Josh Hart was raised to be the soul of Villanova basketball

Josh Hart (3) learned from his father that you never give up -- and that is one big reason his Villanova Wildcats are the top-ranked team in the country.

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If you’re looking for one moment that molded Villanova junior wing Josh Hart into someone rival coaches say plays as hard as anyone in college basketball, you should go back to one evening a decade or so ago, when Hart’s father was driving the 10-year-old back from a rec league basketball game.

Hart’s team had lost. Got smoked, actually. And toward the end of the game, Hart’s father, Moses, saw something he absolutely hated: His son had given up.

Moses Hart is a chef for a catering company near Washington, D.C.; his wife, Pat, is a waitress at a country club. They have always been a family that prides itself on hard work. The one thing Moses never tolerated in his three kids was skating by. As he drove, he told his son: “You weren’t playing hard.”

“It’s OK, dad,” Josh replied. “The game was over, we lost anyway, I’m not going to worry.”

And then? Then Moses erupted. He lost it. He jumped all over his son. He was furious because so often he’d seen this mentality among kids when he grew up in St. Louis and as he raised his children near the nation’s capital: that they give up on difficult things. That they accepted bad news for what it was instead of working to dig themselves out. That as long as they got their own points in a game, they weren’t worried about how things turned out for their team.

I told him, ‘I don’t care if you’re losing by 20 points – you go all out. You continue to play hard. You give it your all. Because if you can’t do that, you don’t play.’ I just wanted to instill him at a young age that you play hard for the team. You don’t pick and choose when you play hard.’  

Josh Hart's father, Moses

“I told him, ‘I don’t care if you’re losing by 20 points – you go all out,’ ” Moses recalled, soon after his son’s Villanova team on Monday ascended to No. 1 in the AP college basketball poll with his son as the team’s soul. “ ‘You continue to play hard. You give it your all. Because if you can’t do that, you don’t play.’ I just wanted to instill him at a young age that you play hard for the team. You don’t pick and choose when you play hard.’ ”

What Moses was showing his son in that car ride was the epitome of his parenting philosophy, which is this: “Don’t settle, son. Go all out. Do it the right way or don’t do it at all.” It’s a philosophy that came out when his youngest son was only a few medals away from becoming an Eagle Scout and decided he’d give up to focus on basketball instead. Don’t settle, son. Josh went back and got that Eagle Scout badge a few weeks before his 18th birthday. It’s a philosophy that came out when Josh was struggling academically at Sidwell Friends School – one of the premier academic institutions in the country, the place where President Obama sent his daughters – and Moses overheard his son telling a friend he’d just transfer to an easier high school to play basketball. Do it the right way or don’t do it at all. Moses told his son that if he didn’t succeed academically at Sidwell, then he wouldn’t be allowed to play basketball anymore. Josh ended up turned things around in the classroom.

And it’s a philosophy that came out that night more than a decade ago, when Josh was sitting in the passenger seat after having quit on the court during his basketball game.

Moses drove his son to the parking lot of a private school near their home in Rockville, Md. He parked his car at halfcourt of an outdoor basketball court and pointed his headlights at one of the hoops. He turned on the high beams. Go all out, son.

And the father and his 10-year-old son put up shots, worked on ballhandling, fought for rebounds. They were there until nearly midnight. It’s something they would end up doing together for years on this same playground court, through middle school and into high school: dribbling drills until midnight, putting up jumpers in the pouring rain, the high beams shining a spotlight on a son’s passion for basketball and on a father’s passion to make sure his son did his absolute best, always.

******

Josh Hart was on a Boy Scout camping trip one summer weekend after his freshman year in high school when he heard the news: His family’s house, his childhood home, had burned down.

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It was an electrical fire. It started from a power strip in the living room. The blaze spread to the kitchen and the dining room before firefighters could put it out. The family dog was killed. There was water damage throughout the house. The family lost virtually everything it owned. “I had the clothes on my back,” Josh said.

There was no other way to look at it: It was a tragedy. And they didn’t have insurance, which made it even worse. But the Harts quickly found the silver lining: Nobody was in the house when the fire started. Their belongings were gone, but their family was safe.

“If I hadn’t made him go on that camping trip, he would have been upstairs sleeping when that fire started, and I doubt if he ever even would have woken up,” Moses Hart said. “That was a God thing.”

That was also the thing that started the most difficult year of the Hart family’s lives.

After the fire, Josh moved in with a friend while his parents lived at a hotel. They found a two-bedroom apartment and jammed the whole family in there: Mom and dad in one bedroom, Josh and his sister in another bedroom, and Josh’s older brother on the living room couch.

“We just kept our head down and pushed through,” Josh said. “You pick up the ashes and keep moving. Yeah, it was a hard time. But you have family, and you all push through it together – no matter your situation.”

Not long after the fire, Josh found himself in another tough spot: He’d been recruited to Sidwell Friends to play basketball, but on the very first day of class his sophomore year, he already felt over his head. The English teacher gave the syllabus, and Josh saw some wild stuff on it: They’d be dissecting Olde English. They’d be explicating poems.

“We’re going to be doing what?” Josh thought. “This is going to be a long year.”

