February 5, 2023

If your cardiovascular system needs a test, attend a basketball practice session at Cristo Rey High School.

Within minutes, the intensity on the court should have your ticker spinning. It’s almost contagious. If you gambled in a past life, you might even be tempted to lace up your sneakers.

A second look at who’s on the pitch, however, should make you pause.

The Catholic college preparatory school in North Philadelphia is building a basketball program with Division I talent mentored by assistant coaches that include a playground legend, a former NBA player and a national champion.

When the architect of the plot gets going, trash is talked, pearls are passed and games grow. It’s all part of head coach Kyle Sample’s plan to turn Cristo Rey’s program into something transformative.

“I want a top 25 program in the country,” Sample said after a recent workout. “Not a year, not a few years, every year.”

“I don’t want to just win a few championships,” he added. “I want to consistently get kids into college.”

With a fast-paced, high-intensity attack on both sides, the Blue Pride (12-5), who defeated last year’s Penn Jersey League champion Solebury 81-54 last week, got off to a good start.

Sample, a North Philly native, joins Aaron Owens, aka “AO” from the AND1 Mix Tape Tour; former Templar standout, NBA and international player Dionte Christmas; and former Villanova captain Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree.

“There’s just so much knowledge in the room,” said 6-foot-7-older forward Josh Wyche, who will play for Lafayette next season. “Every time we are in practice or in the film, so much information is exchanged.”

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A passport to the future

Owens, 48, has traveled the world so many times that he needs five passports to house his stamps.

His first real pass, however, may have been the orange ball that helped transform the North Philly native from a kid who played on milk crates to an iconic figure who helped bring basketball to the masses on the playground.

“It’s all done [for me]’ Owens said of basketball. “It has made me a household name around the world. I can’t even say just the city or America. No, worldwide.”

Kids, consult YouTube while the adults remember Owens swinging the ball like a yo-yo, wiggling defenders like a day-old deer and devising moves later borrowed from NBA players.

These days, Owens hopes a new generation will learn and love the game the way he did growing up near 24th Street and Somerset Street, about two miles from where he got the legendary Simon Gratz coach Bill Ellerbee taught the game.

“I just like it, man,” said Owens, who also played professionally in the CBA, the NBA’s D-League (now the G-League), and Israel. “Most of these kids don’t know basketball at all. They only know what they see on TV. … They really don’t have a passion for it like we do, and I’m just trying to give it back to them. It is fun. It has its ups and downs, but it’s fun.”

Owens’ current crop didn’t know it as “AO” when it first arrived last year. The internet brought them up quickly.

For the uninitiated, the AND1 tour presented itself as a collection of the country’s top street ballers pitted against local talent at every stop on a nationwide tour. Highlights were sold on DVDs and eventually aired on ESPN. The tour lasted from 1998 to 2008, adding global stops and making stars of several of their players. Some were better known for their theatrics. Owens, who was a Division II All-American at Henderson State University in Arkansas, was known as a serious basketball player who also played streetball.

Today, the basketball business — video games, documentaries, movie cameos, etc. — still exists for Owens, so he says JV’s coaching is a good fit for now. Prior to Cristo Rey, he was a staffer to former Villanova star Jason Lawson at Olney High School for three seasons.

Owens also recently began working as assistant athletic director at the Shane Victorino Boys and Girls Club in Nicetown. The 1993 Gratz graduate may want his own team if his other ventures allow.

For now, Owens just hopes his current players can experience college basketball.

“On every level,” said Owens, who has known Sample for years. “Because most of these kids don’t realize that after high school you might never play a game again… [so] that cannot be taken for granted.”

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boys to men

Former Villanova coach Jay Wright was spotted at a recent high school basketball game at Christmas. Not long after that, Christmas saw his former trainer at Temple, Fran Dunphy, who now runs La Salle.

Christmas, now 36, shared what he’s learned about coaching with both of them.

“I said [Wright] I realized why coaches were always so passionate and why their hair turned gray and they were always stressed,” Christmas said, laughing, “because it’s so much more intense on the sidelines…”

Christmas, who joined Cristo Rey’s team last season, is still the affable, energetic guy he was at Temple, where he was the Atlantic 10-scoring champion for consecutive seasons.

You could still catch him in a few drills during a Cristo Rey workout. The jumper is still smooth. The smile still quickly fades, giving way to gum pain: “You can’t protect me!”

These days, however, he focuses more on brains than buckets.

“I am in love [coaching]’ said Christmas, who grew up listening to Sample. “This [coaches] everyone thinks the same as me about it. They are all passionate about it.”

“It’s not even just about the basketball part,” he later added. “It’s more about being a man.”

Christmas learned that most from one of his early mentors, the late pivot John Hardnett, who mentored so many young Philly ballers before his death in 2010.

It’s also a lesson Dunphy recently reinforced after seeing Devin Booker in action during Cristo Rey’s sophomore year. Booker is an athletic, 6-foot-5 winger who secured his first Division I bid from Fordham on Saturday.

“He texted that he looks very fit,” Christmas said of Dunphy. “And that was the biggest compliment. It wasn’t about his game. It was about nothing else. He just said he looked fit. I got that from John [Hardnett]. Make sure these kids are trainable. Make sure they are respectful.”

Running workouts like Hardnett once did is what brought Christmas to coaching. Over the years, he explained, kids at events and on social media would recognize him and ask for help.

Providing free workouts, he quickly found a new way to love the game that has already given him so much.

After not being called up in 2009, Christmas has played around the world with stints including in Greece and Russia and in 2013 with the Phoenix Suns. He last played in Argentina in 2019.

Now he hopes to one day sit on an NBA or college bench.

“I have no regrets,” said Christmas. “It was fun. I lived my dream. Now I’m just trying to get some of these guys to do it. Time to give something back to the younger ones.”

If only he could see me now

Cosby-Roundtree never saw himself as a manager until his final season at Villanova. Injuries had hampered much of his college career. His last season was no different.

Still, he remained open when the opportunity arose to become some sort of player-coach and a new passion was born.

When his playing career ended, running personal training sessions sealed the deal.

Then at a funeral last summer he saw Sample, who was named Cristo Rey’s athletic director in 2020. The couple later spoke about coaching. Sample, a longtime administrator in the K-Low Elite AAU program, eventually helped Cosby-Roundtree land an apprenticeship with Cristo Rey.

Now, Cosby-Roundtree works in academic support while working toward two separate master’s degrees in education and counseling.

“I’m still grateful and thankful that Villanova believed in me and gave me the chance to grow,” he said. “I am blessed. If the boy at Neumann Goretti could see me now, he would be proud and amazed at what I have done.”

Sample is also proud of his team’s progress this season. Just don’t tell the players that, he said. Sample wants to carry Chips safely on his shoulders when the season ends. Last year, Cristo Rey finished 13-17 under coach Erick Woods, who resigned after the season for family reasons, Sample said.

Cristo Rey, who also has former West Chester University guard Mike Jolaoso on his coaching staff, joined the Penn-Jersey League in 2018. The school opened in 2012. In 2022, the school also joined the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association, which determines the independent school state champions. Westtown School won the crown last season.

“Every day we talk about defending our home dish, building our reputation, earning our respect,” Sample said. “We feel like a lot of people still think of us as the little school nobody knows… so every day is another chance to let someone know who Cristo Rey is.”

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