Rondae Jefferson was still playing Biddy Ball when he first started going to the parties on 9th Street. He’d hear the music, watch the girls dance, and let the seductive world of Chester High School basketball wash over him.
Today, Jefferson, a top 20 prospect who will play at the University of Arizona next year, is the one everybody comes to watch. He and his teammates play for the heroes from the past, the hundreds of bleacher coaches who think they could run the show and the little kids who want to wear the orange and black someday. If there is a “someday.” Chester basketball remains vibrant, but Pennsylvania’s greatest high-school hardwood program is in danger.
There may not be a Pennsylvania school district in worse financial shape than Chester Upland, which has angered Harrisburg with its continued appetite for state largesse. Last January, the 3,400-student district came within weeks of shutting down; it now faces the specter of a complete reorganization under state-appointed chief recovery officer Joe Watkins. If, as many fear, Watkins begins slicing the district into charter schools and for-profit education centers, mighty Chester basketball—which has won a record eight state titles, including five since 2000, and has been runner-up nine times—will no longer be the shaky city’s major source of pride.
“People say, ‘Man, there isn’t any way they’re shutting down Chester High School basketball,’” says school athletic director Randy Legette. “They won’t believe it until it happens. But the feeling I’m getting is that it’s going to happen.”
The Clippers enter this season on a 58-game winning streak and are favored to take a third straight state crown, thanks in large part to Jefferson. He’s a fine heir to the program’s royal lineage, whose success began in the 1950s and has included such luminaries as Herman Harris, Zain Shaw, John Linehan and Jameer Nelson.
Chester struggles daily with poverty and crime. Less than 50 percent of the city’s kids finish high school. It’s a bleak time, but when those players rode the fire engine through town last March to celebrate another state title, Chester was the city upon a hill.
“With all the sadness and confusion and negative things going on in the city during basketball season, we have one night a week where we feel great and are on top,” says Wanda Mann, Chester’s school board president for 17 years.
The architect of the Clippers’ latest success is coach Larry Yarbray. Yarbray preaches self-discipline, a need to maximize the opportunities basketball provides, and a withering full-court defense. He understands the power of Chester basketball intimately, as well as the pressure to win. When the Clippers slipped to 16-11 his second season, he became a target. “I was on the chopping block,” he says without exaggeration. “I had to stop going out.”
Yarbray is no longer a hermit. And this season the Clippers are testing themselves against national powers in Florida, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Maryland. Wherever it goes, the team carries the banner of a city that desperately needs something to celebrate.
“We may be sad and down-and-out, but we’ve got a basketball game tonight,” Mann says. “That lifts everybody up.”
This article originally appeared in the November issue of Philadelphia magazine.