Baller or Thug? Can’t Be Both!


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Very recently, we lost the greatest living Philadelphia ball player with the passing of Tom Gola (pictured below).  Wilt Chamberlain and Tom Gola are the ultimate representatives of Philadelphia ball players.  Earl Monroe, Gene Banks, Ernie Beck, John Chaney, Claude Gross, Tee Parham, Lewis Lloyd, Joe Bryant, Mike Bantom, Howie Evans, Anthony “Hubba Bubba” King, Rashid Bey, Lynn Greer are all outstanding Philly ball players.  Philly ball players have always used basketball as a means to access educational opportunities.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Philly ball players raising families and contributing to society well after the ball stopped bouncing.

However, in recent years I’ve noticed a troubling pattern of behaviors.  Being a Philly Ball player these days means having a double consciousness.  The identity is now divided into several parts, making it difficult or impossible to have one unified identity.  This is a significant and unfortunate change.  All of the players listed above are known for playing hard, tough winning basketball.

Tom Gola

Within the context of contemporary scholastic and collegiate basketball, the Philly ball player is developing a dual identity.  Unlike their singularly focused predecessors, many of today’s Philly ball players have two distinct and relatively enduring states that alternately control their behavior.  Like their predecessors, they play hard, tough winning basketball.  But, there’s this other “Philly Hard” identity permeating the recent crop of Philly ballers.  Double consciousness forces young Philly ball players to view themselves not only as student-athletes competing at the highest levels, but to also view themselves as they might be perceived by the folks in the “hood.” They cannot be perceived as “square”, “corny” or docile. Philly Hard players have to “keep it gully.”

What types of behaviors do “Philly Hard” players exhibit?  They range  from persistent refusal to comply with school, dorm, or team rules and expectations to selling a half-kilo of crack cocaine to an undercover DEA agent.  It’s important to understand that this not a new phenomena.  There have always been Philly Hard players.  In 1987, a North Philly kid from the Raymond Rosen projects led Millersville to a 27-4 record and a No.1 national ranking.  After that season, he robbed a home in Concord Township, Delaware County, threatened the 20-year-old resident with a toy pistol and beat her.  Around the same time he was charged with, and later pleaded no contest to, the attempted rape of a 20-year-old woman at gunpoint. He was charged with al least eight other burglaries over a two-week period in one month.

In 2002, a former Simon Gratz High School star who won a Public League basketball championship alongside NBA stars Rasheed Wallace and Aaron McKie, was sentenced to three to six years in prison for three holdups at a Rosemont ATM. This Philly ball player had averaged 20 ppg and 10 rpg in the Atlantic 10 conference before playing professionally in Europe.  In 2009, a freshman at a Big 5 school threw two baggies containing marijuana onto the ground during a police sting and had $1,030 cash on him.  He was arrested Monday night in Chester on charges of felony drug dealing and related offenses, including resisting arrest.

While the most of the negative behaviors of contemporary Philly Hard players are not felonious, they are far more frequent.  There is relentless drumbeat of Philly kids being disciplined, suspended and expelled from schools.  One player was suspended for knowing that a stolen student identification card was being used to order more than $100 worth of food.  Another was suspended for the 2013-14 season after being charged with first degree burglary and grand larceny.  Still another was suspended prior to the start of the season, and subsequently suspended for the remainder of the season due to a violation of the school’s Code of Conduct. Eventually, he chose to transfer to another program.  Yet another was suspended after trying to shoplift at Wal-Mart.

Earl Monroe

I ventured down to the Wells Fargo Arena on Monday evening and watched three young Philly ball players perform for the Phoenix Suns against the hometown Sixers.  It was an especially proud moment because, a few years ago, I watched all three work extremely hard to meet NCAA freshman eligibility requirements.  Diligence and determination paid off.  Their parents, James Christmas and Angel Morris, were focused on providing the structure and support necessary for these guys to make it to college.  One of the players was arrested as a freshman for bringing an Airsoft gun on campus that can shoot plastic BBs.  Fortunately, among this particular group of Philly ball players, that was an isolated incident.  Given the opportunity, they have made the most of it and now play in the NBA.

While riding home from the game, I received a text indicating that two more Philly players have been indefinitely suspended by their university.  In one night, I experienced the highest of highs, as I watched three Philly ball players live their NBA dreams, and the lowest of lows as I learned of two other young men placing their scholarships at risk.  This makes no sense.  Philadelphia’s amateur (Youth, AAU, Summer League, Church, HS and College) basketball community, has to do more.

Clearly, many of our young players have internalized a Philly Hard self-image that shapes their inappropriate responses to adverse and stressful situations faced while transitioning to college.  For now, there’s still a considerable market for good Philly ball players.  The coaches from respectable programs still pursue young Philly ball players.  However, there has to be a tipping point.  Those exhibiting the Philly Hard tendencies are going to inevitably make it much harder for the next generation of kids.

