Its 6:30 AM during the second week of school and the head basketball coach at Washington, D.C.s Sidwell Friends School, Eric Singletary, is prodding his players as they execute full court layups. He claps his hands, telling them, “Make sure it’s crisp and sharp! You woke up this morning, you might as well get better!”
Air Jordans are a blur on the first day of practice in Sidwells sparkling underground gym. There are a few college assistant coaches watching in folding chairs from the sidelines who have traveled from as far away as Boston and North Carolina to watch players like 6-foot-8 guard Saddiq Bey.
The draw for college recruiters to come to Sidwell, they tell me, is that most schools have either good academics or good athletics, and Sidwell has both. In recent years, graduates have gone on to play their college ball at Villanova and the University of Pennsylvania, among other D-I schools.
This year, Josh Hart became the first alum to be drafted into the NBA. Hart, who won a national championship at Villanova two years ago, is now a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers. And he’s putting Sidwell on the national map.
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During a lunchtime uber ride, the driver looks in the rearview mirror with a smile of recognition and says with enthusiasm to Singletary, “You’re the Sidwell coach!”
As a Sidwell alum who played ball at the prestigious, leafy DC prep school on Wisconsin Avenue in the late 80s and early 90s, he is on the verge of building an unlikely sports powerhouse at a place known mostly for academics and prestigious alumni like Chelsea Clinton and Malia and Sasha Obama.
The D.C. basketball scene has long been ruled by perennial powerhouses like DeMatha and Gonzaga. That Sidwell is being recognized and ranked in the Top 20 in the Washington Post rankings, along with beating schools it once had no chance of competing with is impressive.
Youre seeing his players going to D1 schools consistently, says Vo Cohen, a Sidwell alum from the 80s who played for Syracuse. Before it was happening maybe every five years with guys like John Patrick going to Stanford and me going to Syracuse.
Mike Powell, a former Sidwell coach, says that Singletary gave students and basketball fans in the DMV an alternative perspective of the school that had been widely known for its summer league, but not as much for its in-house program.
Capitol Hoops’ new series, Beyond the X’s and O’s, a look inside the lives of some of the area’s best coaches continues. This week we put the spotlight on Sidwell Friends head coach Eric Singletary. We learn how he became a coach, what inspired him, his backgrounds, and more.
The school is an environment of winners that want to compete academically at the highest level, said Powell who now coaches at Carroll High School. They want to win. What Eric brought to Sidwell was teaching and showing them that you can do the exact same thing athletically. Hes building a culture of being fighters. They are disciplined, they execute well, they are well coached. What changed under his tutelage was a belief. Players and families started to believe that playing at Sidwell, playing for Eric, now we can win.
Singletary has been building the program by putting his players in tough summer league camps where they compete against the best of the best in a city and region that routinely churns out elite-level college basketball talent.
Before coming to Sidwell, Singletary served as an assistant coach for Gonzaga under head coach Steve Turner, who had watched him as a player at Sidwell and overseas. Turner said Singletary gained the respect of players because of his ability to talk to students. A year later, Singletary got the call from Sidwell to become head coach, and was initially reluctant because he had only been coaching for a year.
Turner would end up being his opponent for the Gonzaga classic where in the semi-finals, Sidwell beat the Eagles behind Josh Harts 34 points.
DCSF reporter Brian Kapur highlights and recaps Sidwell’s 82-71 win over Gonzaga. We apologize for the audio mishap during Josh Hart’s interview. Content my not be downloaded, rebroadcast or used without consent and written or emailed permission from DCSportsfan.com
At that moment, Singletary says, people in the District started taking the program more seriously.
Jamal Lewis was recruited by Shaka Smart at VCU and Tommy Amaker at Harvard while he played ball at Sidwell, but ended up choosing to play for four years at the University of Pennsylvania under then-head coach Jerome Allen. He is now a graduate student at Columbia University and says Singletary was a master at convincing everyone that they had a role on the team.
When Lewis got a staph infection in his junior year at Penn, he was in the hospital for 21 days. During his recovery, the Sidwell community rallied around him. And Singletary told him he had more to offer than simply playing ball
That little thing he said to me caused me to consider something else than playing basketball, said Lewis. That helped with realizing I should apply myself in the classroom and pursue things I enjoy which is now environmental health, which Im passionate about. He always says the right stuff and hes right even though you dont want him to be.
Jelani Williams is another alum who will be playing his college ball at Penn this year as a freshman. His daily talks with Singletary about grades and developing better study habits are helping him to succeed in college thus far, he says.
Uploaded by D. Murrell on 2016-09-18.
When an AAU coach introduced Singletary to Josh Hart at a summer league practice years ago, he knew he had to convince him to come to Sidwell. Hart struggled academically and had difficulty adjusting to following rules like no eating in the hallway and being on time for school. He was in danger of being kicked out. Parents, students and Singletary fought and petitioned for him to stay at Sidwell. With the help of a parent tutor, he was directed back on track.
I give Josh a lot of credit for staying, says Singletary. He could have gone somewhere that was easier academically but had a higher profile athletically. But he is somebody who finishes. He graduated from Villanova rather than coming out his junior year.
