Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Andre Noble was celebrating his latest triumph with Clyde Jones, Greg Dennis, Mo Howard and several others at Dennis’ nephew’s house when the Tweet came out.
Longtime local scout Norm Eavenson put the stat onto the social media platform Friday night, a couple hours after Noble guided his Imhotep Charter boys’ basketball program to another Philadelphia Public League championship, 69-56 over Lincoln.
Putting Andre Noble’s 9th title (3-26-21) in perspective— Norm Eavenson (@n_eavenson) March 27, 2021
Phila Public League Best of the Best Coaches since 1970
Andre Noble, Imhotep Charter, 9 titles
Bill Ellerbee, Simon Gratz, 6 titles
Joey Goldenberg, West Phila, 5 titles
Ken Hamilton, Ben Franklin, 4 titles
Jones, head coach at Chichester, turned to Noble: “I said Dre, do you know you’re on top of Ellerbee?”
Noble demurred: “He’s like ‘Coach, that’s just a list,’” Jones recalled. “‘Can’t nobody be on top of Mr. Basketball in Philly, Bill Ellerbee.’”
The ‘Pub’ that Ellerbee’s Simon Gratz teams competed in from 1983-2002, going 450-100 (.819) during that time, is a vastly different landscape from the one that Imhotep Charter has existed in (2004-05 to the present). Largely gone are the days of the ‘neighborhood school’ powerhouses like Gratz, Mansion, Overbrook, West Philly and others; now it’s the charter schools like ‘Tep, Constitution and Sankofa Freedom at the top, though the pull of the Catholic League has had its own effect as well.
So rather than try to compare eras, it’s better to accept that greatness comes in different forms at different times. There’s no doubt that this has been Andre Noble’s time. The run Noble’s Panthers have been on for the better part of two decades can only be described as ‘dominant,’ his players making their mark at dozens of colleges and into the professional ranks.
But Noble wasn’t the son of a big-time coach, or a former standout ballplayer. He didn’t spend his years working as an assistant under a successful mentor, or even as a manager.
No, this is the story of how a young man from Boston with no legitimate basketball experience to speak of became a Philly hoops legend — before he even turned 45.
Andre Noble (above) has turned Imhotep into a powerhouse team. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Noble was raised in the Mattapan section of Boston, a diverse residential section in the southern part of the city that he compared to the West Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia. The younger son of Della Noble, an office manager at an accounting firm, Noble attended the prestigious Boston Latin School — a selective-admission public magnet school that’s the oldest public school in the country (1635) — from seventh grade onwards, graduating in 1996.
“He was a leader amongst his peer group,” said Michael Contompasis, the Head of School at Boston Latin from 1976 until 1998. Contompasis, who eventually became COO of Boston Public Schools (1998-05) and then its superintendent (2005-07), also remembered that Noble “tutored younger kids, which I thought quite highly of.”
Always competitive, Noble played football and wrestled for Boston Latin, playing basketball only for fun, never thinking the sport would comprise such a big part of his future. He made his way down to the Keystone State for college, accepting a partial scholarship from Lincoln University to study business, encouraged by an older cousin to attend the state’s oldest HBCU.
While at Lincoln, Noble became involved in student government, gaining election as the student body vice president as a senior in 1999-2000. Heading into that final year of his undergraduate education, Noble had an experience that changed his life.
“I stayed at school and I helped run this summer program for challenged inner-city youth that were from Baltimore,” he said. “And doing that, I just super-enjoyed it, being around young people and trying to help them see and grow, and I was like ‘wow, that was awesome,’ to do that and to be a part of that.
“It just connected. I was like ‘wait a minute, maybe I should do something with education.’”
Noble was already familiar with a new school in Philadelphia, Imhotep Charter, which opened in 1998 and has had its charter renewed five times since, most recently in 2019. The school, named after one of the Egyptian pharaohs, was opened to provide “African-centered” learning “grounded in the Afrikan Principles of Ma’at and the Seven Principles of the Nguzo Saba,” according to its page on the Philadelphia School District’s website. Noble had met one of its assistant principals when they visited Lincoln during a conference, and he’d been part of a group that took a trip out to Philadelphia to see the fledgling charter school.
