The significance isn’t lost on Cyri Coates.
Every time the senior on the Overbrook High School basketball team walks into the school’s Wilt Chamberlain Memorial Gym, he sees the images of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer around the gym. He sees the red and orange banner representing Chamberlain’s retired No. 5 jersey hanging on the wall.
It’s during these moments, the 6-foot-5 inch forward, who transferred to Overbrook this year, realizes he has become part of something special.
“You see he’s all over in the gym,” Coates said. “This is called the Wilt Gym. It’s an honor. You know the history, and you’re like, ‘Man, I want to be better.’”
The Overbrook basketball program has a storied tradition.
Overbrook has more NBA alumni than any other school in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania. Only five high schools in the country have more NBA alums than Overbrook.
Along with Wilt Chamberlain, who graduated from Overbrook in 1955, 10 other Panthers alumni played in the ABA or NBA. The last was Malik Rose, who played eight NBA seasons and won two NBA titles before ending his professional career in 2009.
Others have gone on to become college stars or neighborhood legends. Na’im Crenshaw became the first Overbrook player to lead the city in scoring since Chamberlain when he averaged 26.3 points per game in 1997. He later went on to have a standout college career in the city at Saint Joseph’s.
Nurideen Lindsey played for three seasons at Overbrook in the mid-to-late 2000s. He twice led the Public League in scoring. His 34.5 points per game during the 2007-2008 season ranks as the sixth highest scoring average in Public League history. Chamberlain holds two of the only five better scoring seasons.
“He was an inspiration to a lot of the kids in the neighborhood,” said current Overbrook coach Keenan Rand, who grew up in Mantua.
Overbrook has 18 Public League championships, which ranks second behind West Philadelphia High School. The Panthers won at least one Public League title in six straight decades starting in 1930. They won nine titles from 1948-1959.
But the Panthers’ last Public League championship came in 1983.
The expansion of the Public League made it difficult for Overbrook to continue its dominance, but the program sustained success in the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
Crenshaw helped lead the team to a 16-0 mark in the league and a division title in 1997. From 1990-2007 the team had just three losing league records.
However, the last decade has been tough for Overbrook basketball. The school has lost some of the top kids from the neighborhood to Catholic schools and charter schools around the city. The winning tradition left with them.
When Rand took over as head coach last season, his goal was to bring back the old Overbrook tradition.
“It’s definitely been a little challenging as far as getting kids to come to a public school being as though as all these charter schools are around and the Catholic League is around,” Rand said. “But that’s why I’m here, to try to give the neighborhood kids a great program, so they can look forward to having a great program at their school as well.”
In order to accomplish this, Rand has looked to the past. He said players today aren’t students of the game and may not be aware of some of the historic teams and players—other than Chamberlain—who have played at Overbrook.
He is trying to help them understand the significant piece of Philadelphia basketball history they are a part of.
“Every practice, every meeting,” said junior Zyeef Cannon. “he talks about it all the time.”
Assistant coach Kareem Ali is in his first season with Rand at Overbrook. Ali is familiar with many of the area kids from training them at Shepard Recreation Center, on 57th Street near Haverford Avenue.
He also played at Overbrook during the late 1990s, under legendary coach Ron Ford, the first African American to coach both junior varsity and varsity hoops in the school’s history.
During his playing days, Ali said former players stayed close to the program, coming back annually for an alumni game. In the decade and a half since he left the program, he said the school lost some of the connections to its past.
“I think the culture kind of died, and that’s what I get a kick out of when I walk in the gym – teaching these guys what I’ve learned along the way about Overbrook,” Ali said. “I get a pleasure out of telling them all the stories I heard growing up, and hopefully they grow with it like I did and become great kids off the court.”
Rand and Ali have reached out to some of the former Overbrook players they know in an attempt have them come back and stay involved with the program.
They hope to have alumni coming through the gym more often and sharing wisdom with current and future teams. Lindsey came and talked to the players earlier this fall.
”It’s a blessing to show that people still care about the community and the Overbrook school and show that they still care about the students now at Overbrook,” senior Tyhee Taylor said.
Rand has Overbrook on the right track.
The Panthers made their first Public League playoff appearance in 10 years last season. Guard Khalif Washington became the first Overbrook player since Lindsey to lead the Public League in scoring — only the fifth Panthers’ player to ever accomplish the feat. With Washington only a junior and plenty of other talent around, Overbrook looks poised to take another step forward this season.
As he tries to bring back the winning ways, Rand is also trying to emphasize to his players that they represent the program in the classroom and off the court as well. So far, they are responding to his message.
“It’s a privilege to play on this court,” Washington said. “Especially at Overbrook.”
–Text, photos and video by Owen McCue