By Brian Kapur; Current Newspapers
VILLANOVA, Pa. — Early in the 2012 high school basketball season, Sidwell star Josh Hart and Gonzaga standout Kris Jenkins were on a collision course at Gonzaga’s anual D.C. Classic tournament. The seniors had both committed to Villanova University, but were going to battle against each other for the first and only time for their respective high schools.
On that day, Hart and the Quakers got the best of Jenkins and the Eagles, but by the end of the season, Jenkins had earned more hardware — the D.C. Boys Basketball Gatorade Player of the Year and Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year designations.
It’s a moment that the duo still talk about nearly four years later as teammates at Villanova. “I bring up that win; he brings up that he was player of the year,” Hart said with a chuckle during the Wildcats’ media availability at the university’s Davis Center on Monday. “We take little jabs at each other just to mess around. Whenever someone brings it up, I’ll say my team won.”
Now both players have a chance to earn hardware once again, but they can do it together this time. Hart and Jenkins were the Wildcats’ top scorers this season while leading the Wildcats to the NCAA Final Four in Houston. It’s the school’s first hoops championship weekend appearance since 2009.
“It’s crazy,” said Hart. “Two guys from the DMV [area] — we grew up watching this stuff, grew up battling against each other. To be in it together, in the same class, going through the highs and lows, it’s a feeling that you wouldn’t trade for anything.”
Hart, who was the Big East Conference tournament MVP and the league’s sixth man of the year in 2015, blossomed into a full-time starter this season. He led the Wildcats with 15.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 31.2 minutes per game.
Meanwhile, Jenkins has evolved into the Wildcats’ second-highest scorer after seeing minimal action during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Wildcats coach Jay Wright points to Jenkins’ basketball savvy as one of the team’s biggest assets. “He is one of the most intelligent basketball players,” Wright said during the media session. “We’ve been given credit for our end-of-game situations. He’s the in-bounder.
Everybody has plays. It’s who makes decisions — he throws the passes.” Wright credits Gonzaga coach Steve Turner and the Eagles for developing those talents. “Playing at Gonzaga, if you saw that high school team play, they run better plays than any NBA team,” said Wright. “They’re unbelievable. We really look for those type of guys.”
A long road to Houston for both Jenkins and Hart, the path to Houston and the NCAA Final Four wasn’t pristinely paved — it was filled with potholes.
In Northwest D.C., Jenkins faced challenges with his living situation and his weight. The talented forward had his life change completely at age 11 when his parents decided to send him away from their home in South Carolina to pursue educational and basketball opportunities in the D.C. area before high school.
It was a tough situation, but Jenkins came from a basketball family that wanted him to reach his full potential. His mother Felicia is currently an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Jackson State University in Mississippi. ”My parents decided that; I had no say so in the decision,” said the Villanova junior. “At first nobody wants to leave their parents, but it turned out to be the best decision to ever happen to me.”
Jenkins moved in with another young basketball player, Nate Britt, whose parents built a relationship with Felicia when the two boy played together on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit. In 2007, Jenkins’ parents also gave Britt’s parents legal guardianship of their son, cementing his move to the D.C. area and allowing him to join Nate on the D.C. Assault AAU squad, which was coached by Nate Britt Sr.
For Felicia, it wasn’t an easy choice, but it was important to give her son more structure in his life — and she thought the Britts could provide that for him. “I made the decision [based] on him making poor choices and not making [A’s and B’s] in school like he [later] did in high school,” she wrote in an email to The Current.
“It had nothing to do with basketball.” But the duo did also join forces at Gonzaga, where Jenkins played all four years for the Eagles while Britt wore purple for three years before transferring to Oak Hill as a senior.
“I definitely have two great families,” said Jenkins. “I consider myself to be very, very lucky, blessed and fortunate to have two families guide me.”
The longtime friendship between Jenkins and Britt was on full display this weekend. Television cameras caught Britt, who’s a sophomore guard for the North Carolina Tar Heels, celebrating with Jenkins after the Tar Heels knocked off Notre Dame in the Elite Eight on Sunday. That win created a chance for the brothers’ ultimate dream — to playin the NCAA title game together.
“It wouldn’t be odd at all,” Jenkins said of a potential national title game against Britt and the Tar Heels. “We’ve worked hard to get to where we are, and it would be a really special moment. Hopefully we can get there and take care of Oklahoma. If we don’t take care of that game, there is no chance of that at all.”
Back at Gonzaga, Jenkins also dealt with another obstacle beyond his family transitions: He saw his weight balloon to 270 pounds by the end of his senior year, according to Turner, the Gonzaga coach.
