WASHINGTON INFORMER: With an important basketball tournament on the horizon, the members of Roosevelt Senior High School’s boys varsity basketball team are maintaining a training regimen that keeps them in the gym at 4301 13th Street NW for hours on end.
Each morning before the start of school, the young men complete morning strength and conditioning workouts. They also participate in practice runs that reinforce the science of solid defense and offense they will once again execute on the court within a few weeks.
On June 22-23, the Roosevelt Rough Riders will compete in the DC Live Basketball Showcase at Sidwell Friends School in Northwest against student-athletes from a bevy of District public, public charter, and private schools. This tournament precedes three summer league events in which the team is also scheduled to make an appearance.
While each event provides an opportunity to solidify Roosevelt’s reputation as an athletic powerhouse, longtime basketball coach Rob Nickens said he has his sights on longer-term goals for the young men under his leadership.
“[I tell students] you’re going to get knocked down,” said Nickens, who’s in his 18th year as a basketball coach at Roosevelt. “You’re going to lose sometimes in basketball, but you want to strive to be your best,” Nickens added. “The game of life and basketball is the same. You have to recover when you fall. I got students who made the gym their home [because] it’s a safe haven.”
On December 19, Nickens won the 400th game of his 27-year coaching career when Roosevelt defeated Dunbar High School. By the time the season ended, he had accumulated up to 419 wins.
Nickens, a native Washingtonian who credits D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), and particularly Coach Craig Hughes, as a positive influence in his life, started his coaching career at the now-defunct M.M. Washington Vocational High School. In 2008, while in his third year coaching at Roosevelt, the Rough Riders defeated the Dunbar Crimson Tide and Ballou Knights to clinch the D.C. State Athletic Association championship (DCSAA).
In the years following, Roosevelt won four more city titles and another championship with Nickens at the helm. In 2020, Nickens was designated All-Met Coach of the Year. This happened as he continued to foster ties with youth in the Ward 4 community as a DPR Roving Leader.
Along the way, Nickens guided male athlete after male athlete along a path to academic and career advancement. Those who came up under Nickens include Johnnie Shuler, who went on to play at LaSalle University between 2014 and 2018. Michael Warren, another Rough Rider, went on to attend California State University Northridge in 2015. Hershell Grant, a 2012 Roosevelt graduate, played at Clarendon College in Clarendon, Texas and later Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Troy Stancil, another Roosevelt alumnus, played basketball at Jackson State University before becoming an assistant basketball coach at Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, Delaware.
Nickens said a key element of his program involves showing his basketball players the bigger picture and reminding them about the life lessons they can glean from navigating the court. “This is about getting kids to the next level in college and career to take care of themselves. We want an opportunity not to make them a statistic,” Nickens said. “We’re dealing with shooting after shooting, so basketball is a small piece of the puzzle.”
Amid the Chaos, One Player Looks to Coach Rob
On May 17, Jefferson Perez, a 17-year-old student at Roosevelt, was shot and killed in the school parking lot, the Metropolitan Police Department officials said.
In the District, Jefferson’s death followed that of Arianna Davis, another young person who died days after she caught a bullet in a hail of gunfire on Mother’s Day. On Saturday, community members memorialized Arianna during a candlelight vigil at RFK stadium.
In the days following Jefferson’s death, D.C. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and DC Public School’s Crisis Response Team coordinated mental health support and counseling for students and teachers at Roosevelt. The D.C. Council recently issued one of two votes on a fiscal year 2024 budget that allocates funds for a leadership academy at nearby MacFarland Middle School conducted by the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.
For years, Nickens has engaged the young men on his team during the most difficult periods of their adolescence. That mindset carried over into the pandemic when he called several colleges and preparatory programs on behalf of five of senior student-athletes. He, along with coaches at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, also gelled together youth teams that competed against college and adult male players in scrimmages that were recorded and sent to scouts.
This happened at a time when DCSAA and District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association kept school athletic facilities closed. It also preceded D’Avoni “Duke” Jones’ transfer from Coolidge High School to Roosevelt during the virtual learning period.
Upon entering Coolidge in the fall of 2019, D’Avoni joined the boys junior varsity basketball team, soon after becoming a varsity player. While he wanted to carve out a legacy separate from his brother, former Rough Rider D’Angelo Johnson, D’Avoni said memories of how Nickens interacted with him and his brother eventually compelled him to go to Roosevelt.
D’Avoni credits Nickens with helping him overcome pandemic-related depression that led to weight gain and almost derailed his college basketball aspirations. This fall, he’s attending Till College In Pennsylvania, thanks, in part, to a visit that Nickens coordinated and scrimmages he participated in with District natives who attend the college.
“Coach Rob wants us to keep believing in ourselves,” D’Avoni said. “He always tells us to help him help us get us to a better life. He’s telling us that we need to stay in the gym. He’s showing us that he’s there for us, asking us about our grades. Coach Rob stresses that brotherhood is key. When a teammate gets good grades, we cheer for each other. ”
A Basketball Mom Speaks
During Black History Month, Enon Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Maryland named Nickens a “Present-Day Black History Maker.” While accepting the honor, Nickens kept his remarks short, only acknowledging the work of his student-athletes and asking them to speak.
Lateesha Pete-McGinnis, a member of Enon Baptist Church and mother of Roosevet Rough Rider Brazil Hutchinson, counted among those in the congregation. Looking back on that moment, she told the Informer that Nickens’ insistence on his players’ holistic growth always instilled confidence in her about his intentions with her son.
Early on in Hutchinson’s life, Pete-McGinnis enrolled him in sports programs to keep him around positive adult male figures. She said since Hutchinson connected with Nickens in the ninth grade, Nickens has been able to hold him accountable to the game of basketball while keeping him out of the halls. Months ago, Hutchinson made the honor roll for the first time as a high school student, a feat Pete-McGinnis said Nickens played a significant part in engineering.
Next fall, the senior guard will most likely continue his academic and athletic journey at a community college in Kansas.
Even with what she has attempted to provide for her son, Pete-McGinniss admitted that the absence of Hutchinson’s biological father concerned her. She said that Nickens filled that void and has succeeded in keeping Hutchinson on the straight and narrow in a world where young Black men often fall to the wayside.
“I love that there are men like that in the world that young men can look up to and see and feel how they want the best for them,” Pete-McGinnis said. “He cares about those kids, and not just basketball. Other coaches wanted Brazil to win games just to win. Coach Rob asked me if I was good with Brazil’s future plans.”
Photo: Rob Nickens, coach of Roosevelt High School’s varsity basketball team for 18 years, uses basketball to help his players advance their athletic and educational goals. (Ja’Mon Jackson/Washington Informer)