Hollis-Jefferson about to make himself known in the NBA
A standout first at Chester and then at the University of Arizona, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is ready to take his game to the NBA.
AT FIRST, he didn't have a name. That, he would have to earn, amid the flying elbows, the knockdowns, the shoves, the bloody knees and lips in Chester's basketball crucible - the Seventh Street courts. He was just tagged "Rahlir's little brother." That omnipresent shadow of a piano-toothed grin that would follow Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson everywhere he went. The nudge. The pest.
Following along to the store a few steps behind, or walking down the block, catching the bus, hanging out with friends, he was always there - especially the times on the Seventh Street blacktops or a Chester High practice. Rahlir could never quite shake his nerve-wracking younger brother Rondae.
Even in the stands, being interviewed after Clippers games, Rondae would wedge his skinny butt between the inquisitor and his older brother, often answering the questions before Rahlir got a chance to speak.
Rahlir knew something about his sibling the rest of the world found out - you'll never get the first or last word in around Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and you can never get away from him, either, especially on a basketball court.
This past college basketball season, it's something Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell discovered. So did UCLA's Kevon Looney, and Wisconsin's Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky.
Now the NBA is about to find out.
The 6-7, 215-pound Arizona sophomore forward probably will be a first-round choice in the NBA draft on June 25 in Brooklyn. Rondae is possibly the most versatile defender available, able to cover every player on the court.
"There's not a defensive player like Rondae in the country," said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, a Chester High grad himself, whose Badgers knocked out Arizona in consecutive seasons in the NCAA Tournament. "Rondae is long, he's active, he's athletic, and he cares. You know, there are so many people that are capable of doing things that waste their talents. Rondae has done an unbelievable job of taking advantage of his talent. That sets him aside from a lot of people. He wants to make it. We tried to get him in foul trouble each time we played him. We wanted him off the floor. He was so active on the glass. So active in passing lanes. He's very good with his feet to deny driving lanes, so he was the complete package defensively. And it's also his attitude. He just keeps coming at you."
That's Rondae. The nudge. The pest. There is a certain pride in the way the All-PAC-12 selection plays defense. He takes it personally anytime someone scores against him.
Add his innate ability to annoy, to reach deep inside and twist up an opponent's head and you have the perfect makeup of an NBA lockdown defender.
It's a role he's always relished. In Arizona's third-round NCAA Tournament game against Ohio State and Russell, projected to be a top-three pick, Rondae had the freshman phenom spinning every which way. During one sequence not shown on TV, Rondae playfully approached Russell during a lull, but Russell shouldered him away. Rondae breached Russell's psyche to the point at which he had his worst shooting performance of the season, going 3-for-19 (15.8 percent), finishing with nine points, his second-lowest season output, in Arizona's 73-58 thumping of the Buckeyes.
Rondae did the bulk of the work against a player who decreed publicly he couldn't be stopped.
"It's the way I've always played. I can't let my guy beat me, because if he does, we lose, and if there is one thing I hate more than anything, that's losing," Rondae said. "I won at Chester, we won at Arizona, and whoever drafts me in the NBA is going to get someone who will do anything to win. It's how I was raised. It's what I learned from playing against older kids most of my life, starting with Rahlir. We're the opposite in a lot of ways. He's kind of quiet. I'm the guy who has to know everyone in the room. But we have something in common - we hate to lose. It's why we can't even play video games against each other. It will always break into a fight.
"It's always been my dream to play in the NBA, but it's about a lot more than me. It's about my mom [Rylanda Hollis], my brother, my pop-pop [Carl Hollis]. It's about Chester. I have to take care of them, because they took care of me. My family, the whole city."
In five seasons of organized basketball, between Chester and Arizona, Rondae's teams were a combined 158-14, which includes two Pennsylvania high school championships, three straight trips to the state finals (a first in Chester's storied past), an undefeated season for the Clippers (another program first), and consecutive Elite Eight appearances at Arizona.
None of this is a surprise to Chester High coach Larry Yarbray. He knew early where Rondae was headed. Hollis-Jefferson hardly played his freshman year for the Clippers, when he appeared in only nine games after being diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease, an inflammation below his right knee that affects the growth plate.