But his hefty stature didn’t stop him from dominating on the court and capturing both the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and Gatorade player of the year awards in consecutive years.
At Gonzaga, Jenkins was a matchup problem for opponents, but he encountered problems of his own when he got to college: He was too slow to play on the perimeter yet not quite big enough to consistently play in the post. The Villanova coaching staff, led by strength and condition in coach John Shackleton, made it a priority for Jenkins to get in shape.
“Coming in here, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Jenkins. “I thought I could play the way I had my whole life. The coaching staff told me that to be a great player that’s what I had to do.”
Wright said Jenkins struck him as “one of those few players, similar to Charles Barkley, that can be out of shape and know how to play that way and be really effective, and he did it his whole career.”
While Jenkins worked on his body, he only saw an average of 11.7 and 18.6 minutes per game. But he never became disgruntled. “It was tough because I wanted to be on the court,” Jenkins said. “I’m as competitive as anyone and I want to be on the floor. I just stuck to the process and just kept to work on my body. What’s happening right now is just a product of that.”
Gonzaga coach Turner points to Jenkins’ persistence as one of his best qualities. “Here’s a kid that was WCAC player of the year twice, All-Met player of the year, and he plays a certain amount of minutes his freshman and sophomore years,” said Turner. “If you look at the history over the last five to 10 years, that’s a kid that’s probably transferring schools. He never talked about it. He’s understood the process, and he’s bided his time.”
Now down to 240 pounds, Jenkins has once again become a matchup nightmare for opposing teams, averaging 13.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 28.4 minutes per game.
But the weight loss came with adjustments. “He got in shape physically, but he didn’t know how to use his new body, he didn’t know the new energy he had,” said coach Wright.
“Halfway through this year, he really started to realize, ‘I’m a different player than I was when I was out of shape and I can do a lot more things and I’m going to demand it of myself.’”
Meanwhile, Hart faced his own challenges as a high-schooler in Northwest. He struggled with his grades at Sidwell, and at one point following his sophomore year was asked not to return because of poor academic performance. But Quakers coach Eric Singletary and others went to bat for him and convinced administrators to readmit the hoops star.
It was a trying time for Hart, who had Montrose Christian — which at the time was known for its talented basketball team that churned out players like NBA star Kevin Durant — in hot pursuit of his skills.
“It was tough,” Hart said. “Being asked not to come back was frustrating. My first thought was that I was going to go to a basketball powerhouse somewhere and just play basketball. I was in the process of going to Montrose. People fought for me to get back into Sidwell. That was something I couldn’t throw away. It was something that my dad taught me — to handle everything like a man and if you start something, finish it.”
For his former high school coach, Hart’s resolve in the classroom, which has resulted in the Villanova star becoming a twotime Big East all-academic selection, is a bigger accomplishment than anything he has done on the hardwood.
“It’s a credit to his family and to him,” said Singletary. “It speaks to his character. When we see him on the court and how hard he works, he had to do that academically, too. My biggest pride isn’t what he has done in basketball, but that he is all-academic in the Big East at Villanova. It’s my biggest joy that he’s kept that up.”
The Quaker graduate remains close with Singletary, who was in attendance at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., for the Wildcats’ 64-59 win over Kansas to advance to the Final Four.
“He took a chance on me,” Hart said. “Even that whole saga when I got asked to leave, he never gave up on me. He fought for me and fought with me. He has been on this ride with me every step of the way.”
Better together for the rivals-turned-teammates, the trek to Houston has been a little more unique because of their D.C. ties and growing up competing against each other. “It’s been special,” said Jenkins. “He’s one of my best friends. We’ve built a stronger relationship since we’ve gotten here. It’s been great to have him on this journey that we’re going on.”
Both players feel the Final Four — which features Jenkins, Hart, Britt and Franklin Howard, a freshman guard at Syracuse University who played for Gonzaga for one year before transferring to WCAC foe Paul VI — adds even more credibility to D.C.’s reputation as a hoops hotbed.
“The DMV is the best place if you want to go out and watch a high school basketball game,” said Hart. “It’s the best spot talent-wise and recruiting-wise. … Going against talented guys day in and day out prepares you to come out here because everyone is talented.”
The duo hopes to take another step forward this weekend when they battle Oklahoma on Saturday at 6:09 p.m. at NRG Stadium in Houston.
“We’re all happy we’re in the Final Four and we have another week to be together and play basketball together,” said Hart. “But we aren’t satisfied. It’s a feeling of we did something great, but we still have more to do.”