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From Philadelphia to Maryland: The toughness and determination travel south

A look at Philadelphia basketball’s imprint on Maryland men’s basketball.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

On Thanksgiving night in the Bahamas, Maryland men’s basketball was down big against Richmond. The Terps were in the middle of clawing their way back in the game with a big second-half run. During that run came a defining play for this Maryland group.

Maryland was in transition and transfer point guard Fatts Russell had the ball on the left wing. Russell took one dribble and flicked the ball up with his right wrist to a soaring Donta Scott, who leaped up and hammered it home. Russell raised his arms as he strutted back on defense, energizing a small, but pro-Maryland crowd in Nassau, Bahamas.

It certainly wasn’t the first time this duo had connected.

Soon after Russell announced he was transferring from Rhode Island last spring, he got a call from Scott, his longtime friend and high school teammate. It was a call that set that alley-oop, and this entire Maryland season, in motion.

Scott didn’t mince his words when he got on the call with Russell. “We want you,” he told Russell bluntly.

Russell wasn’t sure what to say. Scott offered some more assurance. “No, bro, like we really want you. I want to play with you again,” Russell recalled Scott telling him.

Scott and Russell played high school basketball together in Philadelphia at Imhotep Charter, one of the basketball powerhouses on the East Coast.

When Russell got that call, he said, it made him feel comfortable and made him realize he knew where he wanted to be and who he wanted to be with.

Tahar Sutton, Russell’s stepfather and assistant coach at Imhotep, was reminiscing as he watched that alley-oop between Russell and Scott.

“I smiled as I was on the sideline watching it because that’s what I’m used to seeing,” Sutton said. “That made me smile because that’s the Fatts to Hot Scott [Sutton’s nickname for Donta Scott] connection I remember.”

Russell and Scott aren’t the only two Maryland players who have Philadelphia basketball in their blood, a gritty, resilient style of play that has ingrained itself on this basketball team.

Starting guard Hakim Hart played high school basketball at Roman Catholic High School, another top basketball school in Philadelphia, and played AAU basketball with Scott for Philly Pride.

Maryland’s leading scorer, Eric Ayala, is from Wilmington, Delaware, which is a short drive away from Philadelphia, so Ayala also played a ton of basketball in the city with all the other high school stars.

The fact that the four guys all knew each other way before they took the court together in College Park has allowed the group to grow together and instill a Philadelphia style of toughness and resilience into this iteration of Maryland basketball, a mindset it desperately needs as they try to navigate a turbulent season.

You don’t need to be from Philadelphia to know what it means to be a basketball player from the City of Brotherly Love. The toughness lends a determination to Philadelphia athletes to never give up. It’s the attitude the city, and people from it, feel and embrace. So, naturally, the players who grew up in the city, a mecca of basketball, have the same mindset.

“It’s a tough city, it’s a tough place to grow up,” Sutton said. “If you grew up in this city in certain neighborhoods, and even if you grew up in the outskirts of those certain neighborhoods, you still need to earn your stripes and get your bone playing in these neighborhoods and in the inner city.”

That experience is not unique to Scott, Russell, Hart and Ayala. But as players who grew up in and around Philadelphia, they are among the many athletes who developed into Philadelphia basketball players.

Brandon Williams, who coached Scott and Hart as the AAU coach of Philly Pride, saw that grit on display when he traveled to other parts of the country. He felt he had a responsibility to represent his city whoever they played and made sure that his players shared a similar attitude.

“I think the mental toughness is really where we own our identity,” Williams said. “We’re a tough city, because, I mean, it’s Philly, right? We got 500 murders, unfortunately, and the year isn’t even over yet, so it’s like you got to be tough growing up here. But I think the mental toughness that we instill in our kids as a whole is what kind of separates us.”

Philadelphia basketball is a brotherhood, one that has ingrained itself on this Maryland team.

“You go down, we go down. You get up, we get up. We got your back,” Scott said.

“We’re just hard-nosed, tough individuals,” Russell said. “Coming here is just kind of what we’ve been used to like all our life.”

No punch is too big to handle for a kid growing up in Philadelphia. That attitude carries over to the basketball court and has traveled 130 miles south to another area where basketball is king: Maryland.

Despite the offensive struggles and hardships Maryland players have endured already during this young season – like head coach Mark Turgeon resigning eight games into the year – the team won’t quit.

Throughout the season, the Terps have trailed most of their time on the court, but even when they display a lackluster offense and an inability to make shots, they always fight until the buzzer sounds, the same way they had fought as kids on playgrounds years before.

“Maryland basketball is kind of similar to how Philly basketball is,” Russell said. “We grind people up. We’re tough. We just always have each other’s backs.”

For a team that has disappointed through the early stretch of this season, with a record of just 6-4, Maryland has had to embrace a similar mantra.

There’s a common word that both Williams and Andre Noble, Imhotep’s head coach, use when discussing their teams and players: Family. Philadelphia basketball is a family.

“A lot of guys from Philly depend on family,” Scott said. “It’s a really family-based atmosphere, and I think that’s what brings a lot of guys” to Maryland.

Russell is the elder of the family, but also a newcomer. The 23-year-old graduate transfer is the only active player in Division I with more than 7,000 points, 430 assists and 220 steals. Russell had an illustrious career at Rhode Island before deciding to make the move to College Park.

