The Matriarch of Chester's first family of basketball

A year ago, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson's jersey had only "Jefferson" printed above his number. He added Hollis to honor his mother.MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
A year ago, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson's jersey had only "Jefferson" printed above his number. He added Hollis to honor his mother.MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: February 24, 2013

By Joseph Santoliquito

They never heard the faded wood creaking under their mother's

shuffling, swollen feet each morning when she arrived home exhausted from one of her jobs. Rylanda Hollis could barely keep her eyes open and barely had time to close them for a few hours before waking her sons for school and beginning the arduous routine again.

Rahlir and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson never saw the times when their mother was crying instead of resting. She wanted so much for them that it hurt. Working two jobs and 60 hours a week wasn't enough. Making every one of their games wasn't enough. Everything a single mother could provide two growing boys wasn't enough.

Not in her mind.

She rarely gave herself credit. She still doesn't.

Hollis vowed that she would work 24 hours a day to prevent her sons from being devoured by the drug-dealing, gang-infested sinkhole that snatched up so many in Chester. Not Rahlir and Rondae. They were going to have a future. They were going to go to college and graduate, and from there, wherever their basketball abilities would carry them.

It carried Rahlir to Temple, where he is the Owls' starting 6-6, senior forward and defensive stopper. Rondae, the best high-school player in Pennsylvania, is aiming for his third straight PIAA Class AAAA state championship at Chester High, then the 6-8 senior forward will be heading to Arizona.

You may not come across two more grounded, respectful young men than Rahlir and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. At the base of their rock-solid foundation is Rylanda.

The streets never got them. Their mom was too strong to let that happen. So every day, she walked through her personal portal of purgatory with inflamed feet and ankles, making all of those endless days she stood working two (and sometimes three) jobs worth it. There was no damned way the streets would grab her boys. No way.

March is coming. It's both a pleasant and difficult time of the year for Hollis. She is trying to figure out her schedule and possibly having to be in two places at once. Her little daybook already has dates jotted down, projections for when Temple plays in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and when Rondae's Clippers embark on another journey across the state to defend their title.

Somehow, though, you know she'll manage. She always has. She'll inconspicuously park herself in one of the corners of the Liacouras Center (or at Chester High) and absorb the scene, beaming that infectious smile. She'll tap her foot in nervous anticipation. She will sit there and quietly will Rahlir to make a big stop or Rondae to hit a clutch shot.

Arriving here at this station in life, with one son about to graduate high school and the other possibly destined for the NBA, now seems easy.

It wasn't.

Rahlir rarely gets home. He only gets to see his mom or brother when they come up to North Broad to watch him at Temple - when, of course, the schedule doesn't conflict with Chester's.

Rahlir rarely talks. While starring at Chester High, local reporters often sought him out for interviews. Rondae would run into the stands, squeeze himself between his older brother and the reporter and answer the reporter's questions to Rahlir, who would grin, point to Rondae and say, "Yeah, whatever he says."

Getting three words out of Rahlir is a speech. His sharp, distinctive facial features carry a certain sagacity though. Rylanda always said Rahlir had an old man's soul, as if he were 8 going on 25.

"I'll be the first to graduate from college, and that's a big deal to my mom. Rondae is getting ready to graduate high school and move to Arizona. My mom just loves everything we're doing right now," said Rahlir, who has been hampered this season with tendinitis. "It was just the three of us growing up. We all lived in the same house."

They had one another. They didn't have much of anything else. Rylanda would work as a dietary supervisor until the early evening, take a bus to work as a barmaid from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., then come home about 3. Then she'd wake up two hours later to get her sons up for school and begin the exhausting process again.

Numerous friends Rahlir knew fell to the streets - drugs, gangs, prison. There were two worlds out there, one that successful people came from, the other an incurable incubator for smashed hopes where many in Chester resided. Rylanda knew all too well those sagas. It happened all around her. It happened to the man she fell for, Ross Jefferson, Rahlir and Rondae's father. She would see to it that her sons wouldn't get caught in the same cycle of expected failure.

"My mother taught us how to work hard, because that's all she did for us," Rahlir said. "I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and my father's mother, Joyce Jefferson, did a lot to raise us, too. But sometimes it would just be me and Rondae, and I made sure everything was OK for him. I used to make him breakfast when I was 7, 8, 9 years old."

