By Christopher Malo
It wasn't the final buzzer in the 2006 Philadelphia Public League championship that signaled the game was over. It was over moments after the first tip-off.
The Simon Gratz Bulldogs came out of the gate firing, going up 14-4 over the Communications Technology High School. By halftime, Gratz was ahead by nine points. It began the second half scoring 12 unanswered points. The final score was Gratz 62, CT High 36.
In that championship game, Gratz set three records, which stand today: biggest point differential (26 points); lowest amount of points allowed (36), and best field goal percentage; the Gratz team missed only eight shots all game.
Winning the city championship was the culmination of an already successful season, during
which Gratz went 24-5, with no league losses and no losses at home. It was a remarkable season.
This year, I went looking for the members of the Gratz team to see what had become of them.
Frankly, I went looking for failure. If the members of that team followed the normal path for Philadelphia public high students some would have never graduated Gratz; few would have gone to college. While the team demonstrated its success on the court, the statistics said the real test was yet to come.
I did track down many on the team. I talked to their coach, Leonard Poole, and others involved in that season. While I found examples of struggle, I did not find failure. In the six years since that historic night, the members of that Gratz team would come to exemplify what was possible off the basketball court -- through the same discipline and hard work they learned during their high school years.
While these kids were from poor families and tough neighborhoods, the story of the 2006 Simon Gratz boys basketball team highlights the possibilities of nurture over nature.
And, as the students told me again and again, their success then and now has a lot to do with what Coach Poole calls "The Program."
Sitting in Love Park on a sunny spring morning in 2012, 23-year old Sean Gilbert is dressed in blue jeans, a white T-shirt and sneakers. He's a quiet, polite young man. Customers at the Bottom of the Sea seafood restaurant on Lancaster Avenue where he works may not know Gilbert was a part of a championship team. He is reserved until he takes out the two championship rings -- one from 2004, another from 2006 -- that he won playing forward at Gratz, and begins recalling his experience there.
Gilbert grew up in West Philadelphia, one block from where the infamous Lex Street murders took place. Raised by his mother and the second oldest of four brothers, summers were spent on the basketball courts and horse stables in his neighborhood to stay out of the trouble that was never too far away.
"My 10th grade year was on of the best years of my life," Gilbert says referring to the year he transferred into Gratz from University City High School. "I wish I could go back. It wasn't just about basketball. It was about school. School was fun. The worst part of school was basketball practice! Three o'clock? We got to go to practice. Basketball was supposed to be fun. But it was like a job. We had to do it. We were qualified to do it."
The job-like mentality was part of a program that was first developed by legendary Simon Gratz basketball coach Bill Ellerbee. When Coach Ellerbee left Gratz to coach at Temple University in 2002, junior varsity coach Poole became the varsity coach. Poole refined what Ellerbee had begun.
The Program centered on duties and expectations. Responsibility and accountability were expected. Each player had to sign in every day in Coach Poole's office. Excuses were not tolerated. It wasn't uncommon to see players racing through the streets, cutting in line to get through the metal detectors, and running down the hall to sign in. If you were late, you could expect a call from Coach Poole. And then he would come get you.
In those days, on any given school day, 27 percent of Gratz High students were absent. It had among the worst attendance records in the district. Under The Program absence was not tolerated.
Poole also did away with the traditional basketball season, which usually runs from October into February. At Gratz, the season lasted for 46 weeks out of the year. This not only included the practices, conditioning, and tournaments. It also meant that even when not playing basketball, you still had to sign in daily and maintain your grades, under the watchful eyes of Poole and his staff.
If you played for the basketball team, it was the only sport you played. This went for the entire roster, not just the top eight players. They received the same expectations from Poole, and in return got the same attention and structure.
"Poole kept us out of trouble," says Gilbert. "He told my mom she didn't have to worry about my grades or me getting in trouble any more because he got me. My mom brings it up all the time. She never had to hear about me causing trouble in school because Poole was always on us."
But attendance and punctuality were only the beginning. Under The Program, academics were given priority. Over everything.
