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Jensen: An important weekend of hoops

Late Saturday morning, almost tipoff, an assistant coach of the Friends' Central middle school girls' team asked the official scorer about a number in his score book.

Late Saturday morning, almost tipoff, an assistant coach of the Friends' Central middle school girls' team asked the official scorer about a number in his score book.

"That's 14," the scorer confirmed to Linda McConnell.

Whether McConnell knew the official scorer had once coached Simon Gratz High to 134 straight wins, been named USA Today's national high school coach of the year, won six Public League titles and ended his career as John Chaney's assistant at Temple - all that was immaterial. She just wanted to make sure she had the number right. Bill Ellerbee told her the number.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the whole weekend has become intertwined with hoops in this region. Some of that is simply a function of the calendar. It's hoops season. But maybe there's more to it. There's a fit between the sport and the holiday and the man it honors that includes Monday's day of service and maybe goes a bit deeper. At least some were searching for that deeper connection.

There's actually a tangible connection, since George Raveling, working at the time as a volunteer assistant coach at Villanova, where he had played basketball, went to Washington for the speech and was pleased to be put to work as a marshal, standing just below King as he delivered the speech, which had veered from the remarks King had prepared, but he had written down some text. Right afterward, Raveling asked King if he could have that written draft. King gave it to him. Raveling, who went on to be a big-time college coach himself, still has it.

"I really see it as a transformational moment in my life," Raveling said Monday during the FS1 telecast of Villanova's game, explaining that the speech was in a bank vault in Los Angeles. "It changed my life forever. . . . I had the speech for over 25 years and no one even knew I had it."

And maybe only in Philadelphia would you find a guy like Ellerbee, unpretentious as ever, keeping the book at the Martin Luther King middle school tournament sponsored by Philadelphia Youth Basketball, an organization Ellerbee is involved in.

The tournament at Germantown Friends School included three days of hoops. Between games, players spent some time in a classroom, including watching King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Sixth-graders told of their dreams - "I want to be a doctor, and I want to be in the NBA" - and group leaders talked of the importance of collaboration in basketball, not just working past obstacles but trying to identify them. Students spoke of the history of race relations, the continuing struggles - life-and-death struggles, they made clear.

It was mostly hoops, though. Down on the court, a coach told her team, "Our focus on the game. Ball fake, ball fake, ball fake."

A ballplayer from Jay Cooke Middle School in Logan pointed out that he had just gotten pushed.

"You walked first," said Jamilah Gibbs, coaching the team. Gibbs had played at Cardinal Dougherty, was the first woman to coach boys in the Sonny Hill League and works in the office at Jay Cooke. How long had the team been together?

"Since Monday," Gibbs said. "We found out about this tournament, and they wanted to play."

They listened to their coach, though. When Gibbs, a calm presence throughout, yelled to go to the basket, guard Ryan Moten did just that, feeding a teammate for a hoop against Bala Cynwyd Middle School.

Ari Abramovitz, 13, of Merion Station, had made a bar mitzvah project that ended up with a basketball component, combining a team from his synagogue, Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, and from Al Aqsa Islamic Academy, the school of a North Philadelphia mosque. The teams had played on the court before the infamous Sixers' canceled condensation game with Sacramento and were joining forces again for this tournament.

Some miscommunication on a changing start time meant the opening game against Friends' Central was a no-go, but Abramovitz and a few of the guys from Al Aqsa joined together with Friends' Central players for a short scrimmage.

On Monday, players from the men's and women's teams at Haverford College, Neumann, Cabrini and Widener each hosted an MLK "Hoops from the Heart" clinic benefiting the Community Action Agency of Delaware County.

Haverford women's coach Bobbi Morgan had started putting on the clinic when she was coaching at Haverford High, remembering that the holiday had been a day off, "but we weren't doing anything. Let's do something."

When she took over at Cabrini, "I just suckered some of my friends into doing it."

More than 125 first- to eighth-graders brought food and donations to the three-hour clinic. "They take it right to the shelter at 69th Street," she said of the canned goods. Neumann athletic director Chuck Sack arranged for everyone at all the sites to get T-shirts. Morgan also had Skittles on hand during breaks.

"I learned long ago," she said of how to keep everyone happy for three hours as they switched from stations that included a game of knockout for younger children, with Haverford players also showing proper foot, passing and pivoting technique.

"All the money goes right to them," Morgan said of the anti-poverty agency. "Between the four sites, we usually do nine or 10 grand."

Later on Monday, both Haverford's men and women had games. So it was a big (and long) day of basketball.

"They really actually love it. They look forward to it," Morgan said before marshaling each group to a new clinic station. "It's a perfect opportunity to combine something fun with service. Getting college kids together with little kids to teach them something, but maybe make it a little more than basketball. It's a good day."