Favorite athlete: Kobe Bryant
Favorite team: Chicago Bulls
Favorite memory competing in sports: Winning back to back championships in our own Dick Dougherty Tournament
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: When one of my players made me fall in practice
Music on mobile device: Meek Mill & NBA YoungBoy
Future plans: Play college basketball and major in business
Words to live by: “Never fear, always have heart.”
One goal before turning 30: Have kids, a nice job and a big house, also I want a Rolls-Royce Wraith!
One thing people don't know about me: My favorite sport is football
By Ed Morrone
On Tuesday night for one half, against the mightiest team in the league and probably the entire state, Ward Roberts was the best player on the floor by a long shot.
Watching Roberts smoothly and confidently drain three-pointer after three-pointer on the road at unbeaten Plymouth Whitemarsh, it was easy to assume that the Bensalem senior guard has been tearing up opposing defenses his entire life.
Quite the contrary; in fact, Roberts is about as late a bloomer as you can be at the high school level, going from the JV team his sophomore year to one of Bensalem’s best players this year as a senior. Roberts was a football player for much of his youth, never really lacing up his high-tops to shoot hoops unless it was in rec leagues or during pickup games on the playground.
He decided to give basketball a try sophomore year because like some kids at the high school level, he outgrew football; or better yet, football outgrew him.
“I was never really into basketball; football was my thing my entire life,” Roberts said during a Thursday post-practice chat, the day before a do-or-die home game against Downingtown West. “I played basketball for fun, but I was never a serious player. But eventually I just became too small for football, and the more I put into basketball, the more fun I had.”
Roberts’ arrival into the Bensalem program coincided with current head coach Mike McCabe’s. Roberts played his entire sophomore year on jayvee, coming off the bench at first before becoming a starter later in the season. Once the team started winning some games as Roberts was playing better, he knew hoops had become his new focus.
“After the JV season, the basketball program held workouts and I came to those,” Roberts recalled. “Then me and Coach McCabe, we just clicked, and I made the varsity team the next year.”
When asked about his first impressions of Roberts, McCabe offered two words: raw talent.
“His speed - you just can’t teach that kind of quickness,” McCabe said. “When I saw his ability to handle the ball, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid’s going to be lights out, he just needs to get a little stronger.’ He always had a smile on his face, was always ready to listen. He’d always ask me, ‘Coach, what do I have to do to get better?’ and I told him that he had a ton of talent, but it was about the amount of work he was willing to put in.
“I always tell my players that some guys have talent, others have work ethic, but you really have to love the game. Once Ward fell in love with basketball, the sky was the limit for him. He put in the time and effort, and once he did, you can see he got better and better each year.”
In Roberts’ first year with the program while playing on jayvee, the varsity team went 11-12 overall with a 6-8 SOL mark. When Roberts was a junior on varsity for the first time, the Owls went 9-13 and 3-9 in the league, missing the playoffs by one game following a blown 12-point lead at Pennsbury in the final game of the regular season. McCabe told the team to remember this feeling and come back determined to get over the hump in 2017-18, when the Owls would have a senior-heavy roster.
It didn’t necessarily start out so great, as Bensalem won seven and lost seven of its first 14 games. Then, something clicked, with the Owls ripping off seven of eight wins and clinching a berth in the Class 6A district tournament as the No. 16 seed. At times, Roberts has been Bensalem’s best player, but so has James Leible and Taco Douglas and Kris Shields, all seniors who had decided to check their egos at the door and focus on being as good as the sum of their total parts.
“We all felt we could grow together and put Bensalem back on the map,” Roberts said of his senior year. “Once that happened and we came together as one, there was so much more joy in playing. Who does the scoring on our team doesn’t matter; as long as we win, we’re cool. Instead of putting our heads down if one of us doesn’t have a big scoring game, we congratulate each other. We aren’t about trying to score 40; we want to all pitch in and get a win.”
Case in point: In Bensalem’s first-round district battle at home against Pennsbury, senior Kris Shields poured in 22 points, including the game-winning three-pointer at the overtime buzzer. Pandemonium ensued. And sure, while Roberts or any guy on the court would have loved to taken that shot in that moment, there were no sour grapes.
