Men from Philadelphia, Scranton, and Brooklyn crowded the aisles at the NBA Store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on Saturday as they told their kids to wait patiently for wristbands, vouchers, and instructions.
The store, crammed with team and player jerseys, socks, hats, warm-ups, and balls, is run by online team sports gear provider Fanatics, the $3.2 billion (yearly sales) company controlled by Michael Rubin, a partner in the Philadelphia 76ers.
“We want all you guys to have the best day ever,” Rubin told the crowd. “This is more rewarding than my work” as a successful sports retailer, he said later.
It was a special shopping spree for this group of families with parents who have been in Pennsylvania prisons on state probation or parole violations.
It was Rubin’s idea to invite 50 children who, as he put it, “were tortured watching dad or mom go in and out of prison,” not for new crimes, but for what he called “technical” reasons, to enjoy $1,000-a-family shopping sprees, followed by a flight to Massachusetts on the New England Patriots’ jet to watch that team beat the Buffalo Bills.
“Thanks for making this happen,” Clara Tsai, who with her husband owns the Brooklyn Nets, told Rubin after hugging him. Though their teams compete, Rubin and Tsai are investors in retail site ShopRunner together.
They are also partners with Meek Mill, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, music mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, hedge fund activist investor Daniel S. Loeb (who forced the merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont Co. a few years back), and other Wall Street investors, in backing a group called the Reform Alliance. It is dedicated to streamlining probation and parole laws so people convicted of such violations are less likely to return to prison unless they do something dangerous. (The Nets and Patriots helped sponsor the day; the Sixers weren’t involved.)
Among the measures Reform supports is Pennsylvania House Bill 1555, which enjoys bipartisan backing for shortening terms for cooperative probationers and making it tougher for judges to send people back to prison for violations short of new crimes. The bill, whose key provisions are supported by Gov. Tom Wolf, was amended in early December but has yet to come up on a vote of the full House, according to aides for lead sponsor State Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R., Hershey).
Rubin has been a criminal justice reform advocate since late 2017, when his middle-school-aged daughter came to him in tears. She asked him to help Philly rapper Meek Mill, whom she’d met while joining her father at a Sixers game, get out of prison. Meek was jailed, Rubin stressed, “not for hurting anyone,” but for running afoul for the third time since 2006 of the Philadelphia judge overseeing his parole on a gun-possession charge.
The rapper in August pleaded guilty to that gun-possession charge after city prosecutors agreed to drop other charges in response to a string of case filings by lawyers hired with help from Rubin and other prominent Mill backers.
The plea closed his case after 11 years, during which he served three separate parole-violation prison terms. Mill and Rubin say others deserve the chance Mill got, even if they don’t have well-heeled advocates.
“In Pennsylvania, parole is set up to keep you incarcerated,” said Shahin Allen, of Scranton, wearing a Los Angeles Kings hat. “That’s not my team, I’m just trying it on,” he said, smiling, when he was accused of betraying the Sixers.
Allen listed the prisons where he’d done time — Retreat, Mahanoy, Waymart, and Dallas. Retreat is among the prisons Wolf wants to close, despite opposition from rural communities that depend on prison jobs. The state prison population has fallen below 50,000 in recent years for the first time since the early 2000s.
Allen, with help from his friend and fellow former inmate Corey McCullough — wearing a New York Knicks cap he said he, too, was just trying on — listed conditions they said can get men on parole or probation sent back to prison. “Possession of a phone, even if it is not operable; possession of $300 cash, even if it’s from your pay,” he said.
The crowd hushed when Tsai and Rubin each gave a few words of welcome and advocacy. Meek Mill and rap producer DJ Khaled added star power and were greeted with cheers. Nets guard Caris LeVert smiled and looked down shyly as Tsai introduced him.
Meek Mill was a well-known figure to the Philadelphians who traveled up to New York for the event.
“I’ve seen him in the neighborhood. It’s good to see someone making it up from the ’hood and with his money,” said Javell Harris, of North Philadelphia. Harris, who works at PAR-Recycle Works in a job arranged through the SOAR post-prison program, brought children Serenity, Aanilah, and Sincere. The young people were loaded up with hoodies, a fanny pack, and other gear. They were ready, Serenity said, to root for New England over Buffalo.
In Foxborough, Mass., the group was greeted on the field by Patriots owner Kraft, who welcomed them, in a recording circulated by the Patriots, “to come here and have an experience just like our players.”
Kraft was charged earlier this year with soliciting prostitution in Florida, but charges were dropped after a court ruled that a video in support was inadmissible. That experience only deepened Kraft’s dedication to the larger Reform effort, Rubin said.
“Meek’s experience really opened his eyes and has made him much more focused on how to fix the criminal-justice system,” Rubin concluded.