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McCaffery: Fredia Gibbs remembers how 1981 Chester High girls team was a knockout

Chester's Fredia Gibbs, on the basketball court in 1981. (DFM File)

Long before she would become world-recognized for how powerfully she could hit things, Fredia Gibbs learned the sports value of the accurate if gentle touch.

She was growing up in the Fairgrounds, a housing project in Chester Township, and she had begun to enjoy shooting a basketball at an outdoor court. One day, she heard a familiar, helpful voice.

“Use the backboard,” a man said. So, she did. She flipped the ball against the backboard and watched it softly bounce through the rim. So she did it again. And again. And again. All with that tutor, one of the greatest basketball players in Chester history, repeating: “The backboard. Use it.”

“It was Emerson Baynard,” Gibbs was saying the other day, on the phone from Long Beach, Calif. “He taught me how to master that shot. I’ll never forget that, or those days. I remember Debbie DeJarnette there. She lived in the Fairgrounds. She played at Cheyney U. She was a superstar for Vivian Stringer. She was the first girl I ever saw with a college uniform on. From the projects. The first one. And a black girl. It inspired me.”

Gibbs went from Chester to Cabrini College, where she was a dominating basketball player before her athletic path led her to be recognized as “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World.”

That she did while winning three world championships in Muay Thai kickboxing, another three with her Tae Kwon Do skills and through her rise to contention in professional boxing. The Cheetah. That was her nickname, earned one knockout at a time, and she had 15 of those while building a 16-0 career kickboxing record.

Gibbs is 56 and living in Long Beach, Calif., still involved in the business of combat sports, even though she is no longer throwing real punches. As for that competitive streak, the one that drove her to master the bank shot and win three world championships for her sanctioned violence, that will never vanish. So when the bracketologists made her 1981 Chester High Clippers the No. 13 seed in the mythical Sweet 16 Delco Madness tournament to reveal the best girls basketball team in Delaware County history, her instinct was to counter-punch.

“We had a lot of heat on that team,” Gibbs said. “We had Lorian Conyers. ‘Hot Shot.’ She was grabbing rebounds with one hand. We had Teresa Govens. ‘Too Tall.’ Debbie Sydnor. We were the Fearsome Five. That’s why we were so good. We had Teresa Pope coming off the bench. We had a lot of heat on that team that year. We were burning girls’ socks off. Their sneakers, too.”

The Clippers, who were 25-3, defeated Norristown to win the District 1 Class AAA championship before losing in the semifinals of the PIAA Tournament to eventual champion William Allen. Gibbs, an All-Delco, averaged 24.3 points and 11 rebounds in three state-tournament victories, her big-stage presence showing years before she began to kick opponents around for cash and fame.

She has posed for a bronze statue, only the second ever sculpted to honor a combat-sports participant. The other was Bruce Lee. She has won fights and fans all over the world. But that one season at Chester High, where boys basketball dominance has stretched through generations but the girls programs have enjoyed only the odd years of success, that was when she learned how to win.

“It was awesome, considering that we were zero-and-25 for a very long time,” Gibbs said. “We had to have the right coach. And Coach Bat (Mark Battinieri) came along and we had one of the best team in Lady Clippers history.”

The fans caught on, throwing their voices behind the girls team, the way they have already supported the boys.

“They had no choice,” Gibbs said. “Fredia Gibbs was on the team. The crowds came out. They sure did.”

Gibbs finished with 1,705 points, still the Chester girls scoring record, then became an All-American at Cabrini. Govens had a successful career at Temple. The girls success, though, wouldn’t endure at Chester, not as it has with the boys program. There was a spike in success in 1999 and 2000 behind the talented Charlene Thomas, now an assistant coach at Chester Charter. But it was the virtual one-and-done nature of that 1981 power that has given it a place of honor in Chester High basketball lore.

Can it continue in the Delco Madness Tournament, concocted and conducted by the Daily Times? Why not?

In the mock opener, the Clippers stunned the fourth-seeded, 2009 Archbishop Carroll Patriots, 66-65, when Gibbs swished both ends of a one-and-one with no time left in regulation before Govens took over in overtime. And in the Elite Eight Sunday, the Clippers delighted their vocal fan base by shocking No. 5 Nether Providence of 1983, 59-58. Gibbs made a steal and raced the length of the Palestra floor for the game-winning layup with a second left in overtime. That sent the Clippers to the Final Four at the Wells Fargo Center, where they will confront top-seeded Carroll of 1979.

“Chester is definitely going to make a run,” proclaimed Gibbs, among the most famed female athletes in Delaware County history. “If someone says it can’t be done, smile and then reply, ‘Maybe it can’t.’ But, hey, Chester won’t be the ones to say so until we’ve tried.”

The legend continues. As for that game-winning layup Sunday? The Most Dangerous Woman in the World flicked it gently off the backboard.

To contact Jack McCaffery, email him at jmccaffery@21st-centurymedia.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery

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