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At long last, it's Josh Hart's time to shine at Villanova

Josh Hart's path to front and center for Villanova hasn't been the easiest, or most obvious. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- As Josh Hart browsed through The Webster, a trendy boutique in the upscale Bal Harbour mall in Miami, a sales clerk asked if he could help Hart with something. The shoes on the nearby display carried a sticker price of $895, slightly out of Hart's poor-college-student budget. Too embarrassed to say he was just browsing in the high-end store, the quick-thinking Hart came up with a solution.

"Do you have these in a size 15?" he asked.

Because really? A size 15? There was just no way.

Minutes later the clerk returned, practically waddling under the weight of the boxes he was carrying.

"We have them in eight different colors," he said. "Which were you looking for?

Chagrined, Hart said he'd have to pass and sheepishly walked out the door, his empty wallet feeling like a millstone in his pocket.

"Someday," he recalled, "I'll be able to afford them. Just not that day."

Someday. That has been the refrain to Hart's song of life, a never-ending lesson in waiting his turn. Someday someone would want him to play for their high-end high school basketball team. Someday the college recruiters would come beckoning. Someday he'd get a chance to start at Villanova. Someday people would recognize how talented he was. And yes, someday he'd be able to afford his own champagne tastes.

The shoes, the sweet pair of suede Chelsea boots, remain on hold for at least a few more months, but otherwise it would seem Hart's someday has arrived. Out of the shadows of obscurity, Hart has emerged as a preseason All-American and Wooden Award candidate on a team that could be good enough to defend its national title. Through five games, the 6-foot-6 senior is averaging 19.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.0 steals.

Now comes the hard part. Now that everyone is finally paying attention, how does a player who has had to fight to be noticed keep his edge?

"What's always made him so successful is he does everything you can do to win a game," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "He can hit a 3. He can drive. He can get to the rim. He can get to the foul line. He can make a pass. He can block a shot. He can get a rebound. He can make a steal. It's not just getting buckets with him. So I don't want this pro prospect, All-American, all this hype to change who he is, because who he is is really unique."


THE ASSIGNMENT WAS to read Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" and then to explicate what he had read.

"It was like they were talking a foreign language," Hart said.

And not just because "The Canterbury Tales" is written in Old English.

For Hart, surviving at Sidwell Friends School, his new academic home in his sophomore year of high school, was like swimming upstream against a tsunami. He considered himself a good student at Wheaton High School (Silver Spring, Maryland), even pulled a 3.7 grade point average after his freshman year, but Sidwell, the tony private school that counts Malia and Sasha Obama as well as Chelsea Clinton among its former students, was on a different level.

"Findlay Prep, Brewster Academy, Oak Hill -- those are all basketball powerhouses," Hart said. "I went to an academic powerhouse."

It was, however, the only private school interested in opening its doors to Hart.

Within a year Sidwell also became the school most interested in ushering Hart back out the door.

"Bombed it," Hart said of his sophomore year, where he skated just on the edge of passing and failing.

The headmaster wanted him gone, and Hart, who at least had a good enough basketball season that he could have easily transferred, wasn't entirely against the idea. For years he had purposely avoided riding through the wealthier neighborhoods in and around the Maryland-District of Columbia area. The son of a chef and a waitress who shared a two-bedroom apartment with five other people knew where he didn't fit in.

Now here he was, right in the middle of it all, on a scholarship at a private school with a yearly tuition of $30,000-plus, hopping off the bus after commuting an hour while his classmates pulled up in their expensive cars, wearing their designer clothes.

And he was barely passing. Why bother? Hart told his dad as much one night, and when Moses Hart asked where else he would go, Hart ratted off a list of other private schools that he knew would be less challenging academically and more fruitful athletically.

"I should have known it was a trick question," Josh Hart said.

Moses never had it easy. He and his wife, Pat, got by on their faith and their principles as much as their salaries, raising their kids on the value of hard work. They never saw their son as their meal ticket to a better life, never even considered him a basketball player first.

Moses' uncle is Elston Howard, the 1963 American League MVP. He knows the windfall of sports success well. But Howard also was a pioneer -- a veteran of the Negro Leagues who became the first African-American to play for the New York Yankees and later the first black coach in the American League. When he died, legendary New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote of Howard, "The Yankees' organization lost more class on the weekend than George Steinbrenner could buy in 10 years."

That's who Moses and Pat wanted their son to be, a great man who happened to be a great basketball player, not the other way around. So when Hart suggested he could transfer somewhere else, Moses offered a simple choice: Play at Sidwell or don't play anywhere.

"We live in a world where it's the pleasure of the moment. If it's not working here, we'll just go over there," Moses said. "He made a decision to go to Sidwell, and that meant he was going to stick with it. You don't move when things get uncomfortable, when it's not all roses. You have to see it through."

