After giant leap, a Germantown native homes in

Chattanooga defensive specialist Khalil Hartwell's unlikely path to the NCAA tourney started on Philadelphia playgrounds.
Chattanooga defensive specialist Khalil Hartwell's unlikely path to the NCAA tourney started on Philadelphia playgrounds.
Posted: March 18, 2009

Khalil Hartwell is convinced miracles can happen.

After all, the 6-foot-8 Philly-bred forward for the Chattanooga Mocs considers his current plight to be somewhat of a miracle. He has gone from a playground basketball vagabond who caught the eye of a coach at a prep school that closed down after an NCAA investigation to a starter on an NCAA tourney team.

There's more. Hartwell is on schedule to graduate in August with a degree in criminal justice, and his first sampling of March Madness will take place in his hometown at the Wachovia Center, where a proud band of family and friends will form his little cheering section.

"I've taken the hard road," the soft-spoken native of Germantown said the other day. "Getting to this point is a blessing."

So, don't tell Hartwell that the chances Chattanooga, the Southern Conference champ with an 18-16 record and the No. 16 seed in the West Regional, will knock off No. 1 seed Connecticut tomorrow are slim and none. Don't remind him it's never been done, that No. 16 seeds are 0-96 against the No. 1 seeds since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

"One of these days, history is going to happen, so . . ." he said.

It's not likely UConn's 7-3 all-American, Hasheem Thabeet, or the Huskies' talented 6-7 forward, Jeff Adrien, are shuddering at the thought of matching up against Hartwell, the Mocs' best defender.

But that's not the point. Hartwell's is a story of a young man who's made the most out of what he had, which really wasn't much. He was an athlete, but not a basketball player, and a struggling student when Darryl Schofield, then the coach at Lutheran Christian Academy in North Philly, took an interest in him.

"When I first saw Khalil, he was in a school yard," Schofield said. "I approached him about the opportunity to finish up his education, and he wanted to learn how to play basketball. He was raw, but he worked. He didn't have much knowledge about the game except what he knew from the school yards. When I saw he had a chance, I told his mom he should have a fifth year. Academically, he wasn't bad at all. It turned out he was so good in math, he was tutoring some of the other guys. Once he realized he could amount to something, he really started working."

At Lutheran Christian, Hartwell played on a team with Temple's Dionte Christmas, La Salle's Vernon Goodridge, and Texas El-Paso's Stefon Jackson.

Lutheran Christian, housed in a community center at 17th and Tioga, became defunct when the NCAA ruled two years ago it would no longer accept its transcripts.

"All I know is I got an education there and now I'm on my way toward getting a degree," said Hartwell, who is averaging 9.1 points and 7.1 rebounds.

The summer after he graduated, a Chattanooga assistant coach saw Hartwell at an Adidas camp and invited him for a visit. The Mocs had made the NCAA tourney in 2005, and Hartwell felt comfortable with the school. Four years later, here he is, the third-leading rebounder in school history and, according to Chattanooga coach John Shulman, a delight to coach.

"Khalil is a wonderful kid, and he's a warrior," Shulman said. "He's not a great skill guy, but he sticks that ball in the basket for us. He's a great rebounder. He's a worker. He takes a charge. He's our best defender. He's just steady every single night."

One of Hartwell's hopes was to play in a college game in his hometown. But time was running out. Hartwell's final chance rested on where the tourney committee would send the Mocs. He eagerly watched Sunday night, when the brackets were filled.

"It's a homecoming for me," he said. "It'll feel good to get home and see my family. The other guys on the team have been telling me, 'Hey, we're going to Philly. Are you getting us some cheesesteaks?'

"A lot of my family and friends have asked me for tickets, and I told them it's going to be limited. My mom [Dawn Johnson] and immediate family come first."

Hartwell made a successful comeback from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament following last season. He suffered the injury against Davidson. He missed three games before opting to postpone surgery until after the season. He said the surgeon told him his legs were so strong he could play with a brace, with minimal risk of further damage.

"I think Khalil is my superman because of what he did last year," Shulman said. "He struggled a little bit in November and December. He wasn't comfortable with the brace. He's now playing without a brace, and he's back to where he was before the injury.

"I'll tell you, the smile he had on his face when he found out he was going back home to Philly . . . it was really something."


Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.

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