Rahlir was a father in various ways to Rondae. Their father, Ross, was in and out of jail in their youth. Rahlir would lean on countless mentors growing up, like coaches and extended family. The son is like his mother - a rock. He took on responsibilities he didn't have to, and never wavered.

Rylanda tried to nurture a relationship with the boys and their dad. One of the first times Rahlir visited his father in jail, Rylanda put a unique spin on it.

"I remember I wasn't really scared. I was young, younger than 6, my mom told me we were visiting my dad in college," Rahlir said, laughing hysterically. "When we left, I told her I wanted to go to college and I didn't know what school was. I remember my mother saying, 'You don't want to go to this college, baby.' "

Through time, Rylanda left it up to her sons to decide where their father's place would be in their lives. It stirred some deep feelings as Rahlir got older.

"I was a little angry. I began getting angrier, not for the fact he wasn't there for me. I knew I was OK, I wanted my father to be there for Rondae," Rahlir said. "There were times my little brother wanted stuff and my mom was the only one providing for us. There were times she wanted to get me things and I told her, 'I'll be all right, take care of him.' That's just what it was. I didn't see it as a sacrifice. That might be hard to believe for a young kid to do. Besides, looking at my mother, watching her come home from work beat tired like she did, that was real sacrifice."

Each time Rylanda would come home, legs stiff, feet aching, Rahlir would run to the kitchen, grab a plastic tub from under the sink and fill it with hot water to soak her feet.

One Christmas, she asked Rahlir and Rondae if they would mind being without a video game because she wanted to buy a Christmas present for someone else's family. A family that had less than what they had. Another time, Rahlir implored her to get new shoes because it stung his eyes to see her in the same worn pair for years.

She was mother, father, disciplinarian. The occasions when Rahlir and Rondae would fight, Rylanda would show that rare anger, and then lay down the law by punching one of them in the chest. The fighting would cease. "She was a single woman raising two boys, we had a fear of mom, we didn't want to get hit," Rahlir says now, laughing.

After Temple home games, Rahlir goes up into the stands and gives his mother a hug and a kiss. Last season, Rahlir changed the name on his jersey from Jefferson to to Hollis-Jefferson, to honor his mother. "I had to recognize that side of my family," said Rahlir, whose birth certificate says "Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson."

He's putting together a solid senior campiagn. He put up 23 points and 18 rebounds - both career highs - in Thursday's Big 5 victory over La Salle.

"Rahlir has been terrific for us," Owls coach Fran Dunphy said. "Rahlir is a tremendous, tremendous kid who's had a really nice career here at Temple. There was a day we had a tough time at practice and I was sitting pretty angry in my office. Rahlir pokes his head in and says, 'Have a nice day.' That put a smile on my face. He's that kind of kid. I get angry with him when he doesn't shoot the ball sometimes, but I never get angry with him as a human being. He's as fine as they come. You see Rylanda's two sons, they represent her very well.

Rahlir will graduate with a degree in social work. He's managed an internship at a day-care center a couple of blocks off the Temple campus, like a jolly giant with a bunch of jumping, knee-high preschoolers, while playing for a major Division I program.

"I like helping people," Rahlir said. "I kind of looked at my past, a poor mother, a poor family and some people need help more than others, and I look at my community, children who need help. It's why I think a degree in social work can make a difference.

"That attitude comes from my mother. She always thinks about everyone before she thinks about herself. Everyone can do well with the right push-that comes from my mom and my little bro. That's my little village - and that's Chester, too. No one ever tried to make me into something I wasn't."

Graduating Temple in May will be a great time for Rahlir. It's going to tug on a few emotional cords the steely Rahlir doesn't like to show too often. He admits tears of joy will probably flow that day.

"Getting this degree is for me in the long run, but it's primarily for my mom," Rahlir admits. "I'll be her first child to get a college degree. That means a lot to me. For her seeing me walk across that stage with the cap and gown on, she'll cry. I'll probably cry. She's given everything she has to us. It's my little way of saying thank you to her."

