RHS basketball team inspires fervor

The defining moment of the Roosevelt basketball team’s quest to win the school’s first state championship since 1949 may have been after the title game that Central Catholic won 85-76 on March 9. The Riders had outplayed the Rams in the first half and the loss seemed agonizing.

In the final month of the season, the Roosevelt team’s storybook playoff run had lifted the spirits of the school and North Portland community. And now as the crushed Roosevelt players walked off the UofP Chiles Center court—thousands of Roosevelt supporters lifted them with a thunderous standing ovation.

RHS cheering section at the final game for the state tournament title
RHS cheering section at the final game for the state tournament title

Sociologists tell us that the success of high school sports teams can become a larger symbol for the resurgence of an entire school and even the larger community. Roosevelt has been steadily rising since a $482-million campus renovation in 2017. Enrollment has doubled to 1,400 students. It has rising graduation rates and sparkling extra-curricular success. The school has produced an award-wining jazz band and theater troupes. Nine sports teams have won state playoff berths or sent individuals to state and national competition since last year.

But few people outside of Roosevelt campus know of those accomplishments. The basketball team’s exhilarating season—and North Portland’s fan mania—provided a tipping point in public and media awareness.

RHS students cheering during the state tournament
RHS students cheering during the state basketball tournament

Roosevelt boys basketball has been excelling since taking sixth place in the 2022 state basketball tournament, the school’s best performance since 2007. The season the team had great promise with three returning starters and the previous year’s star, Terrence Hill Jr., moving back to North Portland for his senior year. The Roosevelt starters had known each other since they were kids at Cesar Chavez, Peninsula, Chief Joseph and Ockley Green schools. They had played together on playgrounds, driveways and clubs. They formed a chemistry that made them more than the mere sum of their parts.

The Riders rocketed to a 13-2 start by mid-season. When RHS clinched the Portland Interscholastic League (PIL) crown on February 13, excitement boiled over to the larger North Portland community. The Riders drew standing-room only home gym crowds for playoff wins over David Douglas and Gresham. That earned Roosevelt a No. 3 seed for the eight-team state tournament at the University of Portland, March 6-9.

The Riders edged PIL rival Grant 67-65 in a nail-biting, first-round game on March 6 to advance to the semi-finals against Beaverton. Peninsula Optimist Club leaders had so much faith that Roosevelt would defeat Beaverton to advance to the championship game, that they donated $3,000 to provide tickets to any student who couldn’t afford one. The Optimists wisely purchased the tickets before all 4,862 tickets sold out mid-week for the final match Saturday against Central Catholic. 

RHS supporters posted appeals for tickets on Facebook sites. People soon packed into North Portland restaurants and taverns to celebrate every night Roosevelt played. Chris Penner, owner of the Twilight Room, reported that basketball fans surged into his establishment all four nights of the state tournament. Revelers included Jim Kennison, a Roosevelt alumni leader. “Many alums and donors met at the Twilight Room before the games and then walked to Chiles Center,” he said. 

First sold-out state championship game in nearly a decade

An hour before the 4:30 pm game tip-off, serpentine lines of upwards of 5,000 fans stretched in all directions from the Chiles Center. 

Crowd lined up for the final state title game between RHS and Central Catholic
Crowd lined up for the final state title game between RHS
and Central Catholic

The final state championship game features the two top schools from the entire state, and some years teams come from long distances and bring few supporters with them. But Roosevelt and Central Catholic both have a robust local fan base. The championship game sold out for the first time in a decade. Central Catholic brought nearly one thousand supporters, many clad in the school’s burgundy and gold colors. Yet Riders fans sheared the Rams with more than two thousand fans of their own, including Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, RHS class of 1980, who yelled himself hoarse all three nights. “We love our small town and when we make it to the main stage—we show up!” he said.

RHS alumnus Roland Reschke was almost certainly the only person in the arena who had attended both the 2024 and 1949 championship games. Roosevelt took the state crown in 1949 with Reschke as a reserve forward. 

So many cars traveled to the recent playoff game, that they overwhelmed the UP parking lot and surrounding neighborhood, forcing Reschke and his son to park nearly one mile away. He couldn’t get inside the Chiles Center until the game had begun and when he couldn’t find a seat, stood to watch the game. Several fans recognized his photo from a recent North Peninsula Review profile and one offered Reschke her seat. The 92-year-old was already so engrossed in watching the Riders, he declined the offer and stood for the whole game.

An estimated several thousand people also watched the cable game telecast by KRCW. Bartenders at The Nitehawk, McMenamins and Kenton Station saw patrons, even non-sports fans, shifting their eyes from their pints and onto the TV monitors to roar robustly for Roosevelt. “That’s never happened here before,” exclaimed Kenton Station manager, Andrew Wright.

The Portland Fire & Rescue Bureau even reported crews at Station 26 on N. Lombard cheered the Riders via the broadcast, as they waited on standby for calls. 

After the game, departing Chiles Center fans filled North Portland bistros and pubs including the Sundown Pub just west of the fire station. “A whole load of RHS parents came over after the game and took up all 48 seats in the place!” smiled owner Julian Orr.

UP Sociology Professor Andrew Guest sees larger significance with such celebrations. He noted, “School sports are one of the rare things that bind Americans to particular communities. Roosevelt’s success may have a particularly powerful effect because North Portland has not generally been thought of as the coolest part of town. I’ve been a proud North Portland resident for 20 years.”

And leave it to the most experienced observer in the Chiles Center that night, Roland Reschke, to have the final word. “Roosevelt is really, really good, and I’m coming back next year to watch them play.”