RCC Tigers: Champions that never got their due
A group of exceptional young men brought national recognition to a small college in Roxbury. All but two members of the 13-man squad of Roxbury Community College hailed from Roxbury or Dorchester. In the words of Jamil Abdullah, currently a capital projects manager at Eversource: “It was more of a blessing that we came together as a group. There was so much talent and dreams that came into being on that team.”
The result produced a National Junior College Athletic Association championship, a letter of congratulations from then-president Bill Clinton and a special lunch with Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell. The 11-time champ said: “I congratulate this team, from one champion to another.”
The Tigers compiled a record of 33-2 on their way to the national title in 1999-2000. Five championship team members returned the following season, compiling a 31-1 mark and landing a third-place finish in the national rankings.
The team won 43 straight games over two years under head basketball coach Malcolm Wynn. “During that time, we averaged scoring 90-plus points a game. I credit those young men for teaching me how to win as a coach. They dispelled the old theory that you didn’t have to like your teammates to play winning basketball. That group truly cared about each other. Whether you were a starter or substitute, you knew you were cared for by your teammates. It may sound corny to some people today, but this group of players loved each other. And they displayed that love on and off the court.”
Of his many accomplishments during a seven-year tenure as the head coach of the Tigers — with just one home-court loss in six years at the Reggie Lewis Center, Wynn cherishes that nearly all members of the national championship team graduated with degrees.
“Only five went on to play college basketball at other destinations,” Wynn said. “I am proud of all my players. But there is a deep and abiding sense of pride over the 11 who gained their degrees. That is what I hang my hat on. One of my coaching mantras was that a player could be cut if he didn’t know the names of his professors. I figured if they did not know their professors’ names, they probably had not been going to class.”
Wynn explained, “Amidst the records of victories is that the RCC Tigers received the NJCCA Region 21 ‘Sportsmanship Award’ for three straight years —1999, 2000, 2001. One of my mottos was ‘Play hard, but be gentlemen at all times.’”
The team was led by co-captains Bilal Abdullah, Christian Reed and Lerick Charles. Playing significant roles on the star-studded roster were: Tremaine Skeen, the most valuable player of the NJCAA championship tournament; Sharod Campbell, the second-leading rebounder in the country; Ka’reem Horton; Charlie Lagoa; Drew Humphries; and Gabrial Callender. Horton, Campbell, Lagoa, Callender and Abdullah were on the RCC Tigers teams that compiled a 64-3 record over two years.
Back-up guards Lagoa and Humphries arrived at RCC with state championships on their resumes, Lagoa from Division 3 North Cambridge Catholic and Humphries from Division 2 East Boston High School.
The Tigers won their national title with a decisive 102-79 triumph over the College of DuPage at Delhi College in New York. A 22-8 spurt wiped out a nine-point deficit in the first half as the Tigers coasted home to victory.
One of the most touching moments occurred when the National Championship trophy was presented to United States Olympian John Thomas, who was athletic director of RCC, Wynn and the players. Wynn recalled the moment vividly: “John Thomas turned to me and said, ‘This isn’t for second place, like the silver medal I received in the 1964 Olympic Games. This is for first place. And it is to be cherished.’” During a recent interview for this column, an emotional coach, Wynn, told this reporter: “I will never forget that moment.”
Wynn left RCC following that 31-1 season in 2000-2001. His team finished third in the national rankings that year, which brought up the question: Why leave a program on such a high note? Wynn replied, “I thought it was time for my loyal assistant John Jackson to become a head coach. It was as simple as that.”
After forming the Wynn Basketball Academy, which is still in existence and lists Shabazz Napier (two-time NCAA Division 1 national champion and NBA veteran) among its outstanding graduates, Wynn returned to coach at Curry College (2003-2015) and New England College (2017-2022). His tenure at Curry produced two NCAA bids — the only two in the school’s history. His New England College team compiled a record of 82-36 with two NCAA bids.
“I think back on my career at RCC as a life highlight. Receiving a letter of congratulations from President Bill Clinton after winning the national championship was nice. Having lunch with Bill Russell and seeing the looks on my players’ faces when he congratulated us with the words ‘from champion to champion’ is something so special that words cannot describe it,“ Wynn said.
As the 25th anniversary of the Tigers’ championship approaches, coach Wynn desires to give a special honor to his team — gold championship rings.
“Back when we won our national championship, I received the only gold ring. My players received rings made of a gold metal alloy,” he said. “According to NCAA rules, then, if my players had received gold rings, it would have impacted their eligibility, as an improper benefit. Things have changed over the past few years, and I would like to see my players receive gold rings by 2025. It would be a fitting tribute and an honor long past due. I pray that someone out there can help me make this dream come true for a group of great young men who brought praise and recognition to Roxbury Community College. I don’t think that special team ever got the accolades it deserved.”
The extraordinary coach gave this reporter words I will long remember: “Winners speak a language that losers can’t understand.”