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.

2 responses

  1. Well written, Del. Trash talking, shirt pops, taunting… used to be described by one thing — the scoreboard. We live in a a society of immediate gratification; we don’t have the patience to wait to see the headline tomorrow on the back of the Daily News. We must celebrate each and every moment; every sack (even though your team is down 3 TDs), every dunk (even though your team is losing by 20), every blocked shot knocked into the 4th row (although Russell or Unseld would have slapped it to a teammate.) The “young bucks” know how to turn it on…. they just don’t know how to turn it off. You can be that defender that no one wants on them, go to class every day, and be a man for others… if you willing to grow up. Every Friday a priest that taught us in high school would say the same thing — “be good and have fun — you can do both.” You CAN be from the inner city, you CAN be cool, you CAN be the starting point guard, and you CAN have a 3.7 GPA in accounting or biology or criminal justice. Al McGuire uses to say “use basketball – don’t let it use you.” Achieving your potential, whether in the classroom or on the court, is not selling out. It’s realizing your God given potential. What is needed is more mentors to show our young men how to act, not AAU types kissing their backsides in hopes of advancing their own careers. The death of Tom Gola, once a PCL player of the year, reminded me of his counterpart in the PPL. Not the same talent level, perhaps, but in the days of NBA quotas that young man didn’t get the opportunity he may have deserved. We both know who that was. Lots of opportunity out there, fellas. It’s knocking at your door. Be mature, answer the door, and make the best of it. PS — the young buck I introduced you to back in the day is now a junior at St. Peter’s.

  2. Great article.
    Very insightful and unfortunetly very true.
    We have to teach our young men that it is a waste of their God given talents and their years of hard work to participate in activities that will deter them from receiving an education and a chance to play high school and college basketball.
    This problem is not indemic to just “The City of Brotherly Love”.
    It is a national problem and our parents,teachers,coaches and community leaders need to take notice and do something about it.

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