The atmosphere is undoubtedly electric. The crowd of more than 100 is hulking court-side as Philadelphia’s best high school ballers do battle in the most illustrious, competitive summer-ball league in the city. The players know if the quality of the game is poor that the nearby MC will start blasting old 50’s music to bluntly state that things need to pick-up.
“More than 1,000 players have participated and 81 players have went on to play NCAA Division 1 basketball,” said founder Rahim Thompson. “People ball hard in Olney and the best Philly high school talent in the city is going to play at 10th and Olney.”
This year, the league expanded to 16 teams rather than the 12-team format it previously had. All 16 teams are eligible for the playoffs with only three regular season match-ups to determine seeding. The playoffs will continue into August and Thompson expects monumental upsets and excitement similar to March Madness.
Thompson played basketball at Olney High School and his passion for the game has lingered. Thompson attended Drexel University and earned his undergraduate in Business and Administration in 2001. During his time at Drexel, Thompson interned at SLAM Magazine, which unbeknownst to him would lead to a plethora of connections he would use later to help establish and grow The Chosen League.
In 2011, during the NBA lockout, Thompson helped to organize the “Battle For I-95” which was played at The University of Pennsylvania’s historic Palestra venue. The charity event helped to raise money for Philadelphia basketball courts. Players included Carmello Anthony, Lebron James and Chris Paul. With his continued success, Thompson was awarded “Hometown Hero” by the 76ers.
His unrelenting devotion has enabled The Chosen League to land distinguished sponsors such as the 76ers, Mitchell & Ness, Nike and Red Bull. They have provided full uniforms, backboards, and other necessary equipment.
The atmosphere, exposure and history of the league attracts players to join the league when “chosen” by the head coaches throughout the league. Scouts are often present at games, and even past stars are often littered amongst the spectators.
“It takes an unbelievable amount of hard work, dedication and team chemistry to win a championship in this league,” said 2013 championship-winning coach Ben Slater of Friends of Isaiah Thomas. “There is no other league like The Chosen League in Philadelphia.”
Lamar Stevens, a rising junior from Haverford High School, is seeking to win the 2014 Chosen League Title. The 6-foot-6 two-guard is equally adept at the three spot and is exceptional driving to the basket. He has been playing in the league since he was a freshman. Stevens will play on Team Mitchell & Ness alongside Haverford teammate Levan Alston.
According to City of Basketball Love, “(Stevens) has the makings of being an elite player in the Philadelphia area and should play in the Big East, ACC, or Big 10. The athletic wing has become a much better scorer, attacking off the wing and getting to the hoop seemingly at will.”
Penn State, Rhode Island, Villanova, Rutgers, La Salle and a few other colleges have expressed interest in him.
“I’m only going to be a junior,” said Stevens, “so I’m just focused on putting in the hard work.”
Stevens is just one example of the type of talent that filters through the Chosen League. Many of the players field offers from Division I schools across the country. However, the league’s mission is to help the local community as well.
“We have been blessed to have good community support that has grown each of the 13 years we have been here,” said Thompson. “The league is a player’s league, not any other kind of league, and we are here for the kids.”
“People don’t see us here at seven in the morning, cleaning up the park, the courts and setting up for the day,” said Thompson. “It’s worth it. But I’m on the grind so this league can be the best it can be.”
Thompson’s motto, “hard work and faith leads to success,” is crucial for the longevity of his program. Thompson offers a secure environment for Philadelphia’s emerging talent to flourish, but also provides a haven for local youth in one of the more dangerous areas of the city.
According to areavibes, “the estimated Olney violent crime rate is 25 percent higher than the Philadelphia average and and the Philadelphia violent crime rate is 242 percent higher than the Pennsylvania average. The estimated chance of being a victim of a crime in Olney is 1 in 16.”
Furthermore, phila.gov showcases crime statistics that over the past six years, 5,051 adolescents have either been shot or killed in Philadelphia. The most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the city render the majority of the violence.
The data exposes that between 3 and 6 p.m, the crime rate triples among the youth. The study attributes the violence due to, joblessness, poverty, poor educational opportunities, a lack of adult role models, barriers to reentry for those who have been incarcerated and a cycle of trauma and violence.”
These crime statistics highlight the need for healthy, safe venues for youth and affordable after-school programs.
The Other Half of The 10th and Olney Family
The City Youth Association Gators are an organization located in the same park as The Chosen League at 10th and Olney and they also attempt to address these problems in Olney.
City Youth Association Gators (CYA) was founded in 2000 and is a non-profit organization that mentors youth through sports while developing necessary fundamental skills. The program is geared toward youth ranging from four to six-year olds.
Counselors are volunteers who designate their free time to aide and assist Philadelphia youth to stray from a violent lifestyle and make positive decisions. They accept all children no matter the need or financial situation.
“We have children of all backgrounds including one from Senegal,” said Athletic Director Marc Bredell. “His family does not speak any English but he’s a phenomenal baseball player. My hope is that the Gators can become nationally ranked.”
The organization is on the cusp of such recognition. Their cheerleaders are already back-to-back national champions.
Parent’s of participants in the program are urged to adhere to the CYA’s Code of Ethics, “pledging to provide positive support, care and encouragement for all children participating.” Parent’s involvement with their child while partaking in their sport is absolutely mandatory. Parent and children interaction is essential for conclusive long-term benefits.
Annually, the CYA awards The Carlton White Sr. Memorial Scholarship to an upstanding, future college student. Funds for the scholarship are solely raised by CYA mentors and coaches. The Gators rely primarily on donations to continue their work.
The Gators and The Chosen League have formed a healthy, prosperous relationship.
“The Chosen League and the CYA Gators are one entity,” said Thomspson.
Bredell added, “If we ever need anything, we work together to solve our problems. I was out at a tournament with the Gators but I had the Chosen League hat and the Chosen League shirt on.”
“I only have 100 kids who are all in high school,” said Thompson, “whereas CYA has at least 300. If I find kids who are not fit for the Chosen League I send them right to Marc and the Gators.”
The CYA Gators offer programs year-round where as the Chosen League is only conducted in the summer.
“This line of work it takes a toll on your marriage, your kids, your personal life,” said Thompson. “You have your own kids and then hundreds more who are looking to you and every move you make. Marc and I understand each other and the grind that we are always on.”
The CYA Gators have really embraced the local community with most of their children coming right from Olney.
“I think we have had a huge impact on the community,” said Leroy Stover of the CYA Gators. “These kids need role models. They need people steering them in the right direction and keeping them off the streets.”
Those seentiments are in unison with the organization’s mission which is to “to be a positive influence as role models so that the youth may look to our staff for support, guidance and inspiration, and provide inner city youth with an alternative to drugs and crime.”
The Cherashore Recreation Center has become the focal point of positive programs aimed towards helping North Philadelphia youth.
“The goals for the Chosen League are to grow and have more players who go on to college, overseas and the NBA.” said Thompson.
“The more fundraising and more sponsorships we receive will really help determine how far the Gators can go,” said Bredell. “Some days can be tough but I know that if I have a bad day more than likely the next one is going to better. Sometimes we are all these kids got.”
– Text and Images by Jake Cleary and Vicki Kistler.