From the outside looking in, the 2015-16 basketball season was a success for the Philadelphia Public League teams. Mastery North and Math, Civics & Sciences marched their way into the state finals, while schools like Imhotep, Simon Gratz, and Delaware Valley Charter won multiple games.

The league sent a combined ten teams to the state playoffs, but despite their success in the tournament, the Public League struggled to compete with teams from the Philadelphia area during the season, as it compiled an 8-26 against teams in the Inter-Academic (Inter-Ac) and Catholic League.

This is just a tiny piece of insight into the status of basketball in Philadelphia today.

Fewer and fewer Public League teams can compete with the likes of the Catholic and Inter-Ac leagues, which feature institutions like Neumann-Goretti, La Salle, Roman, Springside Chestnut Hill, Germantown Academy, Haverford School, and more. These schools in the Philadelphia region are costly to attend, have an abundance of resources, and are ultimately an outlet to the public schools. 

Not only that, but the game has changed in the city. No longer do top players spend their offseason playing in the recreation center leagues, instead opting to travel the country, playing basketball with travel teams, sometimes in AAU (Amatuer Athletic Union).  Each aspect has affected how the game is played within the city. The biggest evolution of basketball in the city, however, starts within the schools.

“The main difference is the educational systems of the schools,” said Rahim Thompson, who runs The Chosen League, a summer basketball league for Philadelphia high schoolers. “It’s not so much the talent. Every Public League school has talented guys. The emphasis on academics within the catholic schools and the Inter-Ac is very different than the emphasis on academics in the public school system. It isn’t so much talent. You can get talent on every block in Philadelphia…It’s making sure that they have the resources to be successful.”

According to a recent article posted by Philadelphia Magazine in 2014, only 10 percent of Philadelphia School District graduates earn their college degree. In the same year, a study by NPR on the schools found that only 36 percent of the school district’s 2.8 billion budget goes to public school students and classrooms. It was the website Niche, which is designed to help find schools (and neighborhoods) that fit your needs by compiling different factors like ACT/SAT scores and weighing them, that determined that the Philadelphia School District doesn’t even rank in the top 100 school districts in Pennsylvania.

While only half of the public school district schools have a college-enrollment rate of less than 55% or less, The Haverford School, which in an Inter-Ac school, has a college acceptance rate of 100%. The highest college-enrollment rate in the Philadelphia School District is a mere 89%. Roman Catholic, which only ranks 29th in Niche’s state rankings of catholic schools (two Phialdelphia Catholic League schools are in the top ten), graduates 86% of its class according to Great Philly Schools. In 2015, the public school district only had one school, out of 70, (Philadelphia Milatary Acadmy) that graduated 100% of its class and had thirteen that graduated less than 65%. It is no secret that the Philadelphia School District is lagging behind.

Maurice “Mo” Howard is a product of that: the former high school star chose Catholic League powerhouse St. Joe’s Prep over public schools because he was a good student. Even back in the 60s and 70s, The Prep gave him that opportunity to play high level basketball and earn a top education, which allowed him to earn a basketball scholarship toIt is Tony Carr's show now for Roman, as the savvy junior guard will look to lead the Cahillites back to the Catholic League championship. (Photo: Rick Cawley) the University of Maryland. He still sees many of the same qualities that separated the two types of basketball programs today.

“The public league was a litte more free flowing and had a little more athleticism,” said Howard, who is still involved with the high school game, as he works out many student athletes. “In the Catholic League, it wasn’t so free flowing and there was a little more structure and organization. There was a certain cerebral way to play. I still see that today in terms of the gap.”

“There probably is a gap in how the well game is played,” the founder of Philadelphia’s HoopDreamz AAU program and Abraham Lincoln High School alum Jonathan Michels said of the difference between the public schools and Inter-Ac and Catholic League schools. “I don’t know if there is a huge gap in athletic ability. I think the game is played better in the Inter-Ac and the Catholic League and it’s coached better. But a lot of that, again, is because there’s only 10, 12, 14 Catholic League teams. In the Inter-Ac, there’s 8 or 10, and there’s 50 Public League schools. It gets so watered down and deteriorated, where the level of play sufferers.” 

