ANAHEIM, Calif. — If you buy into marketing hype and scary headlines, there aren’t many places more geographically and culturally farther apart than Chester, Pa., and that famous little amusement park down the street from the Honda Center.
But while Arizona Wildcats forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson isn’t about to call his hometown the Happiest Place on Earth, there is a toughness, a resiliency, a bond, that he says Chester natives develop while living in what was called America’s second-most dangerous city just two years ago.
That bond was visible Wednesday, when Hollis-Jefferson sought out a photo with Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, also a native of Chester, and then posted it on Facebook.
That toughness will be visible today, when Ryan’s notoriously edgy Badgers will face Arizona in the NCAA West Region final at the Honda Center — just over 2 miles from Disneyland — for a Final Four berth.
“I would say we have great people in Chester,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “We have people who care about the kids, but there’s a lot of people who don’t. But for the most part I’m one of the people who wants to work and change that.”
So is Ryan. The Badgers coach says he still tries to help out in Chester, if not always with his limited time then with money.
“I try to help them with some things financially so they can help these kids learn not just how to dribble a basketball but also … other life skills,” Ryan said. “The more young people in Chester that can be helped that way, just like with any community, it’s a good thing.”
Not surprisingly then, it was at a Boys and Girls Club camp in Chester during the summer of 2012 that Hollis-Jefferson met Ryan. They talked about basketball and, of course, Chester.
Ryan is known for talking at length about the Pennsylvania town, as he willingly did Friday at his Honda Center news conference, and Hollis-Jefferson laughed when asked about Ryan’s tendency.
“That’s what everybody keeps saying, man,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “We talked for a while. I met him in Chester. He loves Chester.”
Ryan’s players noticed, too.
“Yeah, he always talks about the tough streets of Chester,” guard Josh Gasser said, adding sarcastically: “I can relate, being from Port Washington, Wisconsin. It’s very similar.”
Guard Ben Brust, who nearly busted out laughing, wasn’t even going to try to compare his life.
“I’ve got a golf course in my backyard,” Brust said.
But the truth of it is that the Badgers under Ryan have historically been known for toughness and resiliency, always reaching the NCAA tournament and finishing in the top four in the Big Ten for all of the 13 seasons he’s coached them.
They’re not from Chester but maybe have a piece of it in them.
“I always ice my knee after practice, coming off surgery, so (Ryan’s) always like, ‘Back in my day, I never needed ice. I scraped my knee and I was good in Chester,’ ” Gasser said.
Gasser said the Wisconsin coach also “definitely has funny stories” about Chester that the players like to hear, so maybe it’s that gritty sense of humor that helped Ryan and Hollis-Jefferson hit it off.
Their bond came quickly, no matter the nearly 47 years between them. Hollis-Jefferson said he took a photo with Ryan at the Boys and Girls Club and, when he met the Wisconsin coach on Wednesday, the greeting and another photo was easy.
“I said, ‘What up Bo-bee?’ ”Hollis-Jefferson said. “That’s my guy.”
Bo-bee? Yes. Well, maybe that has more to do with Hollis-Jefferson himself.
One way Hollis-Jefferson coped with life in Chester was to put a positive spin on everything.
He is often the Wildcats’ bubbliest personality, not just with his aggressive play and free-throw-line “Shoulder Shimmy,” but also just by lighting up the locker room with a smile.
Hollis-Jefferson said he’s always been a happy person, and Chester never changed that. While he said he has “lost a couple of family members and friends,” Hollis-Jefferson said media attention toward the town’s murder rate has been “super maximized” toward the negative.
He sees both sides of it.
“It’s pretty tough to be from Chester,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Not a lot of kids have done it (play college basketball). A lot more could have but it’s pretty tough.
“But it’s a good environment for us. We grow up tough and we let that anger out on the court and it shows.”
Ryan saw that passion on the court in his day, too, the 1950s and 1960s, and says he sees it in Hollis-Jefferson’s game today.
“In order to get anything done, you had to be better than average, and you had to be willing to fight for what you were going to get,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to have that gritty side. You’ve got to have that side that you’re not going to back down. …
“In order to be a player there, you’ve got to be a player. You’ve got to beat people out. You’ve got to.”
But off the court, in those days, the adversity wasn’t as intense.
Ryan spoke Friday about the city’s once-powerful industry, and the slogan of “What Chester Makes, Makes Chester” that was plastered on a large sign on top of the Delaware County Electric Company from 1926-1973.
“Sinclair, Sun Oil, Boeing, General Electric, Alcoa…” Ryan said. “Lee Iacocca goes his start a block and a half from where I lived. Ford was right down the street. It was booming. Lot of jobs.”
Those days are over now.
“As (jobs disappeared) then of course the murder rates and everything else, it wasn’t something you want to advertise,” Ryan said. “There are a lot of influences in Chester that can take people the other way and fortunately there are influences that can take you in a positive way.
“I’m always thankful for those who choose the positive way and Rondae has definitely done that.”