Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was running as fast as he could and unsurprising to anyone reading this now, he was out in front of the rest of his friends.
He was 12 and doing what kids do, turning anything into a game. This one turned into a race, the first person to reach a house in his neighbourhood in Chester, Pennsylvania, would win. Something like that, he explains. You never know when a life lesson will present itself, good or bad. Hollis-Jefferson was unaware of it, this pillar of darkness looming over an otherwise sunny day.
“I came running around the corner,” he says. “We hit that corner and one of the dudes, he went to grab his gun.
“We were living in a neighbourhood where people had differences with other people. I would say once I hit 12 it got a little out of hand, where you couldn't be kids anymore. You couldn’t enjoy the fruits of being young, running outside playing tag, stuff like that because people were worried about their lives.”
He wasn’t hurt that day and neither were any of his friends. At 12 though, he was just old enough to remember everything that went into that moment and to recognize the threats that could literally be waiting around the corner for him. Chester, about 32 km southwest of Philadelphia, was one of the most dangerous places in America.
Chester has long had one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the U.S. In 2014, the city of around 33,000 people had a record-breaking 30 murders. In 2015, Pennsylvania residents had a 1 in 273 chance of becoming a victim of violent crime. In Chester that year, the number was 1 in 37.
“Chester is super gritty. Very tough but fun. I’m describing when I was a kid, it’s changed a lot since I was a kid,” Hollis-Jefferson says.
“It was very gritty, very fun, lots of love but also lots of hate. A basketball town.”
It’s a place that he wants to make better.
In late November, Hollis-Jefferson announced that he had applied to the Chester Upland school district to launch his C.H.A.P. charter school in the fall of 2020. The school’s name comes from Hollis-Jefferson’s mantra, Calm Humble And Patient.
The school will be open to fourth- to eighth-graders.
“Honestly, I was always thinking about ways to give back to my community,” he says of the school.
Since he started his NBA career with Brooklyn in 2015, Hollis-Jefferson has done basketball camps in his hometown. The city showed its appreciation for him in 2017 when it the middle school he attended named its gym after him.
At Chester High School, he led his team to a 91-5 record over his final three years there. He won two state championships and was the first player ever to be named the Delaware County player of the year in multiple seasons. He’s just the fourth player ever from Chester to make it to the NBA (Tyreke Evans and Jameer Nelson did it before him, with Horace Walker playing for the St. Louis Hawks in 1961-62). He knows what it means to make it from there and he knows what it means to the kids that see him giving back.
“It was going to start with just a program about agriculture and around that time (in planning) LeBron launched his I Promise School,” Hollis-Jefferson says.
“That inspired me to say, ‘Hey, is it possible that we can start our own school?’ I reached out to the right people and it’s been full steam ahead since then.”
It’s post-game in Toronto on Dec. 20 and the Raptors have held on to beat Washington. Hollis-Jefferson had one of his better offensive games of the year, putting up 14 points in 19 minutes.
He sits in his locker stall, his back to the room as he gets dressed. His tattoo stretches across his back, the large, unmissable letters letting everyone know where he’s from: Chester.
What should be a complicated relationship with his hometown is anything but. Despite all of the danger, the violence and the death that’s woven through his community, Hollis-Jefferson loves the place where he grew up.
It starts with the base that he had around him. There was his older brother Rahlir, who’s currently a forward in the G League with the Memphis Hustle. There was their grandfather, who played a big part in raising both boys. Rondae and Rahlir didn’t see her a lot when they were younger, but the most important person in that equation was their mother, Rylanda Hollis.
Rylanda was a single parent that worked two jobs most of the time that the boys were growing up. She spent her days as a dietary supervisor at a retirement home and worked at a bar by night. That meant long stretches where the boys wouldn’t see their mom, who would come home from work late and be out the door early to get back to her day job.
That night in the locker room, Rondae marveled at the sacrifices his mom made for their family. Fans call him Hustle Man for the energy he expends on the court. He knows that it was an inherited trait.
“That’s where Hustle Man comes from,” he says. “That and my grandfather, they’re always on the grind, always on their feet.”
Rylanda spent those years working, missing her two boys but knowing she did the right thing.
“I had to make a hard decision,” she says from her home in a Philly suburb. Rondae and Rahlir moved her out of Chester when Rondae was a rookie with the Nets in 2015.
“I didn’t want to leave them on their own but in order to be financially able to take care of them I had to ask my father to take them. That really was a hard decision but it was a good decision because leaving these young men on their own and trying to take care of the house and take care of your children...I knew this was the best decision that I could have made.”
As the boys got older and started to excel on the court, she’d create windows in her schedule to make sure she got to their games.