Of course, there was the matter of the headmaster, who needed to be convinced that Hart could and should be able to see it through. Hart's parents went to bat for him, as did some of his teammates' parents, including Pam and Michael Hillman. The Hillmans' son, Matt, played hoops alongside Hart, and the two boys became close quickly, close enough that Hart spent after-school time at the family's home.

The Hillmans offered more than support; they offered their home. Believing Hart needed little more than structure and study skills, and realizing they had the space that Moses and Pat Hart didn't -- a sprawling basement bedroom that Hart could call his own -- they suggested Hart move in with them. With his parents' blessing, Hart spent his weekdays at the Hillman home, going home on the weekends. The two families mixed together so well that, while Pat and Moses remained Mom and Dad, Pam and Michael became Mama and Pops.

"I get choked up every time he calls me that," Pam Hillman said. "People say all the time, 'Oh what a nice thing you've done.' We're not kidding when we say this kid has enriched our lives more than anyone will ever know. He and his family have brought us so much joy."

Secure and confident academically, Hart blossomed on the basketball court. He averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds for Sidwell in his junior year.

Still, this was Sidwell, not Montrose Christian or another reputable basketball team. Only a handful of colleges showed any real interest: Villanova, Rutgers, Penn State and Xavier. And Wright admits he only went to the school to look at Hart's opponent, Rhode Island guard Stanford Robinson.

"Usually my assistants are far better than me with recruiting, but this one I'll take credit for," Wright said. "I said to them, ' [Robinson] is great, but the guy who makes every play to win the game is Hart. We should recruit him."

FROM ROBINSON'S SHADOW Hart would go on to earn Most Outstanding Player honors in the 2015 Big East Tournament, helping the Wildcats to the league crown by connecting on 21-of-29 field goals and 9-of-14 3-pointers in three days.

And he came off the bench during every game in that tournament.

At last year's Final Four, Hart scored a team-high 35 points in the two games, adding 16 rebounds and five assists. Ryan Arcidiacono, who finished with 31 points, five rebounds and five assists was named the Final Four's MOP.

And Kris Jenkins became the hero.

Second fiddle. Wingman. Robin to everyone else's Batman. Such has been Hart's basketball lot in life.

And now here are the Johnny Come Lately types, flocking to Hart. Award voters and analytics gurus see what Wright saw all of those years ago at Sidwell, a player who is a multitrick pony able to affect a game in a myriad of ways.

Hart admits that the perennial understudy role has motivated him, if not altogether bothered him. But he, like Wright, was curious how he would handle the sudden shift to stardom. It's part of why he returned to Villanova for his senior season. On basketball alone, he believes he could have made it in the NBA -- officials told him he could have been an early second-round, maybe even late first-round pick.

But Hart wanted to make sure he was emotionally ready for the leap, that he was mature enough. He knew this season, with all the attention both he and his team would attract, would let him know.

"There are times when I can be serious, but I'm definitely a goofy kid," Hart said. "That's what I needed to work on."

Wright compares Hart's competitiveness to former Villanova guard Kyle Lowry, which is high praise. Lowry never wanted to lose a conversation, much less a game. But competitiveness not properly channeled isn't good, and early on, Hart's fire was misdirected.

He'd compete in drills simply to win the drill, never mind whether he actually executed things properly or understood what the drill was about.

That was tolerable, if not acceptable, for the first three years of Hart's Villanova career. The Wildcats had other people, like Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, to worry about the bigger picture. But with those two players gone, it is Hart's turn not just to star, but also to lead.

On the Wildcats' summer trip to Spain, Wright was impressed with how Hart assumed the leadership mantle. But when he returned to school, he fell back into his goofy groove. Wright met with him more than once, challenging him to grow up and lead consistently.

"Since then, inspiring is the word I use -- and I've used it with Josh," Wright said. "You can tell when a guy gets it. I don't have to take him out of the game to explain things to him. I can make eye contact or say one or two words, and he says, 'Got it, Coach,' and then it happens."

Hart's buddy Sebastian is the one with the really expensive tastes. He brought Hart to the Bal Harbour mall, led him into The Webster and watched a stunned Hart stare at the salesperson with all of those size-15 shoes.

"He didn't realize a lot of NBA guys shop there,'' Sebastian said, laughing.

Asked what will happen when his old high school friend becomes one of those NBA guys, Sebastian paused before laying out the scene.

"We'll go back there,'' Sebastian said. "Maybe he'll buy the boots. Not a lot, just maybe one thing. And I can just see him smiling, looking at me like, 'I worked hard for this. Now I got it.'"

Indeed, after waiting all these years, it is Hart's turn.