A league not just of their own | Mike Jensen

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Chelse Hall during a break at one of her league events at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

The first time these girls walked into the gym, one saw the opposing team, noticed certain obvious characteristics, and couldn’t help saying, “Coach, wait a minute. We’re playing the boys?”

Now, that’s no big deal. Playing the boys is just another Saturday for the RTYA Panthers. This time, maybe it’s the other coach telling his 14-and-under boys to look at the scoreboard.

“Keep sleeping on them girls!” the coach yelled out, score tied early.

For Chelse Hall, the girls on the court were her girls — she coaches them — but the guys are her guys, too. The action going on in two gyms at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy is part of her Right Turn Youth Academy league. When’s she done coaching, she’s selling hot dogs and T-shirts in the front lobby or dealing with some inevitable problem.

In its second year, the RTYA has gotten noticed, especially on Facebook and Instagram, which Hall called “magic” for getting the word out. Ask a coach over the winter about the name of this league his team was playing in that day at G and Erie Avenues, he’ll simply say, “It’s Chelse’s league.”

A winter league, spring league, summer league, some travel teams getting going, plus college showcases. The RTYA adds a new tentacle seemingly every week, often with a pep rally to start off things.

“Sleep? What is sleep?” Hall, 33, said about the hours in the day normally reserved for rest. “I’m teaching myself to sleep in order to function. I’m getting there.”

Her drive, she said right upfront, comes from a deep place, which goes back over a decade, to the darkest time in Hall’s life. A baby shower was scheduled for a Sunday, Hall said, her baby due the next month. That Friday before the shower changed everything. There was no shower that weekend.

The father of her baby was killed, an innocent bystander, authorities called it, in a gang-related shooting in Bristol.

“He was at a basketball court at night,” Hall said of Anton Cofield. “We both had a love for basketball. I kind of went into a shell.”

Her son is named Anton, and when he got interested in basketball, and heard about his father, she decided it was time to act.

“In essence, I created this world for myself,” Hall said, and for her son: “He wanted to have a basketball world, so I created it for him. His dad played basketball day in and day out.”

The fit is natural, Hall said, since her own father ran basketball and education programs in this area and in the military.

“She knows a lot more people than me, and I’ve been around a lot longer,” Eugene Hall said when he walked in the active gym while his daughter was coaching.

Waking hours keep adding responsibilities. Hall, who grew up in Levittown, took over as girls’ coach last year at Girard College. She was hosting an event at the school as a Girard vice president, Henry Fairfax, with a deep basketball background of his own, “stood in the corner, watching everything,” Hall said. “He walked over and said, ‘We’re going to schedule a meeting. Where do you work? What do you do?’ ”

Fairfax told Hall right then he wanted to bring her to Girard College. She laughed.

“No,” he said. “Let’s meet this week.”

There are a lot of leagues in Philadelphia, but Hall was finding her niche. The late Claude Gross, longtime Sonny Hill honcho, called Hall “the female Sonny Hill” before he died earlier this year. Gross also grabbed Hall’s hand, told her to forget “everybody in the city who isn’t with you,” except forget wasn’t the word Gross used.

‘Create your own’

The boys started taking it to the girls. Some steals turned into layups. The girls didn’t collapse. They had another little run left in them.

“Guys we’re in a zone — you’re all bunched together,” Hall told her team at halftime, closing her hands together. “Remember what we practiced yesterday? Play strong. Make it happen. Come to the ball strong. … Too much dribbling.”

It was a little more than a year ago that Hall started her first winter league. She’d been looking at leagues for her son, who already was in a football league in the Far Northeast.

Her older brother told her, “Don’t go with someone else. Create your own.”

For the next couple of weeks, she said, she packed up her son and his friends and drove all over looking at how others organized things, hitting eight tournaments in two weeks.

“I didn’t have a gym, no clue what I was doing, no start date,” Hall said. “But I made the flier look good. … We had 39 teams sign up in one week. We didn’t have a gym until three days before we started,” ending up that year at George Washington High.

She was working for a law firm, bartending at night. A cousin found some refs, before she found out she could hire a ref assignor. She remembers going to one game at another league to see a little guy she knew.

“All the kids had on random shirts, shorts. The other team came in, everything was uniform,” Hall said. “I grew up playing organized sports. To me, you could see the difference in the kids mentally. They might already be somewhat defeated.”

Nope, couldn’t be like that in her league. Matching shirts were a basic necessity.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Chelse Hall running the league at Springside Chestnut Hill. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

“Google was like my best friend,” Hall said. “I would Google how to run basketball schedules. I basically learned from Google. Me and my brother handled everything, created rules. … It was open to anyone and everyone. Girls, guys, schools, club teams, rec teams, and if you don’t have a team, I’ll create one for you.”

People she’d only heard of offered their help. Such as retired NBA official Joey Crawford. “He came out of nowhere on Facebook,” she said. “Did a whole skills and drills clinic for me at Francisville playground.”

Tribute to Tyhir

There was one special guest she wanted to invite to be part of RTYA. Chelse’s grandmother had lived in Southwest Philly, so Chelse knew the neighborhood. She’d seen Tyhir Barnes at RTYA games enough she thought he was in the league until she found out he’d just been there watching friends. She saw his name and photo on the news after Barnes was shot and killed last summer after a basketball game.

To say the news hit home — it hit square at her heart.

“This family will forever have my love and the love of RTYA,” Hall proclaimed at an event at Girard College. “Tyhir, your memory will live on in the league of RTYA. I will always fight for our children in your memory. I pray that God places his healing hands over your family, and I promise to do all that I can to show them our love.”

She wasn’t suggesting anything gets easy. She remembers being in a shell herself for easily a year, some girlfriends eventually showing up at her house, saying it’s time to get out.

Offering a place for people to make the right turns in life is the goal for her league, and the reason for the name. No easy answers, on or off the court. This Saturday morning, her young center blocked a guy’s shot, causing hoots from the boys’ bench. One of her guards showed a nice hesitation move that brought a hoop. Another girl hit a three-pointer. Still, the guys buckled down and increased the lead to the end, a 39-16 final. The matchup would serve a purpose, Hall said later, not specifying whether she meant on or off the court.

“They thought I was going to put them against the girls,” Hall said. “I like putting them in something, kind of pushing them out, letting them experience things and let them figure it out.”