They brace themselves against what seems like a wind tunnel, holding their coat sleeves up against their faces in the blustery Philadelphia afternoon cold. It's just a four-block walk to where Philadelphia Public League powerhouse Math Civics & Sciences
(MCS) goes to practice every day, but it's something that no other team in Philly — and perhaps no other major basketball program in the country — has to endure.
The Mighty Elephants are 23-2 overall and preparing for the PIAA Class A state playoffs. At one time this season, MCS was ranked among the top 25 teams in the country by MaxPreps. It was probably the smallest school in the top 25, and what's more, probably the only team that has to take a subway, then a trolley and walk four blocks to practice each day.
Somehow head coach Dan Jackson, 26, one of the youngest head coaches in the state, and assistant coach Lonnie Diggs have made it work. The Mighty Elephants won the PIAA Class A state championship in 2011, beating Lincoln Park's 6-foot-10 Devontae Watson in the finals. This season, they're going for their second state crown in three years.
Despite a myriad of obstacles.
On the surface, MCS is not an easy sell to prospective student-athletes. But Jackson, Diggs and their committed players, make it an easy sell.
"Our philosophy with the school is we try to prepare our kids for the next level," Jackson said. "As far as selling the school, by the time you leave the school, you'll be able to academically achieve. Our academic standards are so high at the school, we tell the parents that their children will go to college, and go to college for free. We've had a 100-percent graduate rate. We have a great team of teachers and a super support system. They give the kids a good chance to succeed."
Jackson and Diggs provide that chance on the court.
The Philadelphia Public League, or "The Pub," as it's known in Philly basketball circles, is down to its final four. Vaux
will play Martin Luther King
, while Imhotep Charter
will play Communications Tech
. MCS beat all four teams during the regular season, before losing a heart-breaker in the Pub quarterfinals, 62-61 to Vaux and its exciting guard tandem of Rysheed Jordan
and Sammy Forman
The Mighty Elephants have still qualified for the PIAA Class A state playoffs, beginning with the state tournament on March 8 — with Vaux probably standing in their way again. MCS has a deep arsenal of three Division I players in 6-foot guard Britton Lee
and 6-6 swing Jeremiah Worthem
, who will both be headed to Robert Morris, and 6-7 Quadir Welton
, who's going to St. Peter's.
"Each year, our ultimate goal is to win the city title and the state title," Diggs said. "Over the last two years, we're trying to compete more at a national level, and I'm sure we're probably the smallest schools that was rated in the top 25. I'm also sure none of the schools in the top 25 are going by subway to practice. After a while the kids get used to it.
"It is like a big family here. Kids are coming here to learn — they have to wear a blazer, shirt and tie — dress shoes and dress pants. We're a charter school. We fight that it's not a basketball factory, like a lot of schools you do see out there. We're serious about getting kids into college."
There is a stigma out there, however, that MCS confronts. Jackson and Diggs feel it's the old-school mentality of the Pub. They weren't exactly welcomed in some circles. There was some backlash.
"It was a pretty tough fight, especially being so young," Jackson said. "You're dealing with politics and Philly is about who you know, not so much what you know. The more we got involved, one thing we do is take a deeper interest in our kids. They know they can come to us and relate to us. I think that helps us grow — plus, being so transparent, we have their respect. There was a lot of trial and error — and it's still hard."
When Vaux played MCS in the Pub playoffs, there might have been about 4,000 fans there — and what seemed like 3,999 against them.
"Everyone is against us — it's like we're the Heat or something," Welton said, laughing. "Honestly, I think that comes from all of our success. MCS is a good school that attracts top players. That seems to bother a lot of people, because a lot of schools do the same thing they accuse us of doing, recruiting. If you're a quality school, and not a basketball factory, and you're interested in getting ahead, kids will go there."
Said Worthem, "You learn at MCS you have to present yourself in a professional way. It gets you ready for the next level. We have a lot more basketball ahead of us. We have the state playoffs coming and we're looking forward to winning another state title. But it's more than just about basketball, it's about life ahead."
And taking the subway every day from Broad Street and Spring Garden to get off at Broad and Girard Avenue, and make that four-block walk from Broad Street to 19th and Girard for practice and home games at the Berean Insitutue Vocational School. Through blustery 14-degree wind-chill factors, and snow. Through rain, and anything else that comes at them.
They never retreat.