“I made sure that I made it to their games and everything, tired, whatever,” she says.
“I just always wanted to make sure they saw me.”
The boys also had uncles, both in the literal sense -- their father wasn’t around often, but his brothers helped out where they could -- and in that testament of closeness sense, where trusted friends of Rylanda and her father offered help to two kids that needed it. The further the boys went in basketball, their teammates and their families became part of that circle, too.
But the reality of their environment was always there, snuffing lives out in cruel, random fashion.
“The one that really impacted him was when one of his uncles got killed,” Rylanda says.
His uncle, Karim Alexander, was murdered on Aug. 5, 2008. He walked around the corner of his home, talking with a friend when someone ran up on him, shot and killed him. The killer was never found.
“(Rondae) had just had (a game) on the basketball court and when they came around there, his uncle was lying on the ground.”
Rondae was 13.
“I was coming home from the basketball courts and my mom and a couple of other people were sitting outside, just a normal day,” Rondae recalls. Eleven years later, his voice shakes as he goes into the details.
“Nobody paid the (gunman) any mind that walked by. My uncle was talking to someone in their car and so his back was to him or whatever. The dude just shot him and took off up the street. I came around the corner. To hear that and see this on the ground...dead. It changes your life. It’s like, he’s gone. It’s traumatizing.
“I’d never seen this happen in person. It’s tough for somebody to go through that and then not be able to do something. I had to stay focused.”
He remembers the big smile on Alexander’s face. How he loved his family and stood up for it. He didn’t play basketball but he saw the potential in Rondae and wanted him to make it.
Rondae endured the pain of Alexander’s murder and kept his focus. He dominated in high school, was named a McDonald’s All-American in 2013 and went to Arizona on a scholarship, going much further away than Rahlir did when he chose to play at Temple. Rondae graduated high school knowing he could play in the NBA. He’d finished his freshman year at Arizona when his phone rang in June, 2014. He was 3,700 km away from Chester and it broke his heart again.
His best friend, Juan Queen, had been murdered.
“I’d known him since I was four years old. We went to preschool together, stuff like that,” Rondae says.
“He used to let me borrow his clothes. I used to stay at his house on school nights. I got the phone call, I was sleeping and I thought it was a dream. I thought it was a dream for a while. That messed me up. He was just sitting on the steps (when he was killed). It’s crazy.”
He’d thought for years about how he could help people if he made it to the NBA. Taking care of his mother was his top priority, but giving back to his hometown was a close second.
A year and eight days after Queen’s murder, Hollis-Jefferson heard his name called 23rd overall at the 2015 NBA Draft. As he made his way to the stage and shook hands with Commissioner Adam Silver, 40 kids from Chester sat nearby, cheering as one of their own made it, right in front of them. Hollis-Jefferson had brought them with him, already thinking about their futures.
“I always wanted to have kids experience the things that I didn’t,” he told the New York Post in July of 2015.
You can hear the pride in Rylanda’s voice when she talks about her children, two that overcame the odds. Chester is a place where you could do everything right as a parent and still lose your child to something horrific.
“I feel like once they’re out of your eyesight you have to pray that God can stay with them,” she says.
Her prayers were answered and as Rondae continues to work on his charter school, she sees a bigger plan coming together.
Rylanda says education was always a priority for Rondae. When he goes back to Chester now for his camps, or to watch games at his old high school, education is all he talks about. The charter school was the most logical step her youngest child could have made.
You can learn the basics in school, Rondae says. You need your history classes and your math classes, but there’s more out there, more that young kids that are growing up like he did need to know about.
“I would say they don't know a lot about what's going on in today's society and what's going on with the modern way of the world,” Rondae says.
“You need to know your history, you need to know all the ins and outs of the way the foundation of the world works. But you also need to know (about) the direction, the way the world is going.
“We kind of want to incorporate that with their mental health, along with their physical health so we can get our kids up to date, up to speed educationally.”
So many people could make it out of that situation, count their blessings and want to never look back. Could you blame them? To simply survive in Chester, to not get swallowed up in the darkness is a victory in itself.
Why didn’t Rondae Hollis-Jefferson do that?
“Because there could be another Rondae,” he says.
“I wouldn’t say somebody in the NBA reached out and grabbed my hand (as a kid) but seeing people from my city make it, seeing guys in different areas and going through different things. (Seeing) the Caron Butlers of the world, the Dame Lillards of the world...seeing those guys make it, that kind of gives you hope.
“And at the end of the day, that's all we are. As great of basketball players that we are, we’re all beacons of hope. That's something that I stand for. I want to show my community, whether it's in medicine, whether it's in basketball, whatever it is that you want to pursue. I want to show them that there's hope. That there are other ways.”