Those skills developed at parks, rec leagues and summer leagues all over Philadelphia, starting at a young age. Sutton isn’t just a parent to Russell, but also a coach, so he had a unique perspective as he watched and helped Russell develop.

Sutton took Russell to play at various parks and summer leagues throughout the city, emboldening his toughness as a small, quick guard. Addresses like 19th and Washington, 25th and Diamond, 34th and Haverford, Kingsessing on 49th and Chester. You name the spot in Philly, Russell probably played there.

“All these kids at some point in time played in the inner city somewhere, some rec league, some summer league somewhere,” Sutton said. “And you can’t play in those environments if you are not the toughest guy mentally or the toughest guy period. You have to get tough minded, play tough, play hard. Cannot play a soft brand of basketball, you just won’t last.”

By the time he was ready to enter high school, according to Sutton, Russell had earned his respect, was prepared and ready to go.

“By the time they’re reaching college, all the yelling and screaming that could possibly happen, it already happened when they were 10 and 11 years old,” Noble, the Imhotep coach, said. “So, they really, like, believe in themselves and have the confidence from… playing with that kind of aggressive environment.”

Those early days playing in the city are when Russell met his friend and current teammate, Ayala. Russell was in sixth grade when he first met Ayala.

“We’ve been friends ever since then,” Russell said.

It was easy for Ayala to adjust to playing with Russell this season because as Ayala put it, “I’ve been playing against him my whole life almost, so our chemistry just clicked automatically.”

Russell and Scott met when Scott came into Imhotep as a freshman and Russell was a junior. The next year, the basketball powerhouse didn’t just dominate teams in Pennsylvania, but all over the country. They lost just two games all season and beat national teams like Montverde Academy, which is in Florida. Imhotep captured the state championship that year, and Russell became the school’s all-time leader in points, assists and steals.

That team was undersized at every position, but they out-toughed every opponent, guarded well and rebounded as a team, which allowed them to overcome their size disadvantage.

“That’s what Philadelphia basketball is about,” Noble said. “One of my favorite teams to coach was that year.”

Noble said he sees that same determination when he watches Maryland play this season, but he’s still a coach first and a tough critic to his former players, letting them know when he doesn’t like something he sees.

While Hart didn’t play at Imhotep, he had his own share of success at Roman Catholic. He was named the Catholic League Player of the Year as a senior and helped his team capture back-to-back Catholic League titles.

Hart and Scott are the same age and developed a bond while playing on the same AAU team together, Philly Pride. Williams, Philly Pride’s coach, said it took some time for Scott to turn the corner on his development, but by around seventh grade, he knew they had something with him.

“He was always a kid that loved to have a basketball in his hand,” Williams said.

When they were at AAU tournaments across the country, Williams and his staff had to watch Scott in between games to make sure he wasn’t overworking. Scott would try to get a ball and dribble in between games.

“You bring the team back to stretch and Donta’s in a full sweat, like, ‘What were you doing?’ Running around the gym the entire time, dribbling, dribbling, dribbling,” Williams said.

Hart, for his part, was a terrific shooter. Williams remembers tournaments where Hart was able to get it going, but Scott wasn’t and then other tournaments where Scott dominated. Nonetheless, they played off each other and always rooted for the other one’s success.

“The AAU dynamic was funny for those guys just because they were such different players, but they fed off each other,” Williams said.

Turgeon was the architect behind the 2021-22 Maryland basketball team, and while he didn’t stick around long enough to see his project through, the allure he presented to recruits from the Philadelphia area remains in place.

Turgeon said they had tried to recruit there since he arrived at Maryland and when they finally got Scott to come, he served as a “pied-piper.”

“They see the grind, they see the process and they see the family-based atmosphere,” Scott said.

The proximity is certainly a big reason why Philadelphia players are attracted to Maryland. Just over a two-hour drive makes home close, but not too close. Because of the location, players had already spent a lot of time in the state for AAU tournaments.

“AAU Basketball like literally should just set up an office in Maryland,” Williams said. “You constantly just have such Maryland presence in this area.”

Beyond the proximity, the tradition of Maryland basketball and style of play, like that of Philadelphia, brings players in from the City of Brotherly Love.

“I kind of was just born that way and then coming here is just kind of like the same thing. We all tough, gritty and play really hard defense,” Russell said.

The tradition, exposure in one of the best leagues in the country, and the chance to compete on a big stage in front of a passionate student body make Maryland an attractive destination for guys within driving distance.

“It’s almost like a can’t lose situation if you fit the criteria for what they’re looking for,” Sutton said. “It’s a great destination for Philly guys, New Jersey guys, Delaware guys… so, I’m not surprised those guys ended up there and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see more guys end up there.”

This past summer, all four guys would get together and play pickup in various gyms. Sometimes Ayala would go up to Philadelphia to play and other times Hart, Scott and Russell would travel to Delaware and play around Ayala.

The trip down I-95 from Philadelphia to Maryland is a journey from a city where robust basketball players are born and groomed to a place they continue to develop and showcase their skills at the next level.

This season might get harder before it gets any easier, but one thing is for sure: That Philadelphia spirit will carry this group every night as they try to climb their way to March.