Philly basketball player Hall tries to find way

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Philadelphia's Jason Hall, averaging 20 points for West Hills Community College in Coalinga, Calif., drives to the basket.

He'd just moved to a new neighborhood and a new school, Jay Cooke Middle School in Logan. A typical middle-school kid, Jason Hall had one goal - "to fit in - not just on the basketball court."

Basketball was merely his way of doing that, he said. He'd get up early, sometimes two hours before school, to be the first one at the school's outdoor court.

"After awhile, other kids showed up," Hall said. "Then, there'd be a crowd. That's how I fit in. I fit in so easy, and so fast. People knew who I was."

Hall understood that it could have gone another way. A birth defect meant he'd been born with three fingers on each hand, which was why he kept getting to the playground early. He wanted the talk in the hallways to be about his game, not his hands. It worked.

"I was good," Hall said. "People wanted to play with me."

He even had a nickname at that school: "The Morning Legend." Years later, Hall still is trying to use basketball to reach bigger goals. He just finished a season of junior college ball at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, Calif. Hall was the team's leading scorer, averaging 20 points a game, making 44 percent of his three-pointers. He's undoubtedly got Division I talent, his coach said.

"People don't even notice until they shake his hand," said Mark Arce, his coach at West Hills. "It's a novelty but it's definitely not a handicap."

However, Hall knows he still has to get past his checkered academic past. Now 23 years old, Hall never left the game, but school hadn't always been a top priority. He'd been a top player for William Penn High and played part of a season at Gloucester County College, although he admits he wasn't too mature at the time, balking at coming off the bench. Lincoln University had been interested, but he didn't have the grades to get in.

He never stopped playing in independent leagues and pickup games, but he also got a taste of the real world. He worked as a janitor at Lower Moreland High School and as a busboy at a T.G.I. Friday's at the Willow Grove Mall.

"That was the depressing time in my life," Hall said. "I knew I was going to play pro ball somewhere. I knew that in my heart. . . . I just need the opportunity. I've been doing this basketball thing – it's like second nature to me."

His uncle, Howard Evans, former star guard for a Temple team that reached No. 1 in the country in 1988, will vouch that Hall has the talent.

"I never told Jason this, but he can shoot the ball better than me," Evans said.

In the summer, Evans runs daily workouts at West Philadelphia rec centers that draw a lot of locals who now play professionally overseas, players such as Rasheed Brokenborough, Fred Warrick, and Kyle Myrick. In this company, Evans said, "If you can't play, you will get embarrassed."

It's just basketball, Hall said. He doesn't get intimidated, although, "when I see those guys, my eyes get big, because I know that's my opportunity."

A physical disability never turned into a basketball liability. Hall said it only held him back one time. As a high school freshman, Hall felt he was cut from the JV team because of his hands.

"I'm not going to say what they said to me," Hall said. "I don't feel it was personal. I didn't tell my mom. I played at the PAL. I got better, came back, and dominated JV."

Hall became a strong varsity player at William Penn, a leader. But academics were an issue.

"I come from a single-parent home," Hall said. "My mom was at work. I'd come home from school, it wasn't homework, then I'll go play. It was right to the basketball courts."

He played part of a season at Gloucester County, but that one year is an issue. Unless he gets a waiver from the NCAA, Hall will only be eligible for one year of Division I ball since the five-year clock started ticking when he played a season at Gloucester. There is no clock for D-II schools, so that remains an option that would give him two playing seasons.

Hall understands that schools such as South Florida and Nebraska, which have expressed interest, probably wouldn't take him for just one season. Some top D-II programs have expressed serious interest.

"He's a Division I player - he can play in the [Western Athletic Conference] out here," said Arce, the West Hills coach. "His past academics, that's going to dictate where he ends up."

In his quest to get a scholarship for next year, Hall decided that his story should be told. He wrote about it himself and had his friend Jon Solomon, a former guard at Arcadia University, contact media outlets earlier this year. Solomon thought big, hoping ESPN would take interest and maybe even show a West Hills game this past season.

"His talent is extraordinary," Solomon said. "He can get a shot whenever he wants. All this kid does is live, breathe and die basketball. And he's a good person. Some guys are like arrogant or cocky. He's down-to-earth."

Going to California for college may sound glamorous. But Coalinga isn't exactly Hollywood. It's in the middle of the state, closer to Fresno than the Pacific Ocean with a population of about 18,000.

"I was looking for an opportunity to get away from home," Hall said. "This was my opportunity to grow, to develop and grow as a man. I did hit the books, got A's and B's. Out here, it's really, really slow. I'm in a small town, a nice quiet place. You can get your mind together. I think this was a great situation."

While Hall doesn't mind his whole story being told, he doesn't want to be typecast. He wants his story to be about ability, not disability.

His uncle Howard put it this way: "If you don't know, you would never know."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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