"The goal every year was graduation, college, championship. That's how we lived at Gratz," says Poole. "Second place was a bad year. To lose a championship was a bad year. But even when we lost a championship, Monday you better be in school."
Poole, who also served as athletic director at the school, also brought to the job a passion and a sense of mission. This was not a punch in-punch out job; this was a way of life.
After taking over as head coach, Poole sought out someone he knew shared his passion and commitment. He reached out to Deborah Singleton. Friends since the age of 10, they had grown up together in the same neighborhood and both attended Gratz. The happily married Coach Poole refers to Singleton as his "second wife."
Singleton, who was already a counselor at the school, also agreed to serve as athletic sports counselor. Her role would be to make sure the players were meeting their academic responsibilities. Poole gave her full autonomy and authority over everyone. Including him.
If a teacher approached Singleton about a player's grades, she had the authority to, and would, pull a player from a practice to make sure he would get the tutoring or attention he needed. Before he was allowed to return to practice.
When the team went on trips to play tournaments, Singleton traveled with the team, sacrificing holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's to help them stay on track. On a five-hour bus ride, the first two hours were devoted to homework.
"It ran very deep into a professional and personal commitment. It was way beyond the requirement. You had to have a vested interest or you couldn't do it," explains Singleton. "We never considered ourselves as 9 to 5. Never. Because we cared too much about the kids. Not about the job.
"But the reward was even deeper then that. Just the involvement kind of saved some lives. I knew some things that frightened me. But how are we going to get around this because we don't want to get consumed by this."
The Program propelled the kids to maintain their attendance and grades. Nothing below a C was tolerated. It worked.
"People always want to focus on academics. But you got your academics via the backdoor. But however you get it, get it," says Singleton. "It made a difference for not only the kids on the team, but the other children who wanted to emulate -- because kids thrive on structure. And this was structure."
From Gratz, Gilbert did one year at Salem Community College and North Hampton Community College. His current plan is to attend Cheyney University to complete his degree.
As team members recalled, only one or two member of the team did not go to college. Karl Howard also went to North Hampton Community College. Brandon Combs graduated and went on to Manor College. George Melton Jr. and Raheem Sanders went to Community College of Philadelphia. Malik Alvin to the University of Texas at El Paso. Jeremy Herbert attended Lincoln University.
"We come home at 8 o'clock every night and you were so tired the only thing you could do was homework if you had homework, take a shower, go to sleep, and be ready for tomorrow," remembers Gilbert. "That's how our life was. Basketball and books. Basketball and books."
Singleton was not the only person in the supporting cast. Keith Walls was an assistant coach. And a Philadelphia police officer. When the kids seemed to be drifting in the wrong direction, Walls was able to intervene as a coach, before he had to act as a policeman. Doreen Martin, the school nurse, played a pivotal role, visiting the practices nearly every day to look in on the players' health. There were many teachers who volunteered to tutor players. "Coach Heads," as counselor and team manager Kyle Wright was called, was also a name mentioned frequently by former players.
All played significant roles on and off the court. But clearly none had the impact that Coach Poole did.
"We developed a close knit, family atmosphere," he explains. "Whatever they didn't get at home, be it not living with a father or a mother... you got from us. They could talk to (Ms. Singleton), because they knew if it came from me, it was trouble. The kids migrated to her. There was nothing they couldn't tell her. I think that's how we got to them academically. They knew someone cared. That's all it takes a lot of times. We tried to put that in place, to develop the academic world for them, combined with their athletic ability, and that's why we had a lot of success."
"That's the type of coach he was," says Gilbert. "He was like a father to us. And when you have someone doing that for you, the least you can do is give them your all. We gave him 100%. We believed in what he did, and we came out successful. Real successful."
The statistics for Gratz as an educational institution are not good. In 2010, the last year
before Gratz was taken over by Mastery and became a charter school, only 45 percent of the students graduated within four years. Of those who did graduate, only 20 percent reported going on to college.
According to these statistics, the fate of the 2006 Gratz team is an anomaly. None clearer than 22-year old Ishmayiyl McFadden. A junior forward on the 2006 championship team and hailing from the Overbrook section in West Philadelphia, McFadden graduated ninth in his class and was a member of the National Honor Society.
