There was a time in Jersey City basketball folklore when being a Snyder High School basketball player meant that you were about as close to hoop royalty as possible.
After all, “The Tigers’ Den” is where the legendary scorer Mike Rooney started raining jump shots from above, before he headed off to St. Bonaventure, then the University of Oklahoma. It was where former Syracuse University and NBA star Rafael Addison began to carve his niche forever as a Jersey City hoop legend.
It was where people like Floyd Jacobs and Andre Addison and David “Tree Top” Raschard led the Tigers to the 1977 HCIAA championship. With a nickname like “Tree Top,” you know he had to be a good one.
It was the site where the late Clarence “Boo Bee” Richardson dominated during the early 80s, creating a buzz and excitement all his own. If you were a Snyder player and had a highly recognizable nickname, you definitely were somebody.
And Snyder was the place where in 1990, players like Roy “Pooh” Hairston (another great nickname) and Rahkiim Burgess led the Tigers to the NJSIAA Group III state championship, the first-ever state title won by a Jersey City public school.
There were great basketball coaches like Eddie Butler and Artie Rubin, basketball lifers who got the most of their players.
That’s what Snyder was all about. The school was all about producing countless basketball stars over the years.
One of those stars was Shelton Gibbs, who was a teammate of Richardson’s during the early 80s, then went on to become one of the finest players to ever grace Yanitelli Center for the Peacocks of St. Peter’s College back then, St. Peter’s University now.
Gibbs was a tenacious small forward who could seriously play anywhere on the floor. He spent his entire basketball playing career in Jersey City – then went back to his alma mater to become a coach, first an assistant under Rubin in that state championship era, then later as the head coach.
Just three seasons ago, Gibbs had to endure a five-win season, an almost unthinkable total for the once-mighty school on Bergen Avenue.
However, Gibbs brought the program back to respectability last year with a highly competitive team.
This year, the Tigers are roaring once again as one of the county’s best teams.
The Tigers own an 8-1 record after losing a tough, hard-fought 56-53 contest to the state’s No. 4-ranked team Hudson Catholic on Tuesday. “The Tigers’ Den” was packed to capacity and the atmosphere was electric. It was almost as if you could turn the clock back 30 years and remember those wonderful days of Snyder basketball from long ago.
“It’s been a long time,” Gibbs said. “It’s been a while.”
But Gibbs had a sense that the Tigers would be a force to be reckoned with after a highly successful summer.
“We have five players back from last year,” Gibbs said. “We went 17-4 in the Jersey City Recreation Summer League. We played in a fall league at Linden High School and won a couple of games there. So I had a good feeling about our kids. The reason why is because they all play together and they work very hard. Last year, I think we were a little inexperienced and they still did pretty well. With the guys coming back and the way they played in the summer and fall, I could see that they were smarter and wiser.”
With that in mind, Gibbs was anticipating the season.
“To be honest, I think we were all looking forward to it,” Gibbs said. “The kids were ready to play and they couldn’t wait for the season to begin. They knew the task was going to be tough. In our division, with Hudson Catholic, Marist, they’re good teams.”
Gibbs got a good feeling about his team during a Christmas tournament, when they trailed both Fort Lee and Tenafly, yet came back to win.
“We were down the whole game and we never got rattled,” Gibbs said. “We toughed it out. That was a good sign that they could do well even with the adversity. They just keep fighting.”
Leading the way for the Tigers is senior point guard James Richardson (no relation to “Boo Bee”). The 5-foot-11 Richardson is averaging 22 points per game.
“This is his third year with me and James has become a good student of the game,” Gibbs said. “He loves the game. He loves to practice and play. He has definitely paid his dues. I’m really not surprised with what he’s done because he works so hard. He has worked to get better.”
Richardson is getting some looks from schools like Felician and Dominican, but he’s better than a Division II player. He should be getting interest from Division I schools. He’s that good.
Junior William Conyers is another standout returnee. The 6-foot-3 Conyers is averaging 19 points per game.
“He can play all five positions,” Gibbs said of Conyers.
Davon Streeter is a 6-foot-3 senior center.
“He didn’t have much varsity experience before last year, but he’s worked so hard to improve,” Gibbs said. “He is constantly the last one to leave the gym and plays all the time.”
Streeter had 27 points and 10 rebounds in a recent win over Lincoln.
Junior D’Vontaay Harris is another guard. The 5-foot-7 Harris is a deadly shooter from the perimeter.
Kindel Cuttino is the team’s defensive stopper. The 5-foot-8 Cuttino gives the Tigers a lift on the defensive end.
Junior Marcus Benjamin is another inside player. The 6-foot-2 forward had 17 points and 12 rebounds in a recent win over Barringer of Newark.
“He’s made a big difference,” Gibbs said. “I think each kid can give us double figures at any time. That makes us very hard to defend.”
When 6-foot-2 junior forward Jerome Hilton is able to return to action after sitting out due to academic difficulties, the Tigers will become an even more formidable foe.
Senior Tyler Caldwell, a 6-foot-3 forward, has been battling injury, so he’s been on the sidelines, but he’s another player who could contribute.
The talent well hasn’t run dry, as Gibbs is keeping freshman Tykel Tate on the varsity roster.
“We’re keeping three freshmen and three sophomores,” Gibbs said. “They haven’t seen much time, but they’re learning. As long as they keep coming in the gym, they’ll get better.”
So there is a sense of achievement, a sense of pride coming from “The Tigers’ Den” once again.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Gibbs said. “There’s still a lot of season left. But since I’ve been the head coach, we have 17 kids in the gym on a regular basis. That’s a positive. We have kids playing basketball, kids who are willing to accept their roles. They’re buying into it and this is a team that can only get better.”
It was proven Tuesday when the Tigers put a big scare into defending county champ Hudson Catholic, holding a lead with 1:30 left only to see the Hawks soar past to get the hard-fought win. Snyder is a big-time factor once again in Hudson County basketball, much like they were in an era gone by.