend his Red Bull King of the Rock title and hope to grab another $10,000.
"I feel better now," he said, "because I know what I'm up against and I know the challenges of it."
Bowman's street game skills have been honed in the last five years playing in the Venice Basketball League, and the Drew League, where a coach first bestowed the moniker "Clutch" for his last-second heroics.
The 26-year-old grew up in Inglewood and began playing basketball religiously at 13 when his father put a hoop on their garage. He played at the YMCA, in high school, at Santa Monica College and, eventually, for a year professionally in Spain.
With a bachelor's degree in child development, he took a job teaching at a school in Gardena, where he was soon promoted to after-school programs director, a post he's held for six years.
A year ago Bowman was playing in five rec leagues when a friend called one night in July and told him about the Alcatraz tournament, adding that the L.A. qualifier began at 9 the following morning at Westchester Recreation Center.
Thirty players showed up and eight advanced, including Bowman, who declared, "When I get to Alcatraz, you might as well give me that money."
Each game there lasts five minutes, top scorer wins. Made baskets are worth two points each inside the arc, three outside it. One referee is on hand. Five personal fouls equal an automatic loss, as does one technical foul. There are no free throws, but players earn an additional point if they make a shot while being fouled.
At Alcatraz, Bowman learned that winning at a place former inmate Frank Weatherman said was "never no good for nobody" takes more endurance than skill.
The conditions were difficult: the temperature plummeted as night fell and the wind howled. "Don't go out there and think you're going to shoot jump shots," Bowman said. "With the wind, that's not going to happen."
He ground his way through six games to reach the final against Gary Smith, a 6-6 guard from Phoenix.
And the score was tied, six points apiece, with 10 seconds left, when Bowman hit a running bank shot from the right side as time expired. He screamed into the cold night. His body was sore for the next two weeks.
But this year, the tournament isn't just West Coast players. There are players from 12 foreign countries, plus 44 players from 21 U.S. qualifiers and the top eight players returning from last year.
Bowman knows the players from L.A., and he's not worried about them. "I'm worried about New York or Atlanta," he said.
The event won't be televised live, but CBS will air a one-hour special featuring it on Oct. 22 at 10:30 a.m. PST.
Last year's contest was the first sporting event held on the wind-swept, 22-acre island since the prison closed in 1963. Red Bull received a special event clearance from the National Park Service, which oversees Alcatraz.
But sport, and basketball, have a history at Alcatraz.
Long ago in the prison yard, inmates mostly played softball, handball, chess or dominoes.
For a time, the only connection prisoners had to the outside was when prison officials played the World Series over loudspeakers in the yard, recalled Frank Heaney, 84, a guard at Alcatraz from 1948 to 1951.
Then in the 1950s a radio system was installed for inmates to listen on headsets in their cells. That coincided with the rise of the University of San Francisco basketball team, with two future Hall of Famers in center Bill Russell and guard K.C. Jones, that won NCAA championships in 1955 and '56.
The inmates listened to the games at night and got a real thrill in 1957 when Russell and Jones toured the prison. "They were rock stars," said George DeVincenzi, 85, a guard at Alcatraz from 1950 to '57.
In 1960 basketball finally came to the yard after an inmate vote, according to George Durgerian, a park ranger for public affairs and special events for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A court was created, concrete footings were poured, and two free-standing goals were erected.
On that court, Bowman had his biggest moment.
His teaching job pays just $25,000 a year. But Bowman said he put his winnings from last year's tournament into the Inglewood-based nonprofit sports program he founded in 2009, "Heart of a Champion," which targets underprivileged inner-city kids.
If he wins again, that's where the money will go, he said.
But if not, he's still earned a memorable title from his first visit to a prison:
King of the Rock.