From high school he went on to the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore before finally graduating from Philadelphia University in May of 2011 with a degree in Business Management -- all while playing basketball and maintaining a 3.2 GPA.
"I still had my structure from Gratz, so I just transferred it to college," McFadden explains. "Gratz is like a college team with the study halls and everything. There's just no flying."
This was not a coincidence.
"We would not let our kids slip academically," states Coach Poole. "That was a big part of the program, and our success level. We could take them anywhere. We knew they knew the rules and we tried to model it specifically after collegiate programs, whether it was [NCAA] Division I, II or III, so that when they did graduate....They would already be set, knowing a system was in place and they would follow the system. And we had a great deal of success with that."
At Eastern Shore, McFadden had a compliance officer and assistant coach continue guiding him. While his transition was smooth, there was no one like Coach Poole roaming the halls, poking his head in classrooms to make sure you were in class. At Gratz, it seemed like the whole school was watching over him. "You want me to tell Coach Poole?" was a dreaded question asked of players on several occasions.
"The way Coach Poole talked to you, it wasn't that it made you feel bad, but you'd sit down and think about it. Like the way a father would talk to a son," remembers McFadden. "He knew how to get his point across, even just talking to you."
Today, McFadden works as an aide at Robert Morris elementary school, providing support to four special education students with behavioral and mental health issues.
His desire to help extends to kids he sees playing on basketball courts.
"I can give back and help younger people, show them the right road," he says. "A lot of people don't have the right team or foundation behind them, telling them the right things. Even in summer league games they tell them 'You can go to the NBA.' It's not that easy. They give them false dreams.
"When I was younger, people gave back and helped me out. So why wouldn't I help out and give others the same knowledge that was given to me? I have been through it on a high school team, AAU
(Amateur Athletic Union) team and a college level. So why not give someone the same experiences that might help them in the future?"
That spirit is something that Poole believes is critical. And often missing.
"Kids do not look or live for tomorrow," he says. "They don't have people around them to be a role model to look up to. The incentive is not there. How do you change that? Culture."
The culture surrounding 17th and York streets where 23-year old Tommy Sykes grew up, and still lives, is a difficult one. The youngest of three brothers and two sisters, the odds of transcending what his neighborhood had in store for him were not in his favor. By the time he graduated high school, one brother was in prison for attempted murder; one sister had died due to a drug overdose.
In eighth grade Sykes failed all his classes. He was promoted to ninth grade but given an eighth grade roster. He had little interest school or basketball. Instead, he was a bully and troublemaker.
"Some players came up as a kid playing basketball. I had never picked up a basketball a day in my life," Sykes recalls. "My dad never took me to the park and worked with me. He just gave me money to play for the team, or get the pads to play football. We never had that bond where he would sit down and work with me. I'd ask my brothers if I could go to the park with them and they would say no."
Then a man in the neighborhood named Curtis Shaw piqued Sykes interest in basketball. On a whim, he decided to try out for the Gratz junior varsity team in 10th grade. He was cut. The next day, he snuck up to the fourth floor when the players were running an exercise called "7 in 7" -- running seven laps around the fourth floor in seven minutes.. When he outran all of the basketball players he was given another chance. Sykes made the JV team as a forward. When he told his family, they didn't believe him because he had never played basketball before.
That year his JV team was undefeated. One day, Coach Poole pulled Sykes into his office. Poole told him to start signing in every day, and Sykes never asked any questions. That summer he began playing with the varsity team in a summer league.
Sykes wasn't the best player on the team, but he had energy and heart, coupled with the ability to jump, rebound, and play defense. Poole told him he wasn't sure why, but there was something about Sykes that he liked, so he decided to keep him on the varsity team.
"That's why I love this man. Nobody ever in life gave me a chance," Sykes explains. "He really gave me a chance. And that turned my life all the way around. School, everything. I had to be at school at a certain time. I used to always be late. I didn't care about school. They helped me be at school. When they took me in it was like another family."