"I was playing," Rondae said. "Oh, there were plenty of tears. There was a lot of pain. But it hurt me more because I just felt like I was letting everyone down. I'm 'Rahlir's younger brother,' so there were things people expected from me. Chester was going to win, and I still hurt from not 'threepeating' [his senior year]. I still feel like I owe Chester another championship. Maybe I'll do it in the NBA."
Yarbray shakes his head and smirks.
"Rondae never let anybody down," he says. "That kid could cover people in multiple positions at a young age, which is amazing, because the average high school kid can't do it. To me, I would always tell people when Rondae was a freshman that he was like a lefthanded Scottie Pippen. He knew the game was more than scoring. He was never selfish. When your star is unselfish, everyone follows his lead. It's why we had a great run when Rondae was here."
Rondae, with his 7-2 wingspan, is being projected to go anywhere from 15th overall, to Atlanta, to as low as No. 24, to Cleveland.
"Once Rondae is attached to you, that's it, you'll never shake him. He's like this magnet that never lets go," Rahlir, Rondae's compass, and a two-year starter at Temple who went on graduate with a degree in social work, said laughing. "When we talk now, we don't talk that much about basketball anymore. We're all a little nervous, in a good way, with the draft coming up, but Rondae hasn't really changed.
"He's still the same Rondae. He's embraced this whole thing that's happening to him now. Every interview, each team he's spoken to, he loves everything. He's ready for his moment. I'm happy that he's going to get what he's always wanted. He takes a lot of pride being from Chester and what it means for the city."
It's why Rondae is sponsoring a bus of 40 kids from Chester to Brooklyn on draft night.
Arcing from Rondae's shoulder blade to shoulder blade is a tattoo that simply reads "Chester." It's just above a portrait of himself. Chester will retire Rondae's No. 23 this season. They'll plan the ceremony around his NBA schedule.
Hollis-Jefferson will be the third player from the city of about 34,000 to enter the NBA. But there seems to be more of a connection with Rondae and Chester than there is with 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans and 11-year NBA veteran Jameer Nelson.
Though Evans is from Chester and all of his older brothers went to Chester High, he's been viewed as somewhat of an outsider, because he went to a private school, now defunct American Christian Academy. Nelson has recently received unfair feedback from some corners of Chester that he's turned his back on the city.
"Street hustlers, I call them, wanted to take Rondae out of Chester after his freshman year and tried to convince him into going to a prep school," said Yarbray, who's been contacted about San Antonio, Toronto and Cleveland about Rondae. "He stayed, and that's something that's always been special to me. And you hear things about Jameer that aren't accurate at all. No one sees all the good things Jameer is still doing for Chester and how much money he's put into the community. Jameer doesn't feed into the BS. He wanted to please everyone at first, just like Rondae does. I just don't want to see Rondae taken advantage of. He'll learn to draw a line like Jameer did."
Rahlir and Rondae grew up right around the corner from "the red bricks," the sobriquet for the William Penn Projects, and "the stroll," the label those in Chester give the area where drug dealers peddle their wares.
John Linehan, a 1996 Chester High grad who played and graduated from Providence College, then played professionally in Europe for about a decade, says Rondae is an inspiration.
"Because Rondae is a real product of the city," said Linehan, who has since moved back to the area and is now a graduate assistant at Temple, working on a master's degree. "Chester is known for its defensive tenacity. But Chester is a hard city. This means a lot, because Rondae's family has gone through a lot. It's real. I grew up in the William Penn Projects. I remember staying low in the house because you were afraid a bullet would fly through the window. It was a war zone. I think it's what makes Rondae's story more impressive. He got out - and he did it the right way. It's why the city is proud of him."
When his name is called June 25, Rondae undoubtedly will hug his mother, Rylanda, and recall the memory of hearing two swollen feet shuffling over the creaky wooden floor boards after coming home from one of her three jobs. Then he'll embrace Rahlir, and a tear might form in the corner of his usually stoic older brother's eye.
Rahlir, who will turn 24 on June 26, the day after the draft, bears a tattoo on his left shoulder of a crucifix with the words across the front: "I am my brother's keeper."
He always has been. As has Chester.