Said Dunphy: "There's no better kid I ever had a chance to coach. I'm going to miss him greatly, not only as a player, but as a human being."

The ever-growing, rambunctious, excitable cross Rylanda had to bear was Rondae. To see him today, how he carries himself, how he's the eye of the greatest team in Chester's storied history, you wouldn't believe the lengths and challenges he posed to Rylanda - and to some extent, Rahlir.

When he was 10, he got into a fight with a neighbor's child, and because Rondae was so much larger than kids his own age, parents used to think he was much older. So the little boy's mother hit him. In response, he threw a tire at her.

Rylanda would be frequently called to school about Rondae. He answered back a teacher. He shoved a kid. By the time he was 18, Rylanda feared, he would be headed to Glen Mills (a school for troubled youth). School administrators suggested she put him on Ritalin, a drug to subdue children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. A doctor told Rylanda otherwise.

Rylanda agreed - she said she'd deal with it, and she did.

"Rondae acted out for attention. He had emotional issues and it was the absence of his father," Rylanda said. "I wasn't about to let go. Oh, he was frustrating. It made me angry. But my parents [Carl and Glenn Hollis] were big helps. So were the Jeffersons - their grandmother, Joyce.

"Sometimes it hurt. You can only get so much help. You're still alone, and you think sometimes you're not doing enough. I used to cry myself to sleep some nights. I wouldn't let them know it. I didn't think I was doing well enough."

Her epiphany came as she walked home after getting off a bus. It also came rather publicly - on the streets of Chester. At the time, Rahlir was a high-school junior, and Rondae, 4 years younger, was in seventh grade. Rondae saw some sneakers he liked and pushed his mother to buy them. He wasn't used to hearing no. This time he did.

"I didn't want to hear that; I kind of went off a little bit at my mom. Rahlir didn't want to hear it, so he started yelling at me," Rondae recalled. "When we were younger, we always fought. I tried to fight him. He never hit me. This time, he did. We were on the sidewalk and I stopped right there. My mother started crying. When she starts to cry, Rahlir starts to cry, and then I started to cry. I don't know where that comes from, maybe the Hollis side of the family. But I had to change. I couldn't do this to my mom anymore. It hurt me to see her hurt.

"That was a big problem with me - I wanted my dad around. I used to ask for him and that's where a lot of anger came from. He was never around. I didn't understand why my mother was always working, and why I couldn't have things. I didn't understand her sacrifice a lot of times. I wasn't bad. I like to say I was misunderstood. I took things to an extreme. I never thought about all of the times when kids would visit our house, my mom would ask to speak with their parents to let them know they're here. These kids didn't know where their parents were. I always did."

Rondae has found himself. He says he wants to be like his brother. Although the two are quite different, Rondae has the kind of megawatt personality that lights up a room and Rahlir is more stoical.

Rondae will likely be a McDonald's All-America. He's also going to wear Hollis-Jefferson on the back of his jersey at Arizona when he plays for the Wildcats next season. He used to tell Rylanda he'd like to play far from home to prevent surprise visits.

He holds a special pact with Rahlir to someday play in the NBA together. It's possible, although much greater for Rondae, who has NBA defensive skills already.

"I wouldn't be where I am without my mom," Rondae says. "She's the greatest woman in my life. Everything I try to do is for her. I'm doing all of this to take care of her. But I don't want her popping up on me at Arizona like she used to with Rahlir at Temple."

A chapter in their lives is closing fast. The omnipresent face in the corner of the gym won't be there soon, and Rahlir and Rondae are bracing for that.

So is Rylanda.

This time next year, they could be playing on different continents. Dropping off Rondae at Arizona in June will be the hardest day of her life, she says. If Rahlir doesn't hook up with an NBA team, there is a strong possibility he'll play in Europe. Rylanda will be forced to watch from a distance.

"I don't think what I did was special at all. I'm doing what I was brought up to do - give my children the best life I can possibly give them, which isn't an easy thing in Chester," Rylanda said. "Some of their peers, they took a different course in life. I was raised by two strong parents who instilled love into me. My sons would get the same love I was given. I say to myself when I look back at everything, it was all worth it; all those long hours. They're successful. I don't brag about them, but I'm proud of them both."

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