He came in search of opportunity, figuring his new school’s sprawling campus and lofty reputation could propel him toward his dream of basketball stardom. No, this wasn’t DeMatha, Gonzaga or one of the other local private schools rich with hoops tradition, but the mutual interest that Sidwell Friends had shown Josh Hart in the summer of 2010 was good enough for the then-sophomore, who defined himself by beating the odds.
By the end of Hart’s first week, though, his opportunity looked more like an obstacle.
“With the academics, it was like a whole new world where they were speaking a different language,” recalled Hart, who had transferred from Wheaton. “In public school, they were just happy you turned in your work. Here, on the second day, the teacher was talking about explicating poems and I remember thinking it was going to be a long year.”
Little did Hart know, his time at Sidwell Friends was already running out. It didn’t matter that he was the second-leading scorer for the Quakers’ basketball team that season. Low scores in the classroom as well as trouble adapting to the school’s rules made for frequent meetings with Coach Eric Singletary and school officials.
What had seemed as the perfect marriage dissolved at the close of his sophomore year with a letter from the headmaster dismissing Hart from Sidwell for poor academic performance.
“I was pretty surprised because I felt like I had made some progress near the end,” Hart said, “but with that attitude that teenagers can take sometimes, I said if they don’t want me, then I don’t want to be there. I’m glad it worked out, though.”
Had it not, Hart would probably never know the love he had within the Sidwell community, people who protested and petitioned for two months until his dismissal was reversed. What’s more, Hart may have never discovered that the same motor that’s made the 6-foot-4 senior into one of the area’s top players and a Villanova recruit could also produce success beyond the hardwood.
The first time Elliot Hedley saw Josh Hart play, he knew he had a unique talent on his hands. While all the other kids on the Montgomery County Bearcats were focused on making the next And 1 mix tape, the 8-year-old Hart took joy in fundamentals.
“I told him his last name was perfect because he had heart from day one and that’s something you can’t teach,” said Hedley, who still coaches the Bearcats. “He took heart in boxing out, looking up as he dribbled, playing every position.”
Often, this practice would stretch into the night, when Hart and his father, Moses, would head to the local playground. There, Moses would shine his car headlights on the rim while Josh shot for an hour.
“Josh learned how to play hard before he knew he was good,” Moses said. “Playing hard is the only thing he knows and now he has a confidence to go with it.”
As a freshman, though, Hart began to wonder if all his hard work was in vain. While many of his friends went to Washington Catholic Athletic Conference powers, Hart, six feet tall at the time, drew no interest, meaning his high school career would start at Wheaton.
Hart’s hustle earned him a starting spot in the second half of the season, but his fundamental style often clashed with how his teammates approached the game. Hart again explored his options the following summer, participating in a workout at Sidwell Friends that caught Singletary’s eye.
“He had that same tireless work ethic and will that you see today,” said Singletary, who also played at Sidwell Friends. “With his all-around game, I knew he could be really good, so I’m glad we got him before other schools came calling.”
Outside of his connection with Singletary and it being the school attended by President Obama’s daughters, Hart didn’t know much about Sidwell. But he would quickly learn — the hard way.
“We have a points system where if you get 81 / 2 points, you get a LOP, which means loss of privilege, but I didn’t know the rules,” said Hart, whose offenses included being late to class, having his phone out and eating in the hallways. “So by the second week, I had 16 points and people were saying, ‘You double-lopped?’ and I was like ‘What does that even mean?’ ”
This confusion bled into the classroom, where poor study habits resulted in low grades and ultimately, physical stress that kept Hart out of school for days at a time. Basketball proved to be his only refuge, where he averaged 15.6 points per game in helping the Quakers win a share of the Mid-Atlantic Conference title.
By the time Hart received his dismissal letter, he had already begun formulating a plan to enroll at Montrose Christian. But a contingent of Sidwell parents and students was working to give him another chance, flooding the headmaster’s inbox with e-mails, volunteering to tutor and even creating a Facebook page called “Let Josh Stay.”
“People were outraged, not because of his basketball talent, but more so because of the impact he had on the community with his character,” said teammate Matt Hillman. “Not one of the e-mails mentioned basketball. This was all about making sure enough had been done to support him academically, and him realizing the opportunities Sidwell could provide for him.”
Struck by the wealth of support that led to the headmaster’s reversal in July, the intrigue of playing for the same school as Kevin Durant dimmed in comparison to teaming up at Sidwell Friends with guys who saw the best in him.
As a junior, Hart began meeting with Nikki Bravo, an involved parent known for her educational zeal. For about eight hours each week, Bravo would tutor Hart at school and her home, sitting in on his free-period meetings with teachers and cracking down if he slacked off.
“After talking to his dad, it became clear how committed his parents were to him developing intellectually, so I vowed to do anything I could to help,” said Bravo, whose son attends Sidwell. “It’s not that Josh didn’t have the intelligence; he just didn’t have the same work ethic in school that he has in basketball. It’s discouraging when it seems no matter what you do, you can’t succeed. But once he started getting results, he began to buy in and want to do the work.”
Hart’s study habits and grades have now improved to where he can work independently, checking in with Bravo “once in a blue moon,” she said.
Mirroring Hart’s academic rise has been his elevated play on the court this season. Not only is Hart averaging 25.2 points for the No. 5 Quakers (11-1), but Singletary and teammates have noted his improved leadership and teamwork, both of which Hart credits as lessons learned at his lowest point.
“I love Sidwell and it shows you don’t have to be at a powerhouse to get recognition,” Hart said. “Here, with the Obama girls and other people . . . I can set myself up with ways to be successful in life after basketball.”