This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Senior forward Ameen Tanksley has big plans for the Imhotep Institute Charter High School boys’ basketball team this year.
“I want to be nationally ranked, and I want to win the city [title], the Public League, and states,” says Tanksley.
“I want to win it all.”
All of those goals are within reach for the two-time defending Public League champion Panthers, who also won the PIAA class AA crown in 2009 and made it to the state semifinals last year.
In 2010, Imhotep will return its top eight players, including senior center Erik Copes, who has already committed to George Washington University, and senior Division I prospects Tanksley, David Appolon, Earl Brown, and Tyhiem Perrin.
But no matter how lofty the expectations may become, the Panthers players are constantly reminded that their most important test this year won’t come on the basketball court.
“I have never had a varsity basketball player who has not gone on to college,” says Andre Noble, the Imhotep coach who is also the school’s dean of students.
As Noble ticks off the names of his former seniors, he also runs through the list of colleges they’ve moved on to: LaSalle, Kutztown, Lincoln, Marist, Clark-Atlanta, Long Island University, Central Connecticut State.
“The first kid we ever had receive a basketball scholarship just finished his master’s degree at West Chester University and has enrolled in a Ph.D. program,” says Noble proudly.
“Those are the things that make you feel good as a coach.”
Key to eligibility
For the Panthers’ seniors, maintaining that track record of post-secondary success means that this summer has been as much about preparing for the SAT college admission exam as about getting ready for the upcoming season.
“Since the first week in August, we’ve been coming in [to Imhotep] every day from like 9:30 to 2:30,” Tanksley explains.
“I took my SATs [for the first time] in June. My score was not quite enough to be [academically] eligible [for college.] This is the only thing that is stopping me from going to college for free. I think test prep will help me get the score that I need.”
Over the summer, Tanksley and his teammates have been reviewing coursework that they struggled with during the past academic year and working with Imhotep’s Peterson SAT prep software, which provides exposure to sample SAT questions, timed practice tests, and individualized help with areas of weakness.
“We make sure that [players] are doing what they are supposed to academically during the school year. But the SAT is a variable that I really can’t control,” Noble says.
“The reality of it is that they don’t generally handle [the SAT] well, and it’s because the PSSA is so different from the SAT. You can be advanced or proficient on the PSSA and still get a poor score on the SAT. You’ve got to prepare for them separately,” he explains.
To be eligible to compete in Division I NCAA athletics as a freshman, student athletes must successfully complete 16 core courses during high school, as well as achieve a minimum score on either the SAT or the ACT.
The required test scores are determined on a sliding scale based on the GPA they earn in their core high school courses. A student with a 2.5 GPA, for example, must score either a combined 820 on the SAT verbal and math sections or 68 on the ACT in order to be eligible.
The NCAA most recently adjusted its eligibility requirements in 2008, at least partly in response to the dogged persistence of a “Black-White test score gap” and the acrimonious debates that those disparities in standardized test score performance have long provoked.
Committed to the future
Academic and policy debates aside, Imhotep’s basketball players had a razor-sharp focus on their all-important senior years. One Wednesday afternoon in August, Tanksley was one of five Panthers players working under Noble’s supervision in Imhotep’s computer lab.
Asked why he had given up his precious remaining summer days to study, Tanksley, who transferred to Imhotep in 2009 after two years at Prep Charter, says, “I’m more into school now than I was before. All I needed was more help.”
The Imhotep players express wonder at the family atmosphere at the school and cite the coach’s constant attention as the main reason for their motivation to prepare academically for college.
“A few times this [past] year, we had projects due, and [Noble] would stay here till like 11 at night for us to do our work, then take us all home,” Tanksley says.
To see just how committed Noble is to their futures, the Panthers need look no further than their recent teammate, Will Adams.
Adams led the 2009 team to Public, city and state titles, earning a scholarship to Division I Towson University in the process. But shortly after winning the state title, Adams was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Basketball and college took a backseat to chemotherapy and radiation.
“It was real frustrating to see everyone on the TV, playing ball, and to know that I could do that. I [was] home, no job, no income, no nothing,” remembers Adams.
“[But] Andre was just there, talking to me. His support gave me what I needed.”
With his cancer now in remission, Adams is preparing for a year at a prep school in North Carolina to regain his strength before claiming his scholarship at Towson. In the meantime, he has been living with Noble, counting his blessings, and focusing on his future.
“When you come [to Imhotep], people do so much for you,” Adams says.
“When I came here, I thought I was better than everybody. I wasn’t big on following rules. I would come to school when I wanted, not be on time, just not come. I had to stop that. Andre is real serious when it comes to grades. When the team started playing games, and I was on the side, [that made me] want to do the right thing. I came a long way.”
His players aren’t the only ones who gush over Noble.
“Brother Andre is the most phenomenal young man I have ever had the grace of meeting,” says Imhotep founder and CEO Christine Wiggins.
“He is the father to these young men. The entire time that [Adams] went through his chemo, Andre was the person making sure his benefits were in order. And that’s only one story. He does that for all of his young people.”
Noble, who started Imhotep’s basketball program and has been the team’s only coach, downplays the praise and deflects credit to his players, his fellow staff members, and to Wiggins.
“It’s just what we do,” he says.
“When a kid is [on the Imhotep basketball team], I can honestly say to his family that I’m going to find someplace for him to go [to college]. If they listen, they’re going to be [in college] somewhere, and we’re going to be with them.”