Neumann-Goretti varsity basketball brought a 73-game Catholic League winning streak into La Salle College High’s gym on a crisp January Monday night in 2013. Suiting up for Neumann-Goretti was Jamal Custis, a talented wing and mid-major basketball recruit. In the stands, leading the La Salle student section in some rowdy behavior was Zaire Franklin, captain of the football team.
Both were well versed in each other’s talents, as Custis was also a star on Neumann-Goretti’s football squad.
Neumann-Goretti was the best team in the city. The long winning streak was no fluke. In order to help pull off the unlikely win, Franklin knew he would have to get into their head. Out came the verbal jabs that only added to the intense atmosphere that percolated within every nook and cranny of La Salle’s home court.
”One of his (Custis’) teammates had a really bad hairline,” Franklin said. “So every time he was shooting a free throw, we would chant ‘hair-line, hair line.’ Stuff like that. We messed with everybody except for Ja'Quan Newton. He was the best player in the city for a long time. He went to Miami.
”Literally we would just tell everybody to leave him alone because if you got him mad, he was just going to score 40-points.”
Newton would not score 40 on that night. La Salle would come away with the upset victory 65-62 despite trailing by double figures at halftime. Thanks in large part to Franklin’s heckling, something he doesn’t lest Custis forget.
Philadelphia is a big city. There is territorial pride within the city that often creates rivalries. If also leads to people from the same city not having the opportunity to interact. Such is the case with Jamal Custis, and Zaire Franklin.
”We’re from the same city but we’re from different areas,” Franklin said. “He’s from South Philly and I’m from North Philly. You guys probably don’t have any frame of reference but it’s a pretty big difference. I’m not from South Philly so, in Philadelphia if you’re not from a certain area you just don’t go there.
”I knew him because he played basketball for one of the best teams in the city (Neumann-Goretti). They were in our same division, the Catholic League. I knew who he was, he knew who I was. You just know the best players in the city.”
While sports led both to have knowledge of the other, there was no pre-existing friendship. Though there was mutual respect in their athletic abilities. The city that both called home seemingly divided them. Zaire stayed in the north and Jamal in the south.
Jamal Custis was one of Syracuse’s top skill position targets in the 2014 class. He was offered in the summer by the Orange, shortly after Zaire Franklin committed to play football at the same school. Despite the same home city and close proximity, the two were not in constant communication during the recruiting process.
Several schools were in hot pursuit of Custis, but Syracuse liked him as much as any player on their board. They were determined to add his talents to the program. One would assume that fellow Philly native Zaire Franklin would be the guy to help that cause, but that was not the case.
”When Eric (White) first offered him, he was like, ‘you’re boy from Philly,’” Franklin said. “Especially with the whole Cuse Twitter Army thing we were doing. During his recruitment, I reached out to him a couple of times. I talked to him to see where he was at, where his head was at. It was nothing really that heavy.”
Instead it was A.J. Long leading the charge to help bring Custis and many other recruits into the fold. A little over three months later, Custis verbally committed to Syracuse. Five months after, he signed with the Orange on national signing day.
Custis and Franklin arrived at Syracuse over the summer with the rest of their incoming freshmen teammates. The two bonded as they got know each other over the coming weeks. Both hailed from Philly, but had to travel hundreds of miles to connect with each other. The diversity of the team and learned commonalities created what looks to be a lasting friendship.
”We’re both huge Eagles fans, first and foremost,” Franklin said. “What happens when you come to college is you’ve got some dudes from Detroit, you’ve got some Miami dudes, some Ohio dudes in Gulley and Micah. Then you’ve got some Cali dudes in Lasker. There’s so many people from different places and you’re so far from home that you kind of get this strength in the sense of pride in where you’re from. I think we both felt that way. For a week period of time during the summer we both wore our red Phillies hat everyday. You just feel so much more of a pride in where you’re from.
”We’re from the same place, we’ve been to the same spots, we ate at the same cheesesteak spots. Our neighborhoods are on the other sides of the city but they both have the same things. We relate a lot because we’re from the same place and we’re kind of the same guy. We have very similar stories when it comes down to it. He’ll come in and say ‘man back in Philly back in the day I did this back on third.’ And I’ll have the same thing happen to me but on the other side of Broad Street. From that we became closer and we just kept hanging out more and more.”
Franklin ends the cheese steak debate, however, declaring Pat’s the clear winner.
“Geno’s is overrated,” Franklin said. “Go to Pat’s.”
From the La Salle High gym to Archbold Gymnasium on the Syracuse campus, Custis is playing basketball again in the presence of Franklin. This time, however, Franklin is not hurling verbal darts towards Custis’ squad, but rather is a teammate in a pickup game amongst several Orange football players.
”Parris (Bennett) played basketball,” Franklin said. “(Chris) Slayton played basketball. (Antwan) Cordy is really good. Juwan’s really good. Believe or not, a lot of these dudes are really good at basketball. But me, and Colton (Moskal), that’s not what we do. That’s not what we get into.
”I’m not a basketball guy so I’m just there to clown around. I’m there for good defense and hustle points. Jamal, he was the one that’s flashy and trying to dunk on everybody. Me and Jamal are on the same team. Of course we win. We don’t lose.”
While basketball has been an extension of their friendship during countless pickup games, it also is a way for Zaire to poke fun at his new confidant. He frequently reminds Jamal of the night when his school ended Neumann-Goretti’s winning streak.
”I mess with him about it all the time,” Franklin said. “Him and T-Hunt played against each other I think. Hunt went to Christ the King. Every time they bring up basketball, he talks about his state championships. So I’m like ‘we beat ya’ll.’”
Only four months into their college careers, Franklin and Custis have become close. The two eat together, attend class together, and hang out socially together. As teammates they have each other’s back on the field. As friends, they have each other’s back off of it.
”Yeah, that’s my boy,” Franklin said. “We hang out all the time. We’ve got sports management together. We’re in the same major. So we hang out a lot. We hang out anywhere really. Me and him and probably one of the only two freshmen that travel to every game. We’re one of the mainstays so it’s pretty consistent. We’re from the same city so we relate to a lot.
”When we’re on the road, we hang out together and eat dinner together with the whole team. Really anytime other than that. Ever since summer started, we go to Archibold to play basketball. We kick it in the lounge. We live on the same floor. So yeah, I would say we’re pretty tight.”