Upon graduating from Lincoln with his business degree, Noble got a job at Imhotep teaching ninth grade math. It was in the spring of that year that he realized how to make an even bigger impact among the school.
“Two of our kids...changed what I do,” Noble said. “They were like ‘we’re going to another school next year,’ and I was like ‘Why? We’ve got a good school, we’re growing’ […] and they’re like ‘we don’t have sports,’ and I just remembered what sports meant for me. And that’s what got the ball rolling.
“Briscoe Chew and Marlon Mills...I’ll never forget their names.”
They’re the two most important players in Imhotep Charter’s basketball history, and they never suited up for the program.
Andre Noble (above, at the 2017 state championship game) (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Chew and Mills didn’t join the team that Noble put together for the 2001-02 season, a Panthers squad that competed in the newly-formed Charter School League. (The rise of charter schools is a relatively recent occurrence, after the city authorized their existence in 1997; by 2018, they made up 30.7% of the district’s budget). But even without them, Noble put together a worthy squad which won the league’s inaugural title, and its second.
“I never really thought we were going to not be competitive, I never thought that,” Noble said. “I knew from just evaluating myself, I knew I was going to work hard at this, and [...] I’ve had great people around me to help me grow in the game, I got lucky with that.”
Three coaches that Noble mentioned specifically as helping him out when he was just learning how to coach: the previously-mentioned Jones, then head coach at Harriton and now head coach at Chichester; Dennis, who was head coach at Girard College and is now athletic director at Summit Country Day (Ohio); and Rap Curry, former head coach at Franklin Towne Charter and now athletics director at Penn Wood.
“The thing I love most about ‘Dre was he was always trying to get better at something,” Jones recalled. “[He’d be] picking your brain about ‘well why do you play this particular style of defense’ and ‘why do you scout so much?’”
“He was young at the time, but he really was dedicated to the school,” said Anthony Haley Jr., who played at the school as a junior and senior (2002-04) and was the program’s first basketball scholarship recipient, playing at D-II West Chester. “He just started it to help us stay out of trouble...next thing you know we were working out every day, playing basketball and lifting weights, and it just became a major program.”
At the time, Imhotep Charter’s educational facilities weren’t anything more than a collection of trailers located in a lot at 21st and Godfrey, across the street from where the school’s modern, two-story building now sits. The Panthers played their home games at Lonnie Young Rec Center, a short walk away, working out in the basement next to the boxing gym — as Haley recalled, “as long as we weren’t loud.”
That league didn’t last long, most of its members (including Imhotep) joining the Philadelphia Public League three years later. Their first year in the Public League, according to Silary’s immaculate record-keeping, Imhotep went 16-9 overall (13-3 Pub ‘C’), losing to Engineering & Sciences in the Pub playoffs. The following year saw the Panthers go 22-7 (16-1 Pub), making a run to the Pub semifinals and their first state tournament appearance.
Not a bad start for a guy who’d never coached hoops at any level, much less jumping right in as a high school varsity coach.
“We were a pretty good basketball team,” Haley said, “but we were still kind of new in the Philadelphia history side of things.”
Khalif Tinley (left) played for Noble in high school and currently serves on his coaching staff. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The introduction of the charter schools to the Philadelphia Public League forever changed the balance of power amongst the city’s high schools.
Up until then, the ‘Pub’ had been largely dominated by large neighborhood schools throughout its history — which according to local hoops historian Ted Silary goes back to the 1900-01 season, when Central won its first of 14 titles. There was the dominance of Overbrook, which won every year except two between 1948 and 1959; a run of five straight by West Philadelphia in the mid-70s, and then the dominance of Ellerbee’s Gratz teams in the 90s.
