Palumbo basketball creates proud tradition in short time

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Mekhi Jones of Academy at Palumbo goes up for a basket in the paint. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Some high school basketball programs take decades to form history and traditions. At the Academy at Palumbo, it all came together rather quickly.

The Griffins finished their 14th season of basketball in the Philadelphia Public League last week and the anticipation for No. 15 couldn’t be higher. It’s all because of a steady foundation of appreciation for every player who’s worn the black, teal and silver.

“I take it as a blessing,” senior Andrew Fagans said. “I see everybody that was here before me and here with me now, and they all leave something on the floor. We have a motto that we play for the ones that came before us. It’s an honor that we get to play in the same jerseys that they played in. We want to leave a legacy just like they did.”

Success on the court is one thing. The Griffins have been on a steady trajectory since they first hit the hardwood 14 years ago, climbing two divisions and competing in the second-highest tier of the Public League in boys hoops. But their work off the court with community service and building enviable traditions have truly made Palumbo a special place to play.

“When I got here nine years ago, we were in D Division, and now we’re in B,” Griffins coach Frank Schneider said. “We moved up two levels and made the state tournament once so the on-the-court stuff is great. But what we’re most proud of is the off-the-court stuff. We helped to create a lot of good student-athletes who went on to college. We’ve had six go on to play college basketball and two of them came back here tonight.”

Senior Andrew Fagans is introduced before Academy at Palumbo’s home playoff game against School of the Future. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Alumni returning to 1100 Catharine St. for practices and games is a common occurrence. On Feb. 10, the Griffins honored 2020 grad Ibrahim Kane for his time at Palumbo. Kane scored 1,064 career points and was a Second Team All-State selection, First Team All-Public and the school’s all-time leading rebounder with 697 boards. It took two years to give Kane his honorary basketball because of COVID, but it was something the Griffins weren’t going to forget. 

“We try to stay connected to the kids that played here before us and keep everything consistent,” Schneider said. “There have been a lot of traditions for a school that hasn’t been around for a lot of years. And we’ve even had older guys help the younger guys get jobs once they moved on in life.”

Last year they started a spring basketball league called the Lumbo Legends League, meshing former players with current guys in a round-robin format to breed even more camaraderie.

Academy at Palumbo senior TJ Gilliam drives the hoop for two points against High School of the Future. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“It’s a brotherhood,” said TJ Gilliam, a senior who lives in Grays Ferry. “We come together and play basketball and it means everything to be a part of it. The coaches care and the older players teach the younger players and bring them with them and it helps us when we get older.”

This year, the Griffins finished with a respectable 11-11 record after a sluggish 1-5 start. They went 8-4 in their division and won a playoff round with a convincing 68-30 win over High School of the Future before getting knocked out by Constitution in the Round of 16. 

Fagans and Gilliam, along with fellow seniors Terrell Tilghman, Mekhi Jones and Saulih Khalifah, represented another strong class to pass through the program and leave it even better than they found it.

“It went by fast,” said Gilliam, who plans to study either accounting or sports medicine next year. “Last year was short. I got to play but it wasn’t that long of a season. This year, I really got the experience of being out on the court and it was a lot of fun.”

Fun on the court, and meaningful contributions off of it. The Griffins spend loads of time out in the community helping organizations like Philabundance or feeding food-insecure people at Dilworth Plaza. Palumbo also plays in the Make A Wish Showcase at Germantown Academy each year. And although community work and basketball can be time-consuming, academics never take a back seat. Players’ grades are checked every Monday and the team uses an hour of practice time on Wednesdays as a study hall.

Andrew Fagans of Academy at Palumbo takes a jump shot in a playoff game against High School of the Future. Photo/Mark Zimmaro.

“We feel like we are one of the best programs in the (Public League) as far as what we think the Pub should be about,” Schneider said. “We create positive student-athletes and we hardly ever have eligibility issues because we just don’t let it happen. We hold the kids to a higher standard and the families that have been a part of our program have been such a big part of having these awesome kids. We are proud to represent and be a part of the Public League.”

Fagans, who is regarded as one of the best players to come through the program, said there will be a lot to miss when he moves on to college next year. Mostly, the basketball program, which helped shape him into a young man.

“They are very welcoming,” Fagans said. “They push me to be better on and off the court, whether it’s academically or in practice. We push each other in practice through every rep. It’s a great environment to be around. You want to be around people who encourage you and push you to get to your potential and higher.”

Schneider passes the credit back to the players.

“We coaches say it’s not our program, it’s there’s,” Schneider said. “We’re just stewards of it, kind of like the uncles. But it’s all about them and their relationships with each other and giving back to the community.”

Seniors pose with Academy at Palumbo Athletic Director EJ Goldstein. Players listed (from left) are Terrell Tilghman, TJ Gilliam, Mekhi Jones, Andrew Fagans and Saulih Khalifah. Photo/Mark Zimmaro