From Germantown to Cobb’s Creek, Philadelphia’s notorious neighborhoods have always boasted some of America’s most cutthroat and ruthless styles of basketball.
Whether it was historic battles in the ’70s between Eugene Banks and Lewis Lloyd to the most recent scraps with 2013 top recruits Rysheed Jordan (Saint John’s) and Brandon Austin (Providence), the competition is still readily available.
But there is a major difference when competition is available and when it is at its peak of performance.
For the last few seasons, the basketball circuit in Philadelphia has slowly fallen apart. There will always be players like Jordan, Austin or Rondae Jefferson (Arizona), but the goal isn’t just having the talent. It has and will always be about reaching the NBA and succeeding at that level, something not many players in recent memory have done well.
“I been gone for a little while, but the normal guys that just came out, I don’t know too many,” said Markieff Morris, a 6-10 forward for the Phoenix Suns that won consecutive PIAA Class titles with South Philly’s Prep Charter from 2006-2007.
“I don’t think it’s been enough talent as it used to be. I guess a lot of guys aren’t playing basketball or working on the game, I don’t know what the ultimate goal is now to get into the league. Guys just playing to be playing.”
Since 2006 Philadelphia’s basketball recruits have landed face-first in attempts at the NBA. Players like Reggie Redding that played at St. Joseph’s Prep and went on to Villanova landed overseas. Maalik Wayns, who played at Roman Catholic and also took the Villanova route, played one season in the NBA and is currently a free agent.
Dionte Christmas, Mark Tinsdale, Eric Thomas and majority of the heavy hitters from the Temple Owls regime over the last half decade have also taken a tumble. Though they aren’t born in Philly, once you play at a premier college in a city that craves basketball, those same fans pay attention to the player’s progress.
All the aforementioned had NBA D-League stints or played overseas for a year.
The same can be said about Zach Rosen from Penn’s 2012 team who’s now overseas. Scottie Reynolds, Villanova’s All-American that led the Wildcats to a Final Four in 2009, had several stints in Europe after being the first All-American since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976 to not be drafted.
Next, its Ramon Galloway of Lasalle, a Philly-bred player from Germantown that moved to Florida and took the Explorers to the Sweet Sixteen in a memorable postseason run, and an undrafted free agent. He was added to the Denver Nuggets roster in June, but much hasn’t been heard from him.
The connection basketball has in the City of Brotherly Love digs deep.
“It’s real important,” said Marcus Morris, a 6-9 forward for the Phoenix Suns, when asked about growing up and playing in the city.
“It’s Philly’s toughness. It’s being from here, being from the streets and the ghetto makes basketball a little better and makes you hungrier. You’re playing with that pride every time you’re playing on the court.”
The overall goal for a basketball player isn’t just to make it to a specific league, in one way it majorly becomes about accolades. MVP performances, championships and other measures of a player’s greatness lands him in the Hall of Fame or talks about the greatest of all time, something Philly is lacking from the new breed.
One argument could be for Kobe Bryant‘s legitimacy as the greatest player to ever come from the city, but that depends on what one is looking for. Bryant was born in Philly, but moved to Italy when he was six and didn’t return until 1991. He then played for Lower Merion High which is located outside of the city’s limits and in suburbia. For some, that’s not good enough.
If the argument is for the greatest player that’s lived and played inside the city, then look no further than Wilt Chamberlain. Born to a family of nine, Chamberlain almost died as a young child due to pneumonia. He went on to play ball at Kansas, where he was the 1957 Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Chamberlain had a decorated career. He scored over 30,000 points, was a four-time MVP, two-time NBA champion, seven-time scoring champion and an eventual Hall of Famer and thirteen time All-Star. His number was retired by the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. Yet as great as he was, he died in 1999, too early for some of the newer generation to understand his brilliance.
Another example is Rasheed Wallace. He was a four-time All-Star, a part of the 1996 NBA All-Rookie Second Team and was a second-team All-American in 1995. Wallace was drafted fourth overall in the 1995 Draft. Nearly ten years later he won a NBA Championship with the Pistons in 2004.
Though his career isn’t as decorated as Bryant’s or Chamberlain’s, he’s one of Philly’s true symbols of what it is to come from the city and win a championship, especially for the new generation.
Though competition hasn’t been at its peak in what seems like a century, there is hope for the future.
The change came with the Class of 2013 that left the city and continues with the upcoming class combined with the NBA’s current athletes. From the class that just left (Austin, Jordan and Jefferson) they brought competition, in its purest form, back to the city’s high school scene. That same feeling will be followed into college and left a mark on lower classes.
In the Class of 2014, Ja’Quan Newton leads the charge in Philadelphia. Newton, a senior at Neumann-Goretti, leads one of the city’s powerhouse teams, is the 67th-best player in the nation according to ESPN, and recently committed to Miami.
In a basketball community smaller than most cities, that’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.
“It’s an opportunity to go to school for free and it’s up to you to take an advantage,” said Dion Waiters, a 6-4 guard currently with the Cleveland Cavaliers and from Philadelphia. He played his high school basketball at Life Center Academy in Southern New Jersey.
“It’s a blessing especially coming from Philly, knowing how tough it is, it’s your chance to get away from that.”
Along with Waiters, who had an above average season with the Cavs, there are other Philly-bred players at the NBA level looking to break out. Kyle Lowry, Wayne Ellington, Tyreke Evans and Gerald Henderson are all capable of having nice seasons for their respective teams in the NBA. They’ve all shown glimpses of it several times in recent years.
They likely learned from the greats before them from the city they represent. Guys like Cuttino Mobley, Aaron McKie, Aaron “AO” Owens and Eddie Griffin, to name a few.
Ultimately, basketball isn’t an easy game. There are pitfalls in personal careers and setbacks. Some players chose other sports in high school and stick with them. There are multiple variables that hinder and help to a successful career in the NBA. Every player, bench players or starters, have elite talent.
Let’s be honest, if Spencer Hawes can drop 58 points on top competition and Hamed Haddadi can become the MVP of FIBA Asia, then Philly players still have a shot at greatness.
Or as one city legend put it, they have a chance to recreate “Black Magic.”
“It was great coming up in Philly because Philly ballplayers seemed like they were different than other ballplayers anywhere in the country,” said Lewis Lloyd, one of Philly’s greatest high school players in the ’70s, a guy that played for the Houston Rockets for a NBA Championship in 1986 against Larry Bird.
“If you have a big name and you go down in the hood or playgrounds, they don’t care anything about that. They’ll punch you in your jaw. They’ll make you play hard. Philly basketball has a lot of history.”
Which city is the most underrated hotbed of basketball talent?
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