Road Tested

by May 06, 2013
sean singletary

by Mark Hostutler

Home is a relative term.

For most people, addresses may change but the general area they call home does not. For basketball vagabonds like Sean Singletary, however, home is wherever a coach is willing to invest in the stock of an undersized and once-freewheeling floor general. In particular, one whose resume validates the old adage that big things can indeed come in small and sometimes-damaged packages.

That has meant a number of new locales for the injury-riddled Singletary since he staked his claim to the throne of the premier point guard in Virginia men’s hoops history. Five years removed from being drafted in the second round by the Sacramento Kings, the Philadelphia native recently arrived in the basketball backwaters of Belgium in an attempt to resuscitate his NBA dream.

Charitably listed at 6-0, Singletary appeared in 37 games for the Suns and Bobcats after being traded three times during his rookie year in 2008-09. Hip surgery, torn knee cartilage, a pair of stints in the Development League, two more in Europe, and three agents have enabled the 27-year-old to see more of the world than he ever wanted. Now, he falls asleep wondering if the tortuous path he’s on is headed back to the NBA.

“I’ve been through a lot of adversity—both personally and professionally—the last couple of years, but now I’m focused and ready to get back to the League,” Singletary said. “The scouts wanted me to work on making others better, and as I’ve matured as a leader, I’ve been able to do that. The game has just slowed down for me.”

Singletary—a product of West Mount Airy, an affluent section of Northwest Philadelphia—now appears ripe for the challenges in his way. But that wasn’t always the case.

“When I was 9, my mother [Jacqueline Singletary] dragged me to a 12-and-under AAU tryout, and I was trembling because the other boys were so much bigger,” he said. “My whining embarrassed her, and when we got home, she spanked me, and I started to cry. Things finally calmed down, and she told me, ‘The only giants are in your mind. You can conquer anything.’”

Jacqui’s words on courage proved prophetic, not just for Sean, but also for her and her husband Harold.

“Both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer when I was a teenager,” Sean said. “My mother had breast cancer, and my father’s was prostate. I don’t think they wanted me around the house during the early stages of their battles, so I went to a boarding school. By the time I graduated, I had been to three different high schools and had to make a lot of adjustments.”

Those institutions—The Haverford School, The Perkiomen School and Penn Charter—are as private and prestigious as it gets in Philadelphia and its suburbs, as their combined tuition for just this school year is more than $100,000.

“I knew I was lucky to be able to attend those schools [on a scholarship from the Police Athletic League] since my father was an officer in Philly for 25 years,” he said. “But it was a culture shock. In the long run, though, it helped me develop and prepared me for college.”

As a junior at Penn Charter in 2002-03, Singletary excelled on the gridiron and the hardwood. In football, the sure-handed wideout hauled in passes from future Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Singletary returned the favor on the court, creating not only easy buckets for Ryan but also Rob Kurz, a former Notre Dame workhorse and Golden State Warrior.

In basketball, during his two years with the Quakers, Singletary led them to a 24-0 mark in the Inter-Academic League, a conglomerate of esteemed prep schools that has bred the likes of Alvin Williams, Gerald Henderson and Wayne Ellington. The back-to-back perfect seasons were the program’s first since 1963-64, and with his parents’ cancer in remission, the 2004 Associated Press Pennsylvania Class A Player of the Year signed with Virginia.

“I could’ve been a really good football player, but I had to give it up because I kept getting hurt,” he said. “I knew basketball would prolong my athletic career, and when I got to college and gained more confidence, the pros became more of an option.”

The doors of the $130 million John Paul Jones Arena opened during Singletary’s junior year (2006-07) in Charlottesville. He promptly propelled the Cavaliers to a share of that season’s Atlantic Coast Conference title and their only NCAA tournament win in the last 18 years. Those were significant feats, considering how sustained success has been elusive for Virginia, save for the Jeff Lamp/Ralph Sampson era. (With all due respect to Barry Parkhill, Wally Walker, Bryant Stith, Junior Burrough and Curtis Staples, the Wahoos have never been regarded among the ACC’s elite.)

“I didn’t recruit Sean; I was blessed to inherit him when I took over the program [from Pete Gillen in 2005],” said former Virginia coach Dave Leitao, now an assistant at Missouri. “I had heard of the phrase Philly tough before, but Sean provided me with a clear definition of it with his fearlessness and the way he was always on the attack.

“I’ve been in a lot of gyms throughout my career and recruited a lot of the great ones [including Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton as an assistant at UConn]. In terms of production, Sean is up there with the best of them.”

Singletary, a first-team All-ACC selection for three consecutive seasons, left Charlottesville as the only player in conference history to generate at least 2,000 points, 400 rebounds, 500 assists and 200 steals. As a senior, he scored 41 points against Miami and averaged 19.8 points and 6.1 assists per contest.

“Going against Duke got me primed for the next level,” he said. “They apply so much pressure and deny the wings to the point where it forces you to make a play. They isolate you when you have the ball, and were the closest thing to an NBA team.”

To illustrate how small the world can be, his record-breaking achievements occurred on the same campus as Dawn Staley’s and Craig Littlepage’s. Singletary, Virginia’s greatest women’s player of all time, and the ACC’s first African-American athletic director—although almost a generation apart—grew up within a stone’s throw of one another.

“Sean could just will the guys around him to perform,” said Littlepage, the A.D. in Charlottesville since 2001 who coached at Penn and Rutgers in the 1980s. (A stud center in his heyday, Littlepage graduated from Cheltenham High School, the alma mater of Reggie Jackson, the Yankees’ Mr. October, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. Sports Illustrated once listed Littlepage, the chair of the NCAA tournament committee in 2006, as one of the most influential minorities in sports.) “If the offense was sluggish, Sean would put the team on his back and carry it with his shooting, his orchestrating and his knack for making the big play, like recovering a loose ball.

“He always gave us a chance to win. I wouldn’t limit him by calling him a point guard because he did so much more than set up and distribute.”

Shortly after Sean’s brief tenure in the NBA, and while he was competing in Spain, tragedy struck the Singletary family once again. Having survived her breast cancer, Jacqui developed brain tumors that eventually caused her death at age 58 last year. Around that time, Harold was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“That was vicious, and the stress from my mother’s situation ate away at me,” Sean said. “I felt it was my fault, that if I was in a better playing situation—you know, some teams overseas don’t pay on time—I would be able to afford better treatment. And she would still be here.”

Now healthy, Singletary, a father of two daughters with a degree in anthropology, is aiming for a return to the States. He’s confident that he has improved the perceived weaknesses in his game.

“I’m now taking more care of the other four guys on the floor,” he said. “I figured out how to run the pick-and-roll very efficiently when I was playing behind Steve Nash in Phoenix. I also learned a ton from Larry Brown when I was in Charlotte, and I’ve been implementing all this along the way. It’s been a bumpy ride so far, but I don’t pity myself.

“I’m on a mission. I guess I’m just ready for a new basketball home.”

Mark Hostutler is a former award-winning journalist at the Delaware County Daily Times and the author of Heads of State: Pennsylvania’s Greatest High School Basketball Players of the Modern Era. He currently teaches English and coaches hoops at Coatesville High School, his alma mater, in suburban Philadelphia. To contact him, e-mail [email protected].