Hart is Villanova’s leading scorer at 15.5 points a game.

It was. His grades were terrible. It wasn’t at all like public schools. It was like college, where you formulate your own ideas instead of regurgitate information. The lack of structure made him feel lost. In class, he’d put his head down on his desk when things seemed too far over his head. He was doing what his father hated most: Josh Hart was giving up.

“Clearly he was smart enough to be here, but it was all so overwhelming,” said his high school basketball coach, Eric Singletary, who had attended Sidwell Friends 20 years before. “His head was probably spinning like mine was when I was in school there. And he wasn’t completely serious about doing all he could do to get ahead of it, to get on top of it.”

At the end of the school year came a note from the headmaster saying Josh wouldn’t be welcomed back the next year. He was devastated. He figured he would try to play basketball at a different school: keep his head down, move forward. But friends and parents at Sidwell were having none of that. They wrote letters to the school. They sent emails to the school. They said the school should give Josh another chance.

And Josh did what his father had taught him.

“I wanted to finish what I started,” he said. “All these people were fighting for me to get back into Sidwell. I couldn’t throw that away.”

A local doctor whose children attended the school became Josh’s tutor. He would spend entire weekends at her house, learning how to study the right way. He’d study for four to six hours a day. He moved in with a host family, and at their spacious home, he had his own bedroom and plenty of space to study – unlike at the cramped apartment. His grades rose. His confidence did, too. His coach could see it in his face and on the basketball court. So could the big-time Division I schools who soon came calling.

At age 20, he has become perhaps the most underrated star in all of college basketball. He was the Big East tournament MVP last year. KenPom.com has Hart fifth in its national player of the year rankings, ahead of big-time names like LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Grayson Allen. If there were a statistic that could measure toughness, he’d be among the nation’s leaders there, too. He’s the engine that fuels the relentless Villanova Wildcats, who are enjoying that No. 1 ranking for the first time in the school’s history. His basketball career will certainly continue after college, either in the NBA or with a lucrative overseas contract.

“When you talk about Josh Hart, the beginning and the end should be about how hard he plays,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “He plays as hard as anyone in college basketball.”

“We definitely saw his work ethic when we recruited him,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “He was the guy who did a lot of the dirty work. We really felt like we were getting a great player. Maybe he didn’t have the name of the other guys, but we felt like we were getting a guy. He’s getting talked about in those circles now, and that’s where he belongs.”

“To me, Josh is one of the best players in college basketball,” said his teammate, fellow junior Kris Jenkins. “Not only can he score but he also defends the best player on the opposing team. And he also rebounds with the best in country, being 6-5 and banging with 7-footers. He has lot of things that motivate him, but being underrated is something he embraces. It adds fuel to his fire.”

Hart’s upbringing has made him eminently coachable for Villanova’s Jay Wright.

His teammates love to talk about that fire. They see it on the court, but they see it in their apartments, too; many Xbox controllers have gone flying after Josh has lost a game of Madden, or NBA2K, or FIFA. They talk about how everything is a competition to Josh, whether it’s pickup games with teammates or seeing who is the first one to walk up the stairs.

Now, though, in the hotel basement, Josh Hart was just chilling. His Nike KD 8 tennis shoes were untied. Inside the tongue of each shoe he had imprinted his parents’ names. Later this night he would head back to his hotel room, FaceTime with his girlfriend and get some sleep.

I asked Josh about two stories I’d heard about his toughness and work ethic.

One came from middle school. He wanted to go to all eight weeks of the summer basketball camp at the private school near his house. His blue-collar parents couldn’t afford $185 a week for eight weeks. But Josh’s dad had an idea: “This is what you want to do? This is how we have to do it.” Josh told me about how he raised money to go to the camp. He put on his basketball jersey and made a sign that said he needed to go to camp to help his basketball career. He stood on a median near a streetlight. He stood at the entrances to nearby Metro stations. He raised all the money, and he went to all eight weeks of camp.

Don’t settle, son.

The other story came from last season, during a February road win at Xavier that sealed Villanova’s Big East regular-season title.

Early in the second half of a close game, there was a loose ball under Villanova’s basket. Hart and Xavier big man Jalen Reynolds both dove for it. Reynolds landed on Hart, and Hart’s head bounced off the floor. “My lip was just hanging down, just all ripped up,” Hart said. He was taken to a side room in the bowels of the arena. A doctor took out a needle. “Whatever you have to do to get me back out there,” Hart told the doctor. The doctor put seven stitches in Hart’s lip as Hart kept asking for updates on the game. “Doc, let’s hurry this up,” Hart said.

The game was still in limbo when Hart got back on the floor with five minutes left. His upper lip was huge. He dove for another loose ball. He made a three. And his team won.

Go all out, son.

It was time for Hart to go to his hotel room, to get some sleep. But before he did, he showed me the scar on his lip from that game. And there it was, a tiny little nick that no one would notice if he didn’t point it out.

It served as visual evidence that everything his parents had embedded inside of him – the toughness, the never-give-up attitude, the idea that the winner in life isn’t necessarily the most talented person but the one who works hardest – had added together to make Josh Hart one of the best players in all of college basketball.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.