The ten years before the charter schools joined the Pub, Gratz had won three titles, with Strawberry Mansion and Benjamin Franklin winning two while Edison, University City and Bartram won one apiece.
But starting with Prep Charter and the Morris twins winning it all in 2007, it’s been the Charter School era. Sure, programs like Martin Luther King, Simon Gratz and Lincoln have been strong, but Gratz is now under the Mastery Charter banner. Making the deepest runs in the state tournament on a regular basis have been Math Civics & Sciences, Constitution and Imhotep, along with the now-closed Del-Val Charter.
But one program has stood above all others.
Imhotep’s first championship came in 2009, a 49-43 win over Franklin Learning Center, with eventual Marist and Mt. St. Mary’s guard Sam Prescott leading the way. It was a breakthrough moment for a program which had gone 27-4 the year before but couldn’t get past Strawberry Mansion in either the Public League quarterfinals or state semifinals.
“I was jumping up and down -- if you look at the film, I was acting a fool,” Noble said with a laugh. “It was definitely a big moment for our program, to get over the hump, because we were good, but we just couldn’t get over the hump, and we finally did.”
That 2009 Pub championship also saw Imhotep complete a 32-1 season by winning the PIAA Class 2A title over North Catholic (Pittsburgh). Since then, the Panthers have played in eight more Philadelphia Public League championship games and six other PIAA championship games. They’ve won every single time.
“He puts people in real good situations to succeed,” said Khalif Tinley, who graduated from Imhotep in 2015 and now serves on the team’s coaching staff. “He always used to encourage me as a player, it wasn’t just going out and getting 15 or 20 points, it was just go out there, play your heart out and give it your all.”
Daron "Fatts" Russell (above, last season) played for Noble and went on to have a strong career at Rhode Island. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Imhotep’s triumph over Lincoln raised his career record to 414 wins and 92 losses, an 81.8% winning rate. And all that winning has raised Imhotep’s reputation well beyond the 215 boundaries.
As the championships piled up, Imhotep began playing in national-level events against some of the best prep programs around, from Gonzaga (Md.) to Huntington Prep (W. Va.), Oak Hill (Va.), McEachern (Ga.), Sunrise Christian (Kan.) and more — in the last few seasons alone. The result wasn’t always positive, but Noble and his Panthers have come away victorious plenty often against some of the biggest names in the sport.
“One thing that I think ‘Dre does better than anybody is to be more prepared than the next situation,” assistant coach Tahar Sutton said. “I’m not sure in my 11 years that we went against another team where I felt like they were more prepared than us, like ‘damn, they got us.’ They might be better than us, but I never felt that they were more prepared than us.”
Give a lot of credit to the assistants, too. Sutton’s been with Noble for more than a decade, as has Floyd Butler; Stan Williams has been on the ‘Tep bench for the past eight years. Tinely, a former defensive specialist in high school, helps the Panthers on that end of the court.
And, of course, there’s the talent. So much talent. Williams said he counted 30 young men who’d graduated from Imhotep over the last 15 years and accepted a Division I scholarship, from the four who did so in 2007 all the way up through 2020, when Elijah Taylor headed off to Notre Dame.
Look around college basketball, and you can see the influence Imhotep has had. Daron ‘Fatts’ Russell just finished up four years at Rhode Island in which he scored nearly 1,600 points and earned all-Atlantic 10 honors twice, including a first-team nod in 2019-20. Donta Scott averaged 11 points and 5.9 rebounds for a Maryland squad which won a game in March Madness. Noble could turn on the TV and watch La Salle, Quinnipiac, St. Joe’s or Coppin State and see a ‘Tep alum on the court, not to mention several others playing small-college or junior-college ball.
A pair of current sophomores, Rahmir Barno and Justin Edwards, are well on their way to joining that group. Edwards, a 6-7 wing who already has offers from DePaul, Virginia Tech and Seton Hall, had 15 points and 14 rebounds in the Lincoln win; Barno, who picked up his first offer from Hofstra last month, had 18 points.