Sykes was invited to be part of The Program and he embraced it.
"I went in with the mindset 'I'm going to work harder then the next man. I am going to stay up late studying. I'm going to do my best at whatever I am doing.' It was always in me, but Gratz brought it out of me," says Sykes. "I was always the person that never cared about anything. But Gratz got me to the point where I needed to start caring more about life."
After graduating, Sykes went on to Odessa College in Texas before attending University of Louisiana at Monroe. That transition isn't always seamless for many students, but Sykes was prepared.
"At Gratz there was Ms. Mack, Ms. Singleton, Ms. Armstrong. They were helping us. They weren't getting paid for that. That was volunteer help to make sure we were all right. Now, if we needed to be tutored we had to go ask. You are grown but you are still a kid." Sykes explains looking back. "You have your freedom but you don't."
But succeeding was something that was important to Sykes. He had to forge a path different from those around him and basketball at Gratz did that for him.
"My family? I'm the first person to go to college. I'm the first one to graduate from high school. I was just determined to do it. I was determined to make my mom proud. She worked hard so I wanted to make her proud."
He is 21 credits away from graduating, and plans to finish them up over the summer and in the fall.
"Cannot teach heart. That's from growing up in the streets of Philly. Especially around my brothers that basically raised me. I never backed down from nobody. I love competition."
It was an attitude shared by others on the Gratz team of 2006. It paid off, not only academically.
The work was hard. Each practice began with the "7 in 7" around the fourth floor of the school. Tuesdays meant the team would run from Gratz to Fairmount Park. They ran two miles each practice on the school's track. They didn't even touch a basketball the first month or two of practice. It was strictly conditioning.
In the beginning of the season, they would play in tournaments and win, off the strength of their conditioning. They had learned only one play from Coach Poole. After the game he would point out that if they could win off one play, imagine if they had a whole set of plays. He talked. They listened.
"He knew exactly what he was talking about" Gilbert remembers. "The fact we were high schools kids, we had to believe in it. And once we got it, we were unstoppable."
They learned plays. They didn't leave practice until they knew them inside and out. Not only did you learn what you were supposed to be doing, you also learned what each position was supposed to know and be doing. They were prepared.
There was cohesiveness on the team. It helped that they liked each other and bonded. They hung out in the halls after practice to crack jokes and talk. Coach Poole would talk to the team as they got dressed in silence before each game. He wasn't a yeller or screamer to get his players fired up; you could read it all on his face and in his body language. One of the player's father would act as DJ, playing Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel during warm-ups. The fans came. They played games. They won games.
Because of the tournaments that Poole had taken the kids to, the packed Tom Goal Arena at LaSalle University didn't intimidate them for the city championship game. They were ready.
And when the team stepped on the floor, "We looked in Comm Tech's face and knew they wasn't ready. And we stepped on their throat," Gilbert remembers with a smile. "Poole really proved that hard work pays off. And we worked so hard."
"In a way, I felt like I was a big part of that team and that championship," remembers Sykes. "In the game before the championship I had like 10 points, which helped us to get where we needed. All I could think of was that one chance Poole gave me, so I gave back. I played my heart out. It was like a new life for me. I never felt like that. I never got that much love. The thing about Poole was that he gave me that one chance that I needed."
"One of the best ever at Gratz High School," Coach Poole said about the 2006 team. "Which is saying a lot when you had Rasheed Wallace and Aaron McKee [who went on to play in the NBA]. But the best thing was that they were a group of kids that really wanted to play together. These guys banded together, and bonding is the key.
"Rewards were there, but nothing like seeing those kids smile at you and say, 'Damn, I'm a champion.' And then you see them graduate and go on to school."
Leonard Poole remains in the system and is head boys' basketball coach at the Franklin Learning Center. Deborah Singleton retired. In 2006, City Council passed a congratulatory resolution for the Gratz team. It read, in part: "The Bulldogs, who had contributions from the whole team, displayed impressive teamwork which led them to victory." No public school has won the city championship since Gratz's victory in 2006.
Cover Photo: The 2006 Gratz High varsity basketball team