Hollis-Jefferson learned his lesson

When Rylanda Hollis got home that morning seven years ago after her all-night shift as a bar maid, she did as she always did -- poked her head into her sons' rooms to make sure they were sound asleep.

It was 4 a.m., maybe 5 a.m. when she got home from one of her two jobs. Her older son, Rahlir, 16 at the time, was away at a basketball tournament, but 13-year-old Rondae was supposed to be home asleep in their Chester, Pennsylvania, home.

When she checked Rondae's bed, he wasn't there.

OK, she thought; before panicking she'd call some of his friends' parents. Maybe he had slept over at a friend's house; maybe the boys had fallen asleep playing video games. But Rondae wasn't at any friends' houses. He wasn't at any relative's house, either.

Her thoughts turned to all the horrible things that could've happened. Violence. Kidnap. Murder. This was -- after all -- Chester, which is known as one of the most dangerous cities in Pennsylvania.

But there was one more place he might be, she knew. So she grabbed her shoes, walked out the front door and began walking up Penn Street, shouting her son's name.

Two blocks north, Rondae heard his mother. He took one last shot, grabbed his basketball, yelled to his friends and sprinted away from the Seventh Street basketball courts. Today, Rylanda knows that should've been the first place she should have looked. Though her house was where Rondae slept and ate, to Rondae -- and so many other kids in the Chester community -- those courts were home.

"That's a rite of passage in Chester -- you have to play on the Seventh Street blacktop," Rondae's childhood AAU coach Hassan Muhammad said. "If you're anyone in this city that plays ball, you go through the Seventh Street blacktop."

And that's exactly what Rondae did -- he went through those Seventh Street blacktops. Though he hasn't been back to play in a few years, he knows that's where his game was born and bred.

So when fans see the Arizona sophomore come up with a crazy dunk, he probably saw it first from Robbie Red on the Seventh Street courts. When the big man's handle surprises opponents, they should know he probably picked that up from Karan Burton there. And when he flicks his wrist a funny way on a layup, know that he got that from his grandfather, who played on the Seventh Street courts until he was 60.

And his defensive mentality? His brother Rahlir -- who played at Temple from 2009-13 -- taught him that at the Seventh Street courts, too.

The genetic lines of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's basketball DNA go straight back into that blacktop.

For most of his time on those courts, everyone knew him as "Rahlir's little brother."

There were a number of courts and they were all tiered. The back courts were where the little kids played, the ones in a bit closer were where the older kids who weren't very good played, and the court right at the front -- the one that normally drew a crowd, even on weeknights -- was where Rondae had always aspired to play.

He didn't get invited until he was 12. But he'd always show up and work out on the back courts, waiting for the call-up. Up until Rondae was 12, Rahlir and his friends would only allow Rahlir's little brother to play "Taps" with them.

The game was essentially one-on-all. Play to 21, but you have no teammates. Fouls don't count. You just need to get the ball in the bucket. Elbows were thrown, players were pushed, and bloody knees were just something you got accustomed to while playing on cement.

It got pretty intense, but no more intense than the one-on-one games between Rondae and Rahlir. They'd play over and over again. Sometimes they'd play for hours, until they couldn't move.

"It'd just get too hostile," Rahlir said. "We'd play so hard against one another it was like we didn't even know each other."

Usually Rahlir would win, but every time he did he would tell Rondae that he had to get better. He had to find ways to exploit his opponents and use his own strengths -- whatever they were -- to define the game. Rondae needed to learn, Rahlir would tell him, that he had to make sure he always won his last game. As long as you win the last game, you're the champion.

When he was 12 -- and no bigger than 5-foot-10, 120 pounds -- Rahlir's little brother was finally invited to play on the top court, in front of the big crowd, under the lights.

The rules were simple: They'd play to 16 by 1s and 2s; call your own fouls, don't be soft, don't keep stats, make sure your team wins. Most of the time they played straight up instead of "win by two," because it forced guys to be more competitive and get defensive stops. Winners kept the court. Losers went to a lower-tiered court.

This is why Rondae needed to keep winning, so he could keep playing and then could leave on his own accord -- that's what the Seventh Street courts taught him.

This mentality stayed with him when he left the Seventh Street courts. In middle-school AAU, he was confused as to why his teammates didn't have the same kind of aversion to losing that he had.

They played all over the country and faced players like Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle. Hollis-Jefferson always wanted to be matched up with the opponents' best player, but in these types of games his team typically lost.

"A lot of my kids would get upset, but Rondae would wear it," Muhammad said. "He'd wear that loss. He didn't want to eat. He didn't want to go back to the hotel or pool. He didn't want to play video games with the other boys. He wanted to prepare for the next time he saw those kids."

That's exactly what he would do. He'd remember Rahlir's advice: You constantly needed to find a way for you and your team to get better so you could win that final game. So when most 14-year-olds went back to the hotel after AAU games and slept or relaxed, he gathered his teammates and coaches in a single hotel room.

"He would force us to sit down and watch film with them," Muhammad said.

That drive didn't slow when he got into high school.

Playing outdoors began to hurt his knees, so he moved his game inside. Chester High School coach Larry Yarbray Sr. also ran the Boys & Girls Club of Chester, so most summer days and weekends, Hollis-Jefferson would spend all day there. Sometimes the two would work out from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with short bouts of ping pong in between their workouts (Hollis-Jefferson still hasn't beaten Yarbray).

Then, on Yarbray's drive home, his cell phone would ring. He wouldn't even have to look at the screen to know who was calling. It was Hollis-Jefferson, looking to get another workout in at the high school gymnasium.

"Even when you don't have time to work out he was calling you, trying to get you to come in," Yarbray said. "I wish I could've just given him a key."

But it all worked. Chester won the state championship during his sophomore and junior seasons, going a combined 65-1. During his senior year, Chester went 28-4. One of those losses came in the most important game -- the Pennsylvania state championship; the final game of the season, the final game of his career.

He went straight to the locker room after the game and only returned to the medal ceremony once Yarbray sent an assistant in to get him.

"If it was up to me I wouldn't have gone to get it," Hollis-Jefferson said.

But he did, and it served as an important reminder. They had lost their No. 2 player to an ankle sprain early in that game. Hollis-Jefferson put it on himself. Maybe he hadn't pushed his teammates enough throughout the season so one of them could've been ready to step into that spot, in that moment when the team needed him most.

He remembers what that medal taught him, but he has no idea where it is now.

Last season, the Wildcats didn't win their final game. Arizona lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. This season, he's doing what he can to make sure that doesn't happen.

At the beginning of the year, Hollis-Jefferson realized that maybe what the Wildcats missed last year was a spark of sorts. So, he approached Arizona coach Sean Miller before the season began and suggested it might be best for the team if he doesn't start. Maybe it's best for the team if he takes the role of sixth man.

"I know a lot of guys want to start, want to hear their name called -- it gives them that feeling they want," said Hollis-Jefferson, who has moved into the starting lineup the past three games. "But that doesn't matter to me."

What does matter is winning, getting that "W" in the last game of the year. Right now he needs to focus on getting his team there, and once he does, he'll cross that bridge.

But the basics -- as he learned on the Seventh Street courts -- are the same: Play until you must stop and do whatever you must to win that last game.