How Chester kept Rondae on the court
ANAHEIM, Calif.– Wisconsin head basketball coach Bo Ryan doesn’t like the card game Tonk. Chances are neither does Arizona Wildcats freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Both natives of Chester, Pa., a town of around 34,000 residents along the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia. The two are almost 50 years apart in age but Saturday they’ll share more than just the court and the dislike of the card game Tonk.
“First of all, to survive every young boy wants to play basketball, because it’s the thing and has been the thing in Chester since the ‘20s,” Ryan said. ‘If you could be on the basketball team you were somebody.”
As a child Ryan recalls playing basketball at a court they called “the Cage.” If you won you kept playing, if you lost you had to wait sometimes 45 minutes to get back on to the court.
“In order to play you had to win,” Ryan said. “If you lost, you played Tonk on the picnic table next to the cage. I didn’t want to play Tonk. I wanted to play basketball.”
Ryan, 66, is finishing his 30th season as a head coach, his 12th at Wisconsin. But well before his 703 wins he was in Hollis-Jefferson’s shoes, trying to find a way onto a basketball court, hoping that it would turn into something positive.
“I heard [Ryan] was a winner,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I heard he had a passion for basketball, which you don’t see a lot from people from Chester. A lot of people in Chester love to win. [But] if you have passion you’ll be a winner.”
While performing a pretend interview, Arizona freshman forward Rondae Hollis Jefferson interviews Undergraduate Assistant Coach Joseph Blair in the Honda Center locker room on Friday. His advice is to “Blairdown and seize our glory.”
As a child in the 1950’s Ryan and his late father, Butch, would go watch the Chester High School basketball team. It quickly became a dream of Ryan’s to not only make the Chester team but also take them to the state tournament and win the state crown.
But before Ryan or Hollis-Jefferson could make the Chester High School basketball team or win the state titles, they started on the Chester playground courts like the Cage and in the Chester gymnasiums, such as the Biddy League.
Ryan, Hollis-Jefferson as well as current NBA players Tyreke Evans and Jameer Nelson are all former members of the Chester Biddy League, a little league for basketball. Kids in the Biddy League compete against other leagues all across the east coast.
The league was so competitive, Ryan recalls when he played there being tryouts for team managers.
So between the playgrounds and the Biddy League Ryan and Hollis-Jefferson built a certain character about themselves. A defensive character that never backed down and was relentlessly fighting to stay on the court.
One that helped them stay on the court.
“Who ever was going out to get 20 or 30 [points] I would tell my coach I want him,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “So it kind of stuck with me and from there on it was kind of a pride thing. I wouldn’t let that guy do that thing to me.”
The adversity, however, for Chester residents doesn’t end at the Cage’s blacktop. In 2012 Chester had more than five times the United States average of robberies and more than 13 times the national average of murders per 100,000 persons.
Ryan, who says he occasionally returns to his hometown to support the youth programs, said since the 1960’s many of the jobs and companies like General Electric, British Petroleum and Boeing have moved out of Chester. And because of this there are a lot of influences that can young men in a negative direction.
“There is something on the water tower that says, ‘What Chester makes, makes Chester’,” Ryan said. “The problem is so much of industry has moved out of there that the jobs are just not what they used to be, and they need some help.”
Hollis-Jefferson, though, doesn’t need too much help. The 19-year-old is now just one win from reaching the Final Four. An accomplishment even Ryan hasn’t made.
Through three games of the NCAA Tournament Hollis-Jefferson has averaged 15.3 points and 5 rebounds per game, all while coming off the bench.
His relentless hustle on both offense and defense has been noticed and because of it he’s staying on the court.
“His energy is contagious,” Arizona sophomore guard Gabe York said. “He’s a spark. He was a huge part to why we won [on Thursday].”
Even if the Wildcats lose to Wisconsin on Saturday and Hollis-Jefferson is no longer on the court, he said he’ll still be rooting for Ryan all the way because he’s from Chester.
As for Ryan, he’ll likely be rooting for Hollis-Jefferson if Arizona knocks them off the court.
“I just keep encouraging them to use basketball to learn about other things, to get an education to learn about things that are going to be much more important to them later when the ball stops bouncing,” Ryan said. “But Rondae is a great example of pulling himself up and going out and making something.”
–Follow Luke Della @LukeDella