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TJ basketball makes case for new gym

Fred Jeter | 2/4/2017, 3:08 p.m.
Just about everything regarding Thomas Jefferson High School basketball seems beyond the ordinary. The Vikings have the city’s tallest coach, ...

Just about everything regarding Thomas Jefferson High School basketball seems beyond the ordinary.

The Vikings have the city’s tallest coach, shortest team, oldest gym, arguably the richest history … and a discount replacement scoreboard that will have to do for the time being.

“Better than using cue cards,” explained Bill Holt, Thomas Jefferson High’s activities director.

Heading into the final month of what is the 87th season at the school’s creaky gymnasium known as “The Matchbox,” TJ is a scrappy 6-7 following a 68-63 win over Petersburg High School on Jan. 24.

Coach Kendrick Warren, perhaps the best player ever to wear a uniform at both TJ (Class of 1990) and Virginia Commonwealth University (Class of 1994), is a mountainous figure on the sidelines at 6-foot-8.

The problem is he’s a full head taller than any of his teenage athletes.

“We’re undersized so we try and wear teams down with our up-tempo,” said Coach Warren. “Lack of size hurts, but the guys are playing hard and do what I ask.”

In upending Petersburg High in a game played at a frenetic pace before a raucous crowd, Manu Moss had 16 points, Nick Woolfolk had 14 and Anwar Bradley had 12.

Aubrey Merritt contributed nine assists.

It was only the second home game of the season.

“Our old scoreboard that we’d been using since the 1970s blew out during volleyball season,” said Holt. “I looked into a replacement and saw it cost $5,000.

“We don’t have $5,000. So I found a used one for $750. Let’s just say it’s functional.”

Lack of a working scoreboard is one reason why the Vikings played their first 11 games on the road.

Coach Warren suggests another reason:

“I think teams are terrified at coming here,” he said. “We have a hard time getting any home games, so we go on the road.”

“The Matchbox” has six rows of bleachers on each side and a balcony. The gymnasium’s listed capacity is 350 people. Space is at a premium. Everything is a tight squeeze.

Spectators can’t help but feel guilty for eating dinner before arriving; every belt loop counts at “The Matchbox.”

Front-row fans struggle not to have their feet in actual play. Tripping over spectators’ feet is a real possibility. Anyone wearing more than a size 7 shoe might want to move back a bit.

There are four prominent “No Smoking” signs, remindful of an era, decades ago, when it might have been somewhat acceptable to fire up a Lucky Strike.

Manu Moss fights off a defender and powers to the basket in leading Thomas Jefferson to a 68-63 victory over Petersburg last week.

James Haskins/Richmond Free Press

Manu Moss fights off a defender and powers to the basket in leading Thomas Jefferson to a 68-63 victory over Petersburg last week.

There is little more than one yard between the end lines and end-zone walls. This creates a point of contention for cheerleaders, especially visiting cheering squads.

The Vikings have struggled for victories in recent years, but it wasn’t always that way.

TJ was among Virginia’s dominant programs in the 1970s under spirited young coach Dave Robbins.

The Vikings won the State AAA title in 1975 and might have won in 1974, too, if not for a player named Moses Malone at Petersburg High School.