By Joseph Santoliquito
CHESTER, PA (CBS)–Rondae Jefferson would be perched there anxiously at the edge of the bench, tapping his foot incessantly, a ball tucked under his right arm as his eyes floated from side-to-side like great brown sponges absorbing everything. He’d never miss a Chester (Pa.) practice, nor the chance to watch his older brother, Rahlir, then a rising star on the most prolific high school basketball program in Pennsylvania.
But the best part of those days were the water breaks. Yes, the water breaks.
That’s when the daily beating would come. Karon Burton was the best player on the best team in Pennsylvania, and Rondae was right there to greet the quicksilver point guard each time Burton walked off the court.
“Let’s go, check it,” Rondae would say, tossing Burton a ball. Burton would look at him and grin – “Again with this, I have to beat you again!” Rondae would square up, intently looking at Burton’s chest, determined to stop him this time. And so they would go at it, Rondae, the lanky seventh grader, getting schooled by one of the Southeastern Pennsylvania masters.
Sometimes, Rondae wouldn’t score at all. But that didn’t matter. There was tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. One of these days, Rondae used to think, he would beat him. That will be the day.
Jefferson never got the better of those clashes. But his day has come.
The skinny kid that was a constant shadow to his older brother on the asphalt Chester playgrounds begging to show what he could do against the older kids has blossomed into a 6-7, 195-pound sophomore point guard. The jovial, loquacious Rondae that once used to hear how great Rahlir was everywhere he went in Chester is now establishing himself as not only one of the best players in Pennsylvania, but one of the best sophomores in the country.
Chester finished out the 2010 season as PIAA Class AAAA (large school) state champions. The Clippers finished an amazing season ranked No. 18 in the country by MaxPreps.com and were 31-1 overall, never losing to a team from Pennsylvania. As Chester advanced through the state playoffs, more and more familiar faces would begin turning up at Chester games. Villanova’s Jay Wright. St. Joseph’s Phil Martelli. Temple’s Fran Dunphy, who coaches Rahlir, now a sophomore starter for the Owls. They were there to see Rondae, a burgeoning star who began taking over the point guard duties the latter part of the year, causing match-up nightmares for every team the Clippers faced in the postseason.
The schools are lining up, too: Villanova, Temple, Rutgers, St. Joseph’s, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Rondae’s dream school, North Carolina.
Jefferson has a big summer ahead. He’s waiting on invitations from big summer camps, is playing AAU for Team Final in the 16-and-unders, and will probably garner even more attention. His goal is to commit sometime next summer, before his senior year.
“And if Carolina offers me anything, I’m gone,” Rondae said. “That’s been my dream school, because it’s where my favorite player, Michael Jordan, played. If there was a school after that, it’s probably Temple, because of how coach Dunphy has treated my brother and my family. It’s a great place, same as Villanova. They’re high on my list, too. But we’ll see where things go. I do want to commit early, like Rahlir, so I can enjoy my senior year.”
The left-handed Jefferson is explosive to the basket, a defensive force (you better play defense for Chester coach Larry Yarbray, or you don’t play) and a true court general, able to find creases in an opposing defense and exploit them. If he has a flaw, it’s an inconsistent outside shot, but that’s something he’s steadily correcting.
“By the time he leaves, Rondae will make history as Chester’s first [high school] all-American,” predicted Chester teammate Maurice Nelson, who should know a thing or two about all-Americans, as the younger brother of Jameer Nelson. “You can tell when Rondae was young that was going to be good. He was always around the older guys, playing and practicing with us. Now that he’s gotten bigger and stronger, he’s the one everyone is trying to keep up with.”
What Jefferson possesses above everything else is an emboldened attitude that says he’s willing to take on anyone at any time, and though you might get him now, he will eventually get you later.
The mindset started young, watching everything Rahlir used to do. The Seventh Street court was their home. It’s where the brothers, four years apart, would wage their personal wars. Rahlir would always win, which the exception of one time, when, Rahlir says, he let baby brother get the better of him.
“It’s why Rahlir doesn’t want to play me anymore,” Rondae says, laughing. “But everything I got, I got from him. I used to follow him everywhere. I think my drive came from wanting to be better than him. Everywhere I used to go in Chester growing up, I’d hear it, how good Rahlir is, and how great Rahlir is. I always felt I had big shoes to fill. Everywhere I went, they would bring up Rahlir. He was standard, even in video games. He’d always beat me. I’d slam the joystick down, and it would always turn into a fight. Then he’d tell me if I wanted to play again, I couldn’t act that way. I learned I couldn’t beat him, but I found out I could learn those times that I lost. I would always go against kids older than me and they would win. But when it came time to play against kids my own age, I knew from experience playing the older guys what I could do. Rahlir helped me grow up. I started to realize I couldn’t win everything.”
Just win most of the time.
From a distance now, Rahlir watches his younger sibling. They’re extremely close. Rondae never misses a Temple game, when it doesn’t conflict with Chester’s schedule, and when the Owls are off during the season, you’ll always find Rahlir up in the stands watching everything Rondae does.
Rahlir is Rondae’s hero, though he’d never tell his older brother that directly, while Rahlir can’t hope enough good things to happen for Rondae. But the two are distinctly different. Rondae walks into a room and with his bright smile and exuberant personality, within minutes everyone knows he’s there. Rahlir is stoic, uncomfortable talking about himself, yet more than willing to talk about Rondae.
“My attitude with him has always been if I set the bar high for myself, he’s going to set the bar high,” Rahlir said. “I do want him to be better than me. You won’t catch me saying that to his face, but I do. I get on him about some things, because I want to push him. I know I can’t go out there and play for him, but he wants to be the best at everything. And he wants to play the best. If LeBron James was out there, Rondae would want to play him, and he wouldn’t back down. He’d get beat and come back at me until he won. That’s the way he’s always been. Back when he was 11 he beat me once, but I let him. I never saw him in a situation where he’s afraid to play anyone – or to talk to anyone.”
Rondae and Rahlir have a pact with one another. They’ll never play college basketball together, but they can meet at another level, where they can play together or go against each other – the NBA.
“That’s the goal,” Rondae said. “We both want to get there. The big push is for our mom (Rylanda Hollis). We both want to succeed for her. She raised us with my Pop-pop (Carl Hollis). She’d work all day and sometimes overnight, come home dead tired and still cook us breakfast. We never wanted for anything. That’s because of her. It’s why I always tell Rahlir, ‘Make mommy proud.’”
It looks like they have already.