NEWTOWN SQUARE >> Arms interlocked, dressed in black t-shirts, Lower Merion presented a united front as the national anthem played Tuesday night at Marple Newtown High School.
“I am a Muslim,” the shirt worn by all members of the Aces boys basketball team read in white script. “I am a refugee. I am an immigrant. I am an American. I am an Ace.”
United in advocating for citizens’ rights in an American climate where they are increasingly under fire, the shirts were a collaborative show of defiance, crystallizing various forms of protest the Aces have displayed in recent weeks.
Once the whistle blew, that unity manifested itself in another form.
Lower Merion shot lights out from the field, running rampant over Strath Haven, 82-60, to claim the Central League title, the first for the powerhouse program since 2014 and evidence that once again the Aces are peaking late.
The t-shirts are more than a statement to the outside world, a peaceful protest of the travel ban from seven Muslim-majority nations enacted in recent weeks via executive order of President Donald Trump; they’re a statement of consensus among a diverse group of players and what they believe in.
“People’s lives are bigger than a ball going through a hoop,” said Najja Walker-X, a senior guard who spearheaded the production of the shirts.
The Aces’ protests have taken sporadic forms in recent weeks, including sitting or kneeling during the national anthem. That has drawn attention, not always positively so, and it hasn’t communicated the thrust of the Aces message effectively enough for their liking. So Walker-X and his teammates sought a more unified and explicable front, hence the slogan crafted via a team discussion over an issue weighing on the minds of many, one they hope to start selling soon with proceeds benefitting the American Civil Liberties Union.
“What we do want to convey, however — as a full team — is that no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, you should be welcomed, respected and heard,” reads a team statement Walker-X crafted in consort with teammates. “As a team, we believe in fighting for the rights of all — protecting, defending and giving voice to those who feel marginalized, who live in fear and who face injustice.”
“Once we started wearing the shirts like this, everyone can read our message,” senior guard Noah Fennell said. “Instead of just someone kneeling and (people wondering), ‘why is he kneeling?,’ we can be like, this is our message. And we’re put on a good stage to do that. It’s humbling to be able to support something like this.”
An illustration of unity, the articulation of their cause has brought the Aces closer as a team. And that has effects on the court as well for a team that has won seven straight games.
Tuesday, they simply dominated Strath Haven (14-10), the fourth seed. And the Aces couldn’t miss — like literally, in the third quarter, when they connect on 12 of 12 field goals attempts. Point guard Steve Payne, who scored a team-high 26 points, supplied 15 in the third.
“Never had a quarter like that,” the sophomore said. “It’s a miracle. I can’t believe I did that. I’m shocked.”
For the game, Lower Merion shot 64.9 percent (31-for-46) from the field and 10-for-21 from 3-point range. Jack Forrest, who’s been on fire of late, finished with 18 points on 5-for-9 from beyond the arc. Darryl Taylor added 14 points.
The flood gates were opened by some offensive cat-and-mouse. The Aces hit five first-half 3-pointers (three from Forrest, two from reserve Matt O’Connor), forcing Strath Haven to adjust at halftime to a higher-pressure defense and close out on shooters. The result: Open lanes to the rim for Fennell (four points, five steals), Payne and Terrell Jones (12 points, eight rebounds), which led to help defense from Haven and kick-outs for open jump shots.
“They started pressuring us a lot,” Fennell said. “They had really good presses, so we just tried to get out as quick as possible and that just led to blow-bys.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Lower Merion vs. Strath Haven
“We knew we had to guard the 3, and we didn’t guard the 3 well,” Strath Haven center John Harrar said. “They all can shoot. They’re all long. It’s a good team.”
Defensively, Lower Merion seemed resigned to allow Harrar his points, which he duly obliged in a season-high 31 points, eight boards and five assists. But aside from four 3-pointers from Ryan Morris, Haven generated little else. Beyond Morris, Haven was 0-for-9 from beyond the arc.
Even had they shot better, they seemed unable to slow the Aces’ momentum in the least.
As for the shirts, Walker-X, who is sidelined with a fractured finger, says the plan is to continue wearing them for the remainder of the season. With the Aces having made a deep states run last year, that could afford them many chances to share a message of diversity and inclusion.
“I think it’s just the morally right thing to do,” Fennell said. “There’s a lot of people out there who are getting discriminated against and sometimes they do have a voice. Why not share their voice? We’re on a good stage where we can say that. Our team is very diverse, we’re all best friends. And I think we’re a very diverse team, we should show people that, that it works.”
“We’ve always been a team,” Payne said. “We’ve always been a family. We just show that no matter race you are, no matter what religion you are, we’re all the same. That’s what we are.”
The full team statement by Lower Merion: