CHESTER, Pa. —
Rondae Jefferson (top) and his Chester teammates will be fighting for an undefeated season and a state title while local administrators fight to keep the school open.
File photo by Paul Burdick
Many of the the best games in southeastern Pennsylvania take place before no one. They involve unrelenting defense, uncanny, imaginative moves to the basket, and come almost daily.
They're taking place down on a small corner of Ninth Street in Chester, where you can hear the bouncing balls and sneaker squeeks beyond the walls behind Chester (Pa.)
The Clippers' basketball practices are more like combat drills. There are no boundaries, no fouls. The microwave intensity comes in three-minute intervals overseen by demanding, unbending coaches, and if a sweaty body isn't diving across the clammy gym floor for a loose ball emitting one of those high-shrill sounds, a whistle is blown and there's three more minutes of hell to pay.
These passionate games are between Chester's first and second teams.
It's always been that way at Chester. Alonzo Lewis passed that coaching concept on to Fred Pickett, who passed that on to current Clippers' coach Larry Yarbray. The Chester philosophy has generated seven PIAA Class AAAA state championships and a program that's revered statewide as Pennsylvania's premier basketball program. It's why everyone dresses to impress when they attend Chester High games, the close-knit community in its entire sartorial splendor, there to be seen, and to see, but more importantly to be a part of something that galvanizes and injects this depressed small city with a fierce burst of pride.
It comes with some pressure, too — because in Chester, anything less than a state championship is a failure. So far, this current squad of Clippers is holding up well beyond any Chester team of the past. The Clippers, ranked No. 5 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Boys Basketball Rankings presented by the Army National Guard
, have started the season 20-0 for the first time in more than 40 years. Chester owns a 46-game winning streak, an ongoing school record, and is 51-1 over its last 52 games.
The Clippers are outscoring their opponents by an average of 18.4 points a game, scoring 65.5 points and surrendering a mere 47.1 points per contest. If you want to play basketball at Chester, you better play defense
— a longstanding Chester staple.
But something looms off in the distance. An ominous mist that could short-circuit what Yarbray, and a band of committed, underpaid (some not paid) assistants, and that's a bankrupt Chester Upland School District. The district needed a $3.2-million advance in mid-January from the state of Pennsylvania to keep Chester Upland schools open at least until March.
The players, meanwhile, try to remain focused. They know what's going on and what could possibly happen. The coaches remain dedicated and steadfast in their focus toward a Chester goal — repeating as state champions — something no other Chester team has previously done.
The crumpling financial status of a bankrupt school district ending their season is something the Clippers can't control.
Yarbray and his staff won't let that happen. It includes unpaid assistants Keddy Harris and Terry Thomas, who have each been involved with the program for more than 20 years, and John Carter, James Dennis, Suni Blackwell and Derick Spence, who all have deep-seeded Chester roots.
Not on their watch of this city heirloom, a brand that's treated like a professional sports franchise in this area of southeastern Pennsylvania.
"It's an outright travesty what might happen to these kids, and they're all our kids, not just the kids in this gym playing for the basketball team, kids who we're supposed to be educating," Yarbray said. "I came through this school, my coaches did, and there are younger brothers whose older brothers played for Chester. I really believe this is about more than just basketball. The basketball team has the commitment from the whole community. There's tradition here. If something did happen and they closed the doors, they're going to be covered. We'll home school, get tutors, we'll make the sacrifices that will need to be made if it comes to that. My coaching staff constantly makes those sacrifices. It's nothing new for us.
"My larger concern is the commitment we need from the whole community coming together to support all of our kids. They're all of our kids, they're our future. We've addressed the issue with the players; they know what's going on. Our focus is winning the next game, and winning the game after that, and focusing on the things we can control. I believe in these kids, and how good they are, because I know the time and commitment that goes into what we have here every year. I really believe we can only hurt ourselves, and the only thing that could stop us is if they close those doors. I don't think it's going to happen, but we have to be prepared for anything, because you never know. We have to keep the message going on what needs to be done in the classroom and on the court — in that order."
Erikk Wright, Chester
File photo by Paul Burdick
Chester has never won two-straight state championships, and this year is the hump season of a possible state-title threepeat. Here's why: national-caliber player Rondae Jefferson
, a 6-foot-7 guard/small forward, 6-6 forward Richard Granberry
, 6-2 shooting guard Darius Robinson
, the younger brother of Pitt's Nasir Robinson, and 5-10 point guard Rashan DeJarnette
comprise four of the five starting spots—and they're all juniors. Erikk Wright
is the lone starting senior.
"Our coaches tell us not to worry about what's going on with the school district situation, and we can't," said Jefferson, the younger brother of Temple's Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. "We just have to keep on doing what we do, and that's winning. I don't even want to know our record, and all the things we're doing this year. I want to focus on winning another state championship, which is something we all know about here, and making history. I think it's why we work harder every day. The vision of another state title is getting brighter and brighter as we get closer, because at first it was blurry. The other stuff I block out. We don't talk about the school shutting down."
With the advent next week of the PIAA District 1 playoffs, which has produced the last four PIAA Class AAAA state champions and six of the last seven state titlists, Granberry, Robinson and Wright have a wealth of postseason experience. The only team that could possibly stand in Chester's way is District 1 rival Lower Merion, the alma mater of Kobe Bryant, and it's a challenge the Clippers are certainly aiming toward.
"I think we can still play better," Wright said. "I think it's why I push my teammates, and they push me. Coach Yarbray talks to us about the school district problem, and keeps stressing that we don't worry about it, so we don't. We have a backup plan to support everyone, if it does come down to closing the school. You have to pay attention to what's going on, but it's something we'd rather not think about. I'd really like to enjoy my senior year and keep focusing on moving forward."
Said Granberry, "I don't like hearing about the school situation. But it is reality. We have an attitude that no one could beat us, but I think we're a team that feels it still has something to prove. We know what's up, with repeating. I hear it every time I go to the barber shop."
As of mid-January, the school district reportedly had about $100,000 in its coffers. The $3.2 million given to Chester Upland came from state allocations scheduled for later in the spring. Chester Upland is contending state subsidies should go to the school district, not to charter schools, which the state contends is required by law to educate district students.
"We can't continue to allow school districts to spend money they don't have, with the expectation that when they get through with that money the state will send them more," Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett said publicly. "There are other schools that are just behind Chester Upland in their economic problems. What is the incentive for them to do it right if you keep rewarding Chester Upland?"
According to The Philadelphia Enquirer, "The district figures it will be $20 million in debt by the end of the school year. It blames the problem on payments it makes to charter schools, cuts in state funding and having to use this year's state subsidies to pay off last year's debts."
The Clippers, however, have found a way to turn their pending situation around.
"It inspires us," Robinson said. "It really does. Knowing they could shut us down, which I really don't think will happen, it inspires us even more. We know this could be it. I don't think it will happen, but knowing we could be the last Chester team that could be playing for a state championship can be very motivating."