Mikal Bridges sat in the second row of the broken stands in a crowded gym. At that moment, he was just another player in a room of budding stars. Not as well known, barely recognized.
Rewind five months. It was a sweltering afternoon in early June. Bridges was among Philadelphia's finest stars at the Wayne Ellington All City Classic at Girard College. At a quick glance towards the maroon bleachers surrounded with cascading rays of sunshine sat Bridges shrouded by blankets of shade from the upper level. He appeared to fit in.
The then 6-foot-4, gangly swingman was one of the most impressive athletes in the city but not many scouts knew about him. He played for Great Valley High School outside of the city's limits, away from the glamour of inner-city basketball. Away from where he'd eventually play collegiate basketball.
But he didn't necessarily have the tools to compete at the next level yet. He played in the Ches-Mont conference, a league considered by city dwellers as unheard of or below the skill level of Philly's historic Public and Catholic leagues. His exposure was hindered.
So early on, his family tried different measures to make sure Bridges didn't miss a step in his game. Something that proved to be more useful than a daunting commute into the city.
"When I was younger, my dad and my uncle would take me outside to play against older people," Bridges said in June. "When we were playing outside, it made me used to playing tough [competition] and that helped me get to where I'm at now."
And it showed. He played at Girard College in June and two days later, the Mary Kline Classic, an elite All-Star Event ran by recruiting guru Alex Kline for some of the best players on the East Coast. A testament to how far he's progressed.
He demolished the AAU circuit, becoming a 4-star recruit and a top-100 prospect on Scout, Rivals and ESPN's national rankings. Most importantly, Bridges ranked top-25 at his position on the wing.
But that didn't correlate to the criticism he was receiving. He was still small for the wing position. Briges' perimeter shot was premature and undeveloped. He seemed to be a one-trick pony that was devoid of skilled opponents to play.
That was the thought.
But that was also during his junior season when the Patriots seemed invincible. Great Valley finished 28-5 after an early exit from the Class AAAA State Championship tournament. Their first loss came during the Patriots' conference championship game, one they dropped by five points to NBA veteran Richard Hamilton's alma mater, Coatesville. It left Bridges hungry.
"People say that I play with low competition," Bridges said. "My coach tries to schedule tough teams and we try to play them to see how we look. When we go to playoffs the competition gets tougher, and as you see from last season, we went pretty far. So, it's not like we're weak."
During the summer he was balancing multiple offers, some as elite as the University of Florida, others as low as Rider or Old Dominion. But he couldn't decide where to take his talents.
In mid-June, he and his parents sat down to make a list of schools that would best suit the forward. He singled it down to four or five but it was during an unofficial visit to Villanova's campus, the same span of time that he began getting invited to All-Star showcases, that he made his choice.
"I picked Villanova because first it's a great school academically and the coaches are excellent. I like them a lot and that was a huge part [of the decision]," Bridges told Big East Coast Bias on Friday. "They're just great guys and I can tell they love to win and prepare me to be the best I can be."
It's November. Basketball season is right around the corner and Bridges said he isn't the same player he was last season. It's showing. He's matured and entering his senior season the same way he left his junior season.
Unrecognized, under-qualified and still hungry.
"Always I love it," Bridges said when asked about being referred to as an underdog. "I'm going to show them that I can play and I'm ready because there's no pressure on me and I like to show people who Mikal Bridges [really] is."
But who is Mikal Bridges? Five months later he's a jovial 6-foot-7 forward with a more developed perimeter game. He's now an all-around offensive weapon due to his AAU travels with Team Final. But most importantly, he said he now knows how to play the game.
And it's not always about basketball with Bridges. After all, he's still in high school.
"I still always want to have fun," Bridges joked. "You know, hanging with my friends. I just love relaxing, watching television or playing 2K."
But he's found a way to successfully balance his social life with his extracurricular. Bridges is a fixture in student activities at Great Valley whether it's a student section of a football game or deciding a last minute Halloween costume.
The Malvern, PA, native has always been seen as an underdog but in regards to winning a Ches-Mont Championship before he starts his career with the Wildcats, he's on a mission. Bridges is making his own definition of what it means to be overlooked.
"[I want] to show everybody. 'Don't sleep on [Great Valley],'" Bridges continued. "But I like when they underrate us because they'll see by the end of the game that we can play. Then [other teams] won't feel so smart after all."
As Bridges sat in the burgundy-stained stands in the old, bleak Girard College gym planted in the middle of North Philadelphia several months ago, he slowly gazed toward the rafters.
Under the unruffled, icy air-conditioning that blew only in the upper levels of the gym wafted several championship banners from this era and before. The sliver-trimmed hangings mocked Villanova's future.
It was everything Bridges didn't have. They were everything he thought about and what he was lacking in his career that only a summer of long practices, grueling gym sessions and elite basketball games could change. A title. A fixture that proved that this region's best basketball players weren't just homegrown, but that it could exist outside of Philadelphia.
The Wildcats welcome the Great Valley star in less than a year, but before time can inch a little closer, he has one accomplishment remaining before his senior season can end. Prior to leaving the locker room and hanging up the blue and white sashes that he's donned for four years, there's work left to be done.
Bridges' dream is attainable. His future, he could only describe in five words, in one sentence. He wanted one thing.
"To go out on top."