CAMDEN, NJ — Wear a shirt and tie on game day.
Memorize over a dozen plays.
Maintain steady academics.
We’re not talking about a group of March Madness contenders, or the Paramount Pictures blockbuster "Coach Carter" starring Samuel L. Jackson.
We’re talking about a group of Camden middle schoolers.
“Our boys buy right into the culture and I know that sounds cliche but you need a great culture from the beginning to have success,” KIPP Lanning Square Middle basketball coach Matt George told TAPinto Camden at the school’s gymnasium Wednesday.
The KIPP Lanning Square Middle School REVS have gone undefeated with four championships since 2015. The team has won every year since the school's launch in 2015 and has over 60 W's total.
Most recently the Revs won the Turkey Jam in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, this past November and beat out Christina Seix Academy in a holiday tournament in December.
The streak continues as KIPP — which has gone 5-0 so far this season — prepares to take on the chippy Cinnaminson this Thursday.
From nursing homes to home court
George, originally from Swedesboro, NJ, has been teaching in Camden for over 7 years.
He joined KIPP when it first opened as the athletic administrator and a physical education teacher.
Prior to that, he served as a substitute teacher at Freedom Prep Charter School. But harking back more, the coach worked as a nursing home activity coordinator.
“Yes that’s true,” George said, laughing, “I originally went to [Wesley College] in Delaware for Communications. I was on a radio show in a college, and we had a TV show to talk about sports and stuff like that. I said, ‘This is gonna be easy’ and then reality kicked in.”
Today, George runs the athletics at KIPP, which includes a wide breadth of sports such as soccer, field hockey, wrestling, baseball and track.
“I think we just about add a sport every year, which is great because we're giving our kids more opportunities,” said George.
George said that thus far KIPP hasn’t been as involved with other City of Camden teams, as the programs are not as diverse. Also, holding their own against teams like Clearview, Northern Burlington, and Benjamin Banneker has proven exciting for the players.
This year, the team has expanded to take on teams within a South Jersey League.
“It’s about the opportunity for our boys,” he said. “When they walk up to this huge gate to take on one of these teams, they’re shell-shocked.”
The inspiration to expand his players’ horizons, George said, is his wife Melissa. She, and daughter Emma, are familiar with the team and remind the coach of valuable lessons.
“You have to put emphasis on family because the guys see that too,” George said. “I have a great wife and a beautiful daughter and it can be tough when you’re playing so many games, plus practices. But you have to make the time.”
George has even more on his hands with a baby boy on the way as well.
A brotherhood of players
This year, George named among his powerhouses, center Avion Pritchett and power forward Amir Speights. Assistant coach, Zhaire McCormick has also been critical in the program. He said their communication on the court breeds unselfish basketball that’s contagious in the best way.
George also credits an app called Coach Base for the team’s IQ on the court.
“I can be at home and draw up a play, and upload it like this,” he said pointing to his phone, “and all the kids have to do is press play to see how it would work.”
George said he is less interested in streaks, and more in teaching the fundamentals of basketball and making sure his players are successful off the court as well. Every player is required to maintain a GPA of at least 2.0.
However, former REVS aren’t shy about letting their pride show.
“You better keep the streak alive,” the coach admitted to hearing them say.
"It’s beyond that,” George said.
Still, each time the team wins a championship they raise a finger to commemorate their total - recently raising four fingers.
What happens when they run out of fingers? George paused before saying, “I guess we’ll move to toes.”