“I was happy, the whole team and school was happy,” said Roberts, who scored 14 in that game. “It was redemption, because they kept us out of the playoffs last year. We wanted to keep them from advancing like they did to us, and it didn’t matter who took the last shot.”
Fast forward to the following week’s second round. Bensalem was unlucky enough to draw PW, who came into the game with a 24-0 record, ranked first in the state and had cracked the top-25 in some national polls. Not only that, but the Colonials had won 49 straight on their home court, and many in attendance assumed Bensalem would wilt under the heavy pressure.
Try telling that to Roberts.
After falling into an early 7-0 hole, McCabe called for time. After that, Roberts played like a man possessed in the first half, scoring 10 of Bensalem’s 12 first-quarter points. The Owls were down just two points after one and five at halftime. On the biggest stage of the season, Roberts made sure people would remember his name after they left the gym.
“We knew nobody gave us a chance, but we really did go in with the mindset that we were going to win that game,” Roberts said. “We don’t fear anybody. I don’t fear anybody.”
And although the Colonials kicked it back into high gear in the second half, ultimately winning 71-40, Roberts led all scorers in the game with 20.
“No doubt if he didn’t come out the way he did, we would have been in real trouble,” McCabe said. “Ward has played against great players and teams, and he’s always right there with them. He’s proven that he can play at a very high level.”
The Owls are hoping Roberts has at least two more games at a very high level in him, as two more wins would get the program to the state tournament for the first time since 2011, according to McCabe. The loss to PW sent the Owls into the district playback bracket, where they will have to beat Downingtown West at home on Friday night and then the winner of Downingtown East-CB East on Tuesday (the Owls would host CB East and travel to Downingtown East in those scenarios).
But for now, Roberts and company are just taking it one step at a time.
“For us today (Thursday), we were just focusing on our practice,” Roberts said. “Take care of business there, then be ready to go to war on Friday. My goal when I started playing was to get to states before I leave high school, and as of now it looks like we are on the right path. We’ll see how it goes on Friday. We want to win that game, then head to the next game and hopefully after that, it’s states.”
The fact that he is even in this position to begin with has Roberts feeling very grateful. He hails from North Philadelphia, but moved to Bensalem to live with his uncle and go to high school there. Roberts struggled with his academics early on and made some mistakes, but he and McCabe both said Roberts has learned from them and has come so far as both a basketball player and a person.
“Basketball has helped me a lot, because I don’t like to lose,” Roberts said. “When we lose a game, we come back the next day and try to get better. Just like we learn from losses, if I make a mistake in life, I try to come back the next day and learn from that.”
Added McCabe: “He’s a great person, a great kid. We all make mistakes along the way, and he’s learned a lot from some of the ones he made early on. We’ve talked about where basketball can take him, be it Division-II or Division-III. We just want him to go study and do well, continue his education. He’s always told me he wants to go to college and play basketball, and he’s got the tools. He just has to keep working. The academics were a struggle early on, but he’s really come a long way there.”
Roberts isn’t sure where he might go to school in the fall yet, but he said it was important for him to take that step, mainly because neither of his parents went to college. His family wants that for him as badly as he wants it for himself.
Roberts would like to study business, maybe getting into real estate development down the line. When he’s not playing basketball or hitting the books to make sure he gets himself into college, Roberts likes to go back to North Philly to spend time with his parents, as well as his two younger brothers and older sister. He said he wants to be a role model for his brothers, and that they push and inspire him to be great as much as he tries to set a positive example for them.
“I think it’s important to take a break from basketball, go spend time with my family and chill with my brothers,” he said. “They don’t see me from Monday to Friday. I’m very grateful, because a lot of people don’t get the chances that I got. Once I moved up here and in with my uncle, things started happening for me.”
For now, Roberts is focused on beating Downingtown West on Friday. Then, if the Owls win, it’ll be on to the days of practice before the next round, and hopefully after that, another do-or-die game for the right to go to states.
Not too shabby for a kid who didn’t start playing organized basketball until sophomore year and didn’t suit up for varsity until he was a junior.
“If Friday was to be my last game here, I’d want it to be on this court,” Roberts said. “But at the same time, I’m not looking at it like this will be my last game with this team.
“I want to cherish every moment while it lasts.”