Too many young Philly ball players are struggling to reconcile their identity as a Philly ball player and a Philly Hard man.  Conflicted between behaving in a manner that reflects a Philly Hard perspective and exhibiting behaviors that are marketable and acceptable to college and professional coaches.

By exhibiting compliant and respectful behaviors he will be deemed a sellout and his Philly Hard stature is questioned.  By having repeated confrontations with authority figures and receiving multiple suspensions for misbehaviors he successfully establishes himself as Philly Hard and in some very important ways limits his ability maximize the true value of his athletic gifts.  This is the contemporary Philly ball player’s struggle to unite the different components of their identity.

As a basketball community, we have to find a way to diminish the impact of the Philly Hard image. Some how, some way.

To Parents of Middle-School Student-Athletes: An Open Letter


Many of you are facing an important decision.  Where do you enroll your son/daughter for High School?   You have spent countless hours in sweaty humid gyms, on blazing hot fields and  transporting your child to AAU or church league practices and games.  Your child wants to to play.  He/she is a good student and wants to pursue athletics at the scholastic level.  Athletics is an important part of your family’s life and, therefore, a factor in the high school decision-making process.  As a parent, there are some important questions you must ask.  The most obvious one is: Are there opportunities for your child to play?  Most Public League schools do not sponsor freshman and/or junior varsity teams.  Sports budgets in the School District of Philadelphia have been drastically cut in recent years.

Say, for example, your daughter plays soccer.  She has played in a youth league for several years.  She’s serious about soccer.  Over the past decade, Philadelphia’s Public League soccer programs have been cut to the point where there is little opportunity for participation and skill development.  Only six teams are listed on the JV schedule for the upcoming season. No Public League school has a freshmen girl’s soccer team. Most schools have subpar fields or share Department of Recreation fields. Some play games on the Super Sites, the turf all-sport fields that are located near Simon Gratz, Germantown, Southern, and Northeast high schools.  As a parent, do you take a chance with a Public League soccer program?  The same logic applies across all sports.  Baseball, tennis, crew, track & field, lacrosse, football and basketball players should carefully examine the athletic programs and leagues of their prospective schools.

The dynamics have changed since most parents were in school.  In many instances, the neighborhood public school alternative is simply unacceptable.  This is especially the case in basketball.  Historically speaking, parents of scholastic hoopsters in the greater Philadelphia region have been blessed for years.  Philadelphia’s Catholic and Public Leagues have consistently developed elite scholastic basketball players for nearly three-quarters of a century.

However, many of the traditional Public League powers (West Philadelphia, Overbrook, Southern, Ben Franklin, Gratz, etc.) have seen their once mighty basketball programs relegated to lower tier status as independent charter schools have become dominant.  Facing a $300 million budget deficit, the School District of Philadelphia has limited opportunities for student-athletes to participate in scholastic competition.  One can reasonably assume that athletic budgets will continue to suffer.  Moreover and more importantly, very few Public League Schools have  average SAT scores that meet NCAA freshman eligibility criteria for a student with a 2.5 gpa.

The plain and simple fact is that too many students attending Public League high schools are finding it difficult to meet NCAA eligibility criteria.  On the other hand, Catholic League alums are currently playing at schools such as Notre Dame (Steve Vasturia, SJ Prep), Wake Forest (Miles Overton, SJ Prep), Rider (Junior Fortunat, Roman), Towson (John Davis, Neumann-Gorretti), Wisconsin, Green-Bay (Lamin Fulton, Neumann-Gorretti) and many other Division 1 and 2 colleges.


Current Catholic League seniors have committed to Miami University (Ja’Quan Newton, Neumann-Gorretti), Penn State (Shep Garner, Roman), Drexel (Rashann London, Roman), Campbell (Tony Toplyn and Troy Harper, Neuman Goretti) and Cornell (Pat Smith, Wood) among others.

Junior Fortunat pic

If participation on strong competitive teams in a very strong league with solid academic programs is the goal, then Philadelphia’s Catholic League should be your destination.  Currently, Archbishop Carroll’s Boy;s Basketball team is ranked 12th in the nation according to MaxPreps.  Roman Catholic, SJ Prep, Neumann-Goretti and Archbishop Wood are among the top teams in Pennsylvania their respective class divisions.


In football, the Philadelphia Catholic League produced the PIAA AAAA Champion SJ Prep Hawks.  SJ Prep was ranked #1 in Pennsylvania and #38 in the United States.


For many families, sports is an important part of the educational process.  Research finds that in addition to improved physical health, sport plays a primarily positive role in youth development, including improved academic achievement, higher self-esteem and fewer behavioral problems.  Many parents have long known that many facets of playing sport—the discipline of training, learning teamwork, following the leadership of coaches and captains, learning to lose—provide lifelong skills for athletes.

For parents of middle school student-athletes in the Philadelphia region, the Catholic League provides the best combination of accessibility, academic accountability and athletic competition.

In terms of the ability to develop academically and athletically prepared student-athletes, Philadelphia’s Catholic League is the preeminent scholastic league in the region.