Josh Hart scores 9, 19, 14, 13, 23, and 12 for Villanova in the 2016 NCAA Tournament as the Wildcats defeat the Tar Heels in the National Championship game. Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2016 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on the official NCAA March Madness YouTube channel.
I fought for him because he reminded me of myself 20 years ago. When I was struggling, it was a lonely place,” Singletary remembers. I know there were people fighting for me as well.
Singletary grew up in Anacostia in the Langston Terrace Dwellings with his mother, Darlene Eddy, his younger brother Delvin and his grandmother, Gladys Marable in a two-bedroom apartment. His father spent time in and out of prison.
Neighborhood guys realized his potential and would give Singletary money to keep him out of trouble when he was home during high school and college.
He played ball at the Fort Stanton rec center, often playing full-court by himself if the gym was empty. He had grown up admiring H.D. Woodson High School’s Henderson Mosley, a three-sport athlete, and had plans to follow in his footsteps.
But that all changed when the Anacostia neighborhood’s local activist Calvin Woodland, an ex-boxer who had used his earnings from the sport to start neighborhood programs and raise money from local benefactors to put neighborhood kids through school, plucked Singletary and others to stay with Potomac philanthropist and real estate executive George Kettle at his resort home in Calliope, Virginia.
(Langston Terrace Dwellings, where Singletary grew up: Photo Credit Wikipedia)
Singletary saw Woodland as a stern mentor and admired the way he gave back to other peoples kids.
He was a real man who showed us love, said Singletary.
In Calliope, Kettle and Singletary hit it off. The next thing Singletary knew, he and his mother were visiting Sidwell Friends at Kettle’s urging. Singletary was reluctant. Kettle told him, “You were built for this,” and paid for him to go to there.
When Kettle and his son Kevin came to pick him up for his initial Sidwell visit, Kevin remembers sitting in the car, staring at a man on a nearby stoop with a beer and a shotgun.
Kettle had sponsored kids in his I Have a Dream Program for years, but every once in a while, found a student that he wanted to help and invest in outside the scope of the program. Singletary was one of them.
Years later, Kevin, standing in Sidwells new gym with Singletary, remembers him being grateful for Kettles blessing, saying, I wouldnt be here without your father.
But back then, Singletary would take the #30 bus nearly the entire route from Shipley Terrace in Southeast to upper Northwest to Sidwell. He would take the 6:45 AM bus every day. He knew that if he heard radio deejay Donnie Simpson playing the Commodores “Jesus is Love” before he signed off, that he was going to be late for school.
Always an astute and A student with minimal effort at his junior high school, he found the workload at Sidwell daunting and his study habits lacking.
I was questioning my intelligence, said Singletary. But it wasnt that, it was just that I didnt have those systems in place. The students there had been trained to critically think and they knew how to write creatively and to forcibly take a position on a certain issue. And then there was the volume of work.
He ended up repeating the 9th grade.
The school rallied around him and came up with three potential families he could live with during the week to ease his commute. He chose one family, Tom and Rosemond Graham, whose home near 33rd Street and Rittenhouse, was closer to the school. Singletary was good friends with their son, Ian, who was also a standout baseball player.
The Grahams treated him like family, enforcing rules like no television during the week.
They were as demanding as my mother, so it wasnt like I was gonna be like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I figured this was my path, it wasnt like I wasnt missing my mom and my grandmother and my brother, but I admire my mother for allowing me to live with someone else. There were no guarantees that this would work out. There was a level of faith she put in the process.
When coaches came recruiting in his senior year, Rosemond, who had become like a second mom, made sure that their priority was what the schools were going to offer him academically. When Singletary went on a college visit to Rice University in Houston, who was recruiting Ian, he met Coach Willis Wilson and was so impressed with him, he came back with the decision to go to Rice. He and Ian would both go on to graduate from there.
After college, Singletary volunteered as a coach for recreation leagues and AAU teams before getting the call from Coach Turner at Gonzaga to work as an assistant coach.
When he got the call from Sidwell to be the head coach at his alma mater, he saw it as an opportunity to give back to the students what he once gained there.
Saddiq Bey SIDWELL FRIENDS Class of 2018- Junior Yr Highlights shot by Josh Morgan-Green (Triple Threat Training)
Hes more than a coach, says Mark Chichester, whose three kids were coached by Singletary in both football and basketball. Hes getting more and more accolades for what hes done in the sport. But whats most compelling to me is what Eric does to develop young people.
You wont find a more passionate and dedicated coach at any level of the game, says Cohen. Eric genuinely cares about the well-being of his players, during and after their Sidwell experience.
Sidwell is now a destination point if youre a young basketball player, said Frank Hanrahan, a local television anchor who played ball with Singletary at Sidwell. If youre a kid that wants to play basketball in college, Sidwell is an option.
Singletary is showing and proving on the court, and will be watching with pride tonight as Josh Harts NBA career gets underway with the Lakers.
There are way more kids now saying they want to be the next Josh Hart, Singletary beams. He is a symbol of something that weve never had. If you work hard enough, the NBA is attainable.
But the NBA is by no means the end game for Singletary. Yes, he loves basketball and wants his kids to succeed at the highest level. But even more importantly, its about the life lessons they acquire in a nurturing, caring environment along the way.