“That’s really what’s a big part of this that drives us is our kids being able to benefit [...] being able to have opportunities that they wouldn’t have if they weren’t student-athletes,” Noble said. “I feel like coaching and education are so close, and as an educator, those are the things that are really important. That’s what’s life-defining, life-changing. That’s a big part of the motivation.”
Of course, with success comes expectations. Noble acknowledged that any year they don’t win gets met with chatter that the Panthers have lost a step, even while they understand that no team in a hyper-competitive league can be perfect every single year.
“I think one of the things our kids have to fight over is the ghosts of previous teams,” Noble said. “It feels really different now than it was in 2009.”
The Imhotep coaching staff doesn’t shy away from the expectations, don’t ignore their existence, but rely on their network of alumni to help support the current team and encourage them before and after games, no matter the result.
The team Noble guided to the 2021 Public League championship didn’t have a single senior on the roster, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“Everyone’s against us, we’re Imhotep,” Tinley said. “We’re always going to be Public Enemy No. 1.”
Andre Noble (above, at the 2017 state championship game) (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Noble’s legacy on the hardwood is already obvious, despite the fact that he’s just 42 years old. Less apparent than his wins-and-loss record is the way everybody around him speaks of the man they all refer to as Brother Andre.
Remember Anthony Haley Jr.? He credits Noble with helping him turn his life around, saying “(Noble) kind of saved my life” after he arrived at Imhotep having been kicked out of public school twice.
He’s now Dr. Anthony Haley Jr., earning his EdD (along with two Master’s degrees), and works as an executive director at a charter school in Chicago.
“He really is a selfless person,” Haley said. “His character has not changed. I can’t say that for everybody whose paths I’ve crossed in regards to education or athletics. He wants nothing from the kids except for to see them grow.”
“He just cares about people so much, man,” said West Catholic head coach Miguel Bocachica, who played under Noble as a senior (2007-08) and then served as an Imhotep assistant for three years (2015-18) before taking the Burrs gig. “Just knowing that he cares, it just makes it easier to just listen to him and understand the things he says on the court.
“A lot of the things he teaches on the court really relate to life things, the basketball part is there too, but when you know a man cares about you, more than he cares about anybody else…I’ve been there with him for three state ‘chips and three Pub titles, and (his) humility is crazy.”
“That’s the other thing he learned, basketball is mentoring, in some cases it’s about being a supplemental parent,” Clyde Jones said. “Those are all things that he actually took to heart, and you can see how much (his players) love him and how hard they play for him.”
“One day...I want him to look back and say ‘yo, I did incredible things and I’m allowed to be on top of that list,’” Jones said. “But his humility wouldn’t allow him to say he’s better.”
The only question Noble has left to answer is for how long he can keep it rolling.
Noble said that his ability to devote so much attention and care to his program is a “year-by-year” thing, and he dismissed the idea that he could do what he currently does for decades longer. Imhotep Charter is his way of life, the Panthers his family. Like the legendary high school coaches around the country who’ve produced nothing but greatness over their careers — Bob Hurley Sr. and Morgan Wootten come to mind — Noble is all-in for ‘Tep.
If he continues at the rate he's going and sticks around Imhotep for a couple more decades, he'll go down as one of the greats, not just in this city but in the history of the high school game.
“I only know how to do it this way,” Noble said. “I don’t know how to do it another way. And I’m not going to be a shadow head coach [...] We try to stay super-committed, I follow our kids in the summer and go watch the AAU games, give them feedback. Once I know I can’t do all of that or I don’t want to do all of that, then I won’t do it anymore, and pass this to someone else to do.
“(Former Simon Gratz coach Leonard) Poole said this to me one day and it stuck with me, he said ‘win as much as you can now, because it’s a run, and runs end,’” Noble added. “’It was the first time I really thought about that yeah, it is going to end. I don’t know how, but it is going to, at some point, end.
“And right now we’re just trying to extend it as long as we can.”