Josh Hart wore the perfect patriotic bow tie for his trip to the White House. His red, white and blue fashion accessory caught President Barack Obama’s eye when Villanova was feted for its national championship.
“This is the tie you wear when you go see the president,” Hart laughed, recalling Obama’s message to him.
He might have had a soft spot for Hart, a top national player of the year candidate, because of his tie-in with the Obamas: Hart attended Sidwell Friends School in Washington and became friends with Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha.
Hart had occasional brushes with fame — an autograph here, a selfie there — as he rocketed to stardom for the best team in the country. But hanging with the Obama daughters later that fall at Philadelphia’s “Made in America” music festival gave him a better idea of what true celebrity was about.
Coldplay and Rihanna may have headlined, but Malia was the featured attraction.
“Oh, definitely, Malia. Without. A. Doubt,” Hart said. “With her, it’s crazy. Everybody wants a picture, everybody wants something. Me, maybe like every 20 or 30 minutes someone would come up and ask for a picture or something.”
“Her life is hectic, like every 2 minutes they want a picture.”
When Hart tried to wave over some friends, the Secret Service kept a better eye on him than NBA scouts.
“You just see 30 guys looking at you, looking at her,” he said. “I was like, uhh, how the heck are you going to do this? She can’t move without someone looking at her. It’s crazy.”
Hart has thrived this season under the scrutiny (minus round-the-clock protection) that comes with trying to lead the Wildcats (28-3) to back-to-back national championships. He led them with 18.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, shot 41 percent on 3s and will likely win Big East player of the year on Wednesday.
Hart, who turned 22 on Monday, has morphed from freshman reserve to NBA draft pick.
“I don’t think I ever thought he’d be a national player of the year candidate,” coach Jay Wright said. “I just thought, if he does everything and he listens to everything, he can be a pro.”
He almost didn’t make it to Villanova, much less his senior season.
Hart, a gregarious sort who collects Nike sneakers, was asked to leave the exclusive, Quaker-based Sidwell following his sophomore season because of sagging grades. Hart said he wasn’t failing classes, but he wasn’t meeting rigorous academic standards at a school that educated the Obama children, Chelsea Clinton, and President Richard Nixon’s daughters. He simply wanted to play basketball and socialize (“I wanted to be a kid,” he shrugged).
Strangers and friends rallied around Hart, and petitioned the school to keep him. Hart had a teammate whose parents volunteered to take him in, offering the home, space and daily structure he needed to graduate from Sidwell.
Hart would stay with his second family, Pam and Michael Hillman, during the weekend and head back to live with Moses and Pat Hart on the weekends. Sidwell let Hart stay in school and the changes helped him graduate and attract Division I attention.
Sidwell, though, is known more for notable Americans than All-Americans and the nation’s top programs didn’t flock to watch Hart.
Hart rattled off Miami, Rutgers, Xavier and Penn State, before he was stumped on the final university on the list for an official visit.
“I know there’s one more,” he said, deep in thought. “Oh, here! It was here!”
Wright had noticed Hart on a scouting trip for another player and quickly became enamored with the all-everything guard.
“I knew he’d be a great Villanova basketball player,” Wright said.
Hart scored 23 points in a national semifinal win last season and was named to the All-Final Four team after the Wildcats beat North Carolina at the buzzer to win the program’s first national championship since 1985.
Hart, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard, declared himself for the NBA draft and earned one of 60 invitations to the draft combine in Chicago. The bundle of energy that kept the Wildcats loose in the locker room and a force on the court evaporated at NBA workouts. He was outplayed by Saint Joseph’s DeAndre’ Bembry during the portions open to the media at a Philadelphia 76ers workout and soon announced a return for his senior season.
Hart said it was “70-30” he would leave for the NBA until he heard his stock was more second-round pick than late first.
“If a team wanted to pick me with the 22nd pick, I definitely would have been gone,” he said.
Wright said Hart’s lethargic showing was a side effect of the tournament grind.
“He was worn out from our long run,” Wright said. “He really didn’t take much time off. He went right back to working out for the workouts. I don’t think they really got a good look at him.”
Hart rallied his senior season and helped the Wildcats reach No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll, win a fourth straight Big East title. He also had the first triple-double for a Wildcat in 30 years and has them a lock for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“For four years now he’s given his teammates confidence and energy. You can see the improvements in his game offensively that let you know he’s working in the practice court, too, when it’s not a contest. And he finds a way to impose his will on most contests that they have, Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “Sometimes it’s for long stretches, sometimes it’s for the entire game, but every game he’s in, you know he’s in.”
He’s all in on making another serious run at a national title.
“We want to be the best we can be at the end of the year,” he said, “and we hope it’s in April.”