CHESTER — If it was District 1 championship night, and if it was Chester High on the basketball court, and if it was nearing spring, and if Hershey loomed in the distance, Keith Taylor would have known what to expect.
There would have been the mob of fans, many draped in orange. There would have been the Chester cheerleaders, legendary for their precision and style, bringing the crowd to a roar. There would have been bright lights at a college arena, maybe Temple, maybe Villanova. The Palestra, even.
There would have been a scene.
“Celebrities,” Taylor, the Chester coach, was saying Tuesday night. “College coaches. Professional players. They would have been there, all of them, to watch a big school basketball game. The Big Stage. The atmosphere. It would have been awesome.”
There was only some of that at 9th and Barclay Tuesday, as the Clippers rolled West Chester Rustin, 62-46 for the district's Class 5A boys basketball championship. The coronavirus still a shadowing concern, the crowd was limited to a couple of hundred, all on the same side of the Fred Pickett Jr. Gymnasium, their voices coming through loud and clear despite covered mouths. Yet for all those legendary district championship nights in the past, 36 in all dating to 1943 according to legendary Clippers historian Dave Burman, there was something uniquely challenging about No. 37.
For the first time, and almost surely the last, a Clippers team not only had to prepare to win a championship, but to protect its house.
It's one thing to lose the odd district championship game in the traditional neutral-site setting.
It would have been another kind of burden for the 2021 Clippers to lug around their hometown for years were they to lose one on the court where they practice, where some of their fathers practiced, where some of their cousins practiced, where eight state championship teams were groomed.
“We understood the situation coming in,” said Fareed Burton Jr., whose father was a Clipper, whose cousin Karon Burton was an All-Delco star, and whose cousin Jameel Burton Jr. was in the same lineup Tuesday. “We understood it well. This was the first district championship game we were playing in our own gym. There was no way we could lose.
The Clippers were challenged, to a point, leading by only 31-30 at halftime. Nor were their chances diminished by some early Rustin bad luck, pillars Jacob Barksdale and Griffin Barrouk leaving with first-quarter lower-leg injuries.
But Taylor has a good team, big enough to earn rebounds, swift enough to create full-court-press havoc, a roster loaded with boxscore-stuffers.
Karell Watkins collected 24 points, nine rebounds and three steals. Fareed Burton added 14 points, three assists and two rebounds. Isaiah Freeman provided six rebounds, four assists and a steal. Shaquan Horsey had six rebounds and a couple of snuffs. Jameel Burdon had nine points and three steals.
Chester typically has a deep roster. This one is deeply versatile. And as for comparing teams or eras or players or styles, Taylor, who has seen them all for decades as a head coach and as an assistant and a point guard long ago, was quick to reduce that puzzle to the eternal Chester standard.
“Winning the district championship is not our goal,” he said, pounding a theme that has not changed by one syllable in at least 40 years. “Winning the state championship is our goal. This one was a long time coming. We're happy we won. But we know we have to win that state championship.”
The Clippers, 12-1 overall, can advance to that championship game in Hershey without ever leaving their own gym. The PIAA Class 5A tournament will include just eight teams, and the Clippers have won the right to host the first two games. District 2 champion Crestwood, which is 17-1, will be the next into the Pickett Gym Friday night.
So there will be no bus rides, long or short, to some out-of-the-way neutral site. There will, though, be that obligation: Protect the Chester brand on a floor decorated in orange and black.
“It's very important,” Watkins said. “We know the legacy here at home. There were so many players who wore the orange and black and actually did win the state championship. So it is just an honor to protect their legacy and to begin ours as well.”
That is the back-door beauty of a relatively quiet season. Not only are the Clippers playing for their right to scissor some nets in Hershey, but will be playing for every other great player, team and coach that ever called that building home.
They are not planning to lose.
“No, sir,” Watkins said.
For that, they will prepare to win where they are made to win, and not worry that they weren't able to play before 9,000 people on a Big 5 floor. That showed Tuesday when they broke from that one-point intermission edge to win the third quarter, 21-6, deflating Rustin with relentless rebounding and a well-executed press.
“I just have the heart and the will to play,” Watkins said. “To me, we could have played anywhere. We could have played outside, and we still would have had a passion for the game.”
The small crowd left quickly Tuesday, but not before the Clippers were formally draped in the traditional district championship medals. And had it really been since 2016 that Chester was in a district final, and was it really its first championship since 2014?
“There were good times, some of the best,” Taylor said. “I remember those games, Chester fans all over, the whole city there. It was awesome. You think about the Alonzo Lewis teams, Fred Pickett's teams. People used to be so excited.
“But these players know about that. They know who Fred is, what he accomplished as a coach. It's a little different now. But they can look around and see everything going on. And now, they can all feel a part of it.”
Off to the side, during the medal ceremony, longtime assistant Terry Thomas held up a small sign. “We're back,” it said.
Sometimes, the small celebrations are more than enough.