De George: Empty Chester gym shows just what we’re missing during pandemic

CHESTER – There’s quiet in an empty high school gym, in the era of COVID-19. And then there’s the deafening silence of the Fred Pickett Gymnasium.

With half the stands folded up Thursday night, with the DJed squeals of Cardi B reverberating off the brick corners, with the Chester step team’s usually show-stopping routine answered only with their own echoes, the lack of spectators hits home at Chester High more than most. To know the electricity of the Clip Joint in normal times is to miss it profoundly now.

So it was Thursday, with 71 souls in attendance – players, coaches, refs and janitors included – as Chester and Penn Wood played a boys basketball game that should’ve drawn out a community. It’s one thing to lament the lost ambience of a Central League gym on a weekday afternoon. It’s another to reacquaint your mind to the palpable eeriness of a sedate Chester High, from what once would’ve been taken for granted as a rocking crowd replaced by yawning quiet.

Empty stands look on as Chester’s Shaquan Horsey, left, skies for an alley-oop attempt last Thursday at the Fred Pickett Gymnasium against Penn Wood. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group)

“It’s very weird,” Chester coach Keith Taylor said after a 74-56 win over the Patriots. “We’re just happy to be playing, just happy for this opportunity to play a game.”

Instead of the murmur of hundreds of fans’ conversations, you got little more than the squeak of sneakers. Instead of a crowd to fire up, the step team elicited only tinny rattling from unoccupied stands. No one was even there to inform the officials of possible deficiencies in their eyesight, a public service rendered moot.

It was such a stark contrast to the last time the Clippers took the court. That fateful second Wednesday night of March, one of the last normal days before the coronavirus pandemic forced the world – sports and otherwise – to a screeching halt, couldn’t have been further from Thursday’s atmosphere. Then, at Cardinal O’Hara, a full house nearly imploded upon Zahmir Carroll’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Simon Gratz in the second round of the PIAA Class 6A tournament, a city-wide catharsis a day after the shooting death of basketball player Edward Harmon and his friend, Tayvonne Avery.

Chester basketball’s value to a community was clear that day. It remains so, even if expressing it in person has been deemed hazardous during the pandemic and has had to transmute.

“We’ve been out so long, getting this feeling back, since our last game that we won in overtime, we’re just happy to be back on the floor playing,” Taylor said. “… What this does is bring the community together and bring the city back together. It takes our mind off of everything that’s going on now in the world.”

Taylor’s mind was on Chester basketball last week, even if his body couldn’t be there. Taylor’s son tested positive for COVID-19 while home from school on break, meaning Taylor had to stay away from the program until the Wednesday before the Jan. 22 season opener against Chester Charter Scholars Academy.

Taylor tuned in to a live feed of practice and connected with players in solo Zoom sessions, before he could get back in the gym.

“The last couple of years, it’s always been something to start off the year that’s been rough,” senior point guard Fareed Burton said. “And that was another thing to start off, already with everything going on in the world and without our coach for a week. We adapt to things easily. Nothing really breaks us, so we got used to it quick.”

Thursday, that meant no relying on the stands to generate energy. The Chester bench was loud when it had to be. Plays that would normally get the crowd going had to suffice at amping up the five guys on the floor, from a big rebound to a steal and fastbreak layup. Shots like Burton’s buzzer-beater to end the first quarter got Chester’s bench plenty excited, even if there were no fans to propagate the wave of excitement through.

“We just get each other hyped up, just keep telling each other to keep pushing and keep working and we’re going to make it as a team, because that’s what this game is,” said senior Karell Watkins, who scored 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. It’s a team effort. Everything we do is team-oriented, and we try to push everybody to be 100 percent.”

Resilience isn’t new at Chester, not for this group, not for this program. Watkins uses the analogy of “a minor setback for a major comeback”: Wearing masks or having to confront empty seats is in the former category. The latter speaks to a team that felt it was talented enough and united enough to fulfill a mission of winning a state title last year, denied by the pandemic.

If there’s one silver lining to any of this, it’s that empty gyms have forced innovation. Closed stands mean less interaction with the community, but livestream broadcasts of games offer a wider reach into the Chester diaspora. Which means Taylor gets a wider and more varied set of feedback nightly.

“They still text me, you should’ve done this, should’ve done that,” Taylor said. “But they’re still supporting us.”

That, as ever, remains no matter what.

To contact Matthew De George, email Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.

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