Howard also has his reasons as to why the public basketball league has suffered.

“The public schools had great players, great coaches,” added Howard. “You had longevity and they built great programs. In the New Age, they have open enrollment. You can go to any school to want. In my day you went to the neighborhood high schools, you went to the neighborhood middle schools, and junior high schools. Everyone in your neighborhood went to the [same] high schools. You knew everyone. You hung with them after school. You guys would play pickup together. And it was similar with the Catholic League. There were Archdiocese high schools where students from the parachocial students were assigned…Guys who were lived the Northeast went to North Catholic and Father Judge. There was a certain synergy there…You don’t see that as much anymore with open enrollment.”

Josh Verlin, who runs a website that covers high school basketball, City of Basketball Love, notes that even though many teams in the Public League, such as Imhotep, Delaware Valley, Mastery North, and now Simon Gratz, have had success in the state playoffs over the past few years, these are all charter schools. Howard also sees a correlation.

“You have all of these charter schools in the public school mix,” says Howard, “and it waters it down a bit.”

Today the school district sports 20 charter schools out of the 70 total schools and it most certainly rolls into basketball. The neighborhood schools that for so long dominated the city now struggle to compete. The only one that made the state tournament was Martin Luther King, who lost in the first round. Michels also agrees with that, but cites AAU as the cause.

AAU today is a gigantic factor in basketball in Philadelphia and around the country. Although it has been around since 1888, the organization began to take off in the 1930s and 40s. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the national championships were introduced and in the 1980s, when it grew to thirteen age groups. Today, in the 21st century, travel basketball has become pretty close to a necessity for aspiring college basketball players to showcase their talents against the other top players in front of college coaches. This subsequently “accelerated exposure” and made that exposure “cheap” for young players, Howard said.

“When AAU got bigger, the neighborhoods died, which was a huge thing,” added Michels, who is 49. “When I was a kid, you could tell where guys were from by how they played. You know when the West Philly teams were West Philly guys and the Gratz teams were North Philly guys. It was a much edgier game because there were, not just less schools, but there was more neighborhood stuff involved also. When the AAU stuff really got big, there was no neighborhood. Everyone was from everywhere. The neighborhoods lost a lot of their character.”

On the other hand, Thompson says that AAU has given people more opportunities to play and given young players more resources to succeed. Sam Rines, a local coach and scout, who has been around the game in Philadelphia for 30 years, disagrees.

“Back in the day, you used to play AAU with a purpose,” Rines said. “Now you have multiple tournaments every single weekend. Where’s the development coming from? Where’s the practice? How are the kids getting better if they’re going to 10, 12, 14 tournaments? These are the coaches that would rather coach the game than teach a kid how to play. They’d rather let them scrimmage than give them individual drills.”

Verlin neither blames nor credits AAU for the evolution basketball in the city.

“What you have more and more is people playing their sport 365 days a year,” Verlin noted of the AAU atmosphere in general. “There’s no offseason now for any sport. There are multisport athletes, but it’s becoming rarer and rarer…I almost see AAU as the result of the effect, not the cause. I don’t see it as AAU is forcing kids to play all of the time and therefore they are getting entitled. I think that people want to play all of the time because they think that’s the only way to get to college, and maybe it is, because everyone plays all of the time. And when you’re playing all of the time, you want to be playing, not sitting on the bench, therefore, people are feeling like they’re entitled to everything, so you have this AAU culture where people are just switching teams all of the time.” 

The question is, how do you improve basketball in Philadelphia even with the difference between schools and strong presense of travel basketball programs? While each agreed that Philadelphia is a top basketball city, Verlin says that the infrastructure needs to improve. Rines suggests that the introduction of more competitive neighborhood leagues, like Thompson’s’ The Chosen League, and better recreation centers will help.

This will not only aid the neighborhood schools, but will also improve city basketball as a whole, despite the plethora of distractions for amatuer athletes. As AAU and basketball continue to grow, the landscape will continue to change just as it has over the past 50 years.


First photo: Avi Steinhardt

Second photo: Rick Cawley

Benjamin Simon

Junior at Science Leadership Academy and Sixers analyst for Philly Sports Nation.

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