The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

The School Newspaper of Urban School of San Francisco

The Urban Legend

“Way better than it was:” pressure, wind sprints and the rise of boys varsity basketball

Urban’s Athletic Director and varsity boys basketball Coach Joe Skiffer leans back and laughs. “What do I do so well?” He shakes his head and repeats my question again. “What do I do so well?” Skiffer grins and leans in. “I’ll be honest with you, Isaac. I don’t think there is a secret.” 

The varsity boys basketball team has been a phenomenon over the last several years. With the state-of-the-art Salkind Center gym, the team has reached new heights, including winning back-to-back North Coast Section (NCS) championships. Players scrambling at practice while Skiffer shouts orders is a common sight after school. The stands at varsity home games are routinely packed, serving as social events for the school. 

“I think Urban basketball is definitely Urban’s team. I think we represent Urban as a school athletically,” said first-year varsity Player Isaac Wayne ‘25. 

“We’ve hung the most banners, we draw the biggest crowds [and] we’re the biggest contributors to school spirit,” said second-year varsity Player Owen Brown ‘25.

During Skiffer’s first year at Urban, the basketball team lost 12 games and only won 13. In the six years before Skiffer arrived, the team had not had a single season where they won more games than they lost. “To be honest, when Urban first tried to recruit me, I said no multiple times because Urban [basketball] was pretty bad back then,” said Skiffer.

Eventually, Urban convinced Skiffer to come in for an interview and tour. What he saw changed his mind. “I knew a couple of the players from Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) coaching, so I realized I could do something with the team,” said Skiffer. “With the assistant athletic director job offer, it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

True to Urban boys basketball’s reputation at the time, the early practices with Skiffer were not promising. “The first thing I said was, ‘Let’s get ten [jump shots] from fifteen feet each,’ and then I said, ‘Okay, maybe let’s hit five.’ We weren’t very good,” said Skiffer.  

Skiffer attributes the team’s later successes to the hard work in those early practices. “We had some guys willing to work and that’s the key for me,” he said.

Multiple players felt that Skiffer works just as hard, if not harder than they do. “Joe said, like it was nothing, that he was up at three in the morning watching game film[s] to prepare our team for the next game,” Wayne said. “I feel like that speaks to the kind of coach he is.”

From the start of his time at Urban, Skiffer has tried to emphasize connectivity and mutual respect between players. “Working hard [and] setting that standard [is] what makes a program work. We’ve done that pretty well since I got here,” he said. 

Since those early struggles, the program has continued to improve. “We’ve won a couple of NCS championships. I think we’ve reached a level of success and consistency, and I’m proud of that,” Skiffer said. “I think that’s almost entirely because of guys working hard as a group, playing for each other.”

The team’s newfound success has changed how it is perceived both inside and outside of the Urban community. Nicholas Andino ‘18, who played three years of varsity boys basketball and now works in the Admissions Department, said, “It’s easy for me to sell [Urban basketball to prospective students] because it’s better than when I was here.”

Andino credited that improvement to Skiffer’s coaching and program building. “In the 14 years that Joe has been here, we can give him a lot of credit for how we are viewed by students at other schools and prospective students athletically, and how much better the basketball team is [now than when he took over],” he said.

“I will say that people on campus notice my team more, which is for better and for worse,” said Skiffer. “I think there is definitely more energy and respect within the building … [but] there are always rumors about what may or may not happen with the team or who may or may not be on the team, and those rumors weren’t here when I started,” he said.

Skiffer tentatively agreed with labeling boys basketball as Urban’s team. “Along with the girls soccer program, boys basketball and girls volleyball has been the most consistent and successful,” he said. 

According to Skiffer, the school’s excitement around boys basketball is partially thanks to the team playing in the Salkind Center Gym. “You don’t have to take a bus or find a way to the facility, so I think that benefits us and helps develop a culture and spirit and energy.”

Having a gym on campus also means that students can watch Skiffer work with his players daily after school. Skiffer said, “I think people respect the team [and] the people on the team because they see them in the gym. [Students and faculty] see them working, and so I think that means something to people in the community.”

  Those after-school practices have played a big part in building the energy around the team and setting standards for the players. Multiple current team members described the practice environment as intense. “Joe is a defense-focused coach, so our identity is focused on defense,” said third-year varsity player Griffin Hayward ‘25. “We work a lot in four-on-five drills where the four have to stop the five from scoring, or scramble drills.” 

Skiffer mentioned how his drills and practice approaches have evolved by using lessons he’s learned over his Urban tenure. “I’m actually probably a little bit more laid back than I was ten, fifteen years ago,” he said. “I’ve had kids [and] I’ve grown up as a coach, so I focus more on working smarter. I think that helps both with recruitment and with making guys feel like part of a team. It still is fun to make them run, though.”

“We run a lot,” said Hayward. 

With success and recognition comes more resources. The basketball team’s coaching staff has grown so much over the years that Skiffer says he has to turn away highly qualified job applicants. 

Skiffer stressed that the size of his coaching team wasn’t a result of favoritism or him using his position as Athletic Director. “Hiring is, you know, a thing. And we’ve been so successful and had so much stability that we can get the cream of the crop in terms of coaches.” 

From the start of his time at Urban, Skiffer has taken his responsibilities as a mentor and leader seriously. “There was a point in my life where family stuff meant I couldn’t be at my house, and Joe invited me to his house for Thanksgiving,” said Andino. “That was when he went from being a coach to being a mentor.”

“I just love my guys,” said Skiffer. “One of the reasons I came to Urban is because, at this school, there is a recognition that there’s more to a student athlete than just being a basketball player. I’m interested in my guys’ growth.” 

When asked to pick a highlight from this season, Skiffer didn’t choose a blowout victory or a come-from-behind upset. “Will Rubin [‘24] was having a harder time at the start of the season. He worked hard, put a lot of shots up and yesterday he got some buckets that made us win. So that was a big win for him, for the team and for me as a coach.” 

The players reciprocate Skiffer’s affection for them. “He’s by far the best coach I’ve ever had in any sport,” Wayne said. “He can balance his competitive spirit with his enjoyment of the game — he wants us to love the game just as much as he does.”

“Joe is just the type of guy who, even when he’s coaching you about basketball, he’s also trying to teach you some core life skills,” Andino said. “How can you take feedback and use that positively to make changes for yourself that you want to see?”

“[The team is] like a second family,”  said Jake Rodriguez ‘24, team captain and a four-year varsity player. 

Several players said that this strong sense of community is part of what made the team so successful. “The bench gets everybody amped up. We’re all connected [and] we’re all having fun. It makes everything so much easier,” said second-year varsity player Mawa Silvestro ‘26. 

“I’d like to think my team is always a family,” said Skiffer. “Some years we have better connections than others. But if you put enough sweat in, you build relationships and respect and care about your players and teammates, which happens every year. That’s a big part of winning. But more importantly, that is a big part of making good guys.”


About the Contributor
Isaac Hoffman
Isaac Hoffman, Staff Writer