Sankofa coach Isaiah Thomas is a builder of communities, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has also built a strong basketball program.
Thomas, the school’s director of athletics and basketball coach since it opened in 2009, has run for city council twice and in 2015 served as the director of community affairs on then-City Controller Alan Butkovitz’s staff.
In the past two seasons, Thomas has led Sankofa to back-to-back District 12 championships and back-to-back first-round state playoff wins and added the program’s first Division I recruit this season, junior wing Khalil Turner.
On Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Hamburg High, the top-seeded Warriors from District 12 will face Lourdes Regional, the top dogs from District 4, in the Class 1A playoffs.
“This time around has been even more special because of Khalil Turner getting a Division I offer and the talent level of our kids,” Thomas said. “We knew these kids were good in ninth and 10th grade, but now for them to get the recognition — because they’ve been putting in the work for a long time — it’s just a rewarding time. It makes it feel like it’s all worth it.”
Turner, a versatile 6-foot-5 forward and guard, received his first scholarship offer Friday night from Hartford, a few hours after leading his team to an eye-opening victory. The Warriors (18-8) shocked some by decisively beating Girard College, 81-59, in the first round of the PIAA playoffs.
Junior forward Scott Spann, the team’s leading scorer all season, led Sankofa with 25 points, and the Warriors also hit 12 three-pointers, which Thomas said could be their highest total in a game all season.
Derrius Ward, a smooth-shooting, athletic wing, led the team with five threes, including 4 of 4 during a critical third-quarter stretch against the Cavaliers, who boast their own Division I recruit, 6-8 forward Mikeal Jones.
His boys might have occasionally bickered like brothers earlier this season, but what Thomas saw last week was the team effort he has preached all year.
Four players finished with double-digit points, including senior Omar Long, who hit four from behind the three-point line.
Long and Demetri Glover-Reed, Thomas said, were in the school’s first fourth-grade class when it opened in 2009.
Turner and fellow junior Jaymes Savage were in the original third-grade class.
Thomas graduated from Frankford in 2002 and played on the Pioneers squad that finished runner-up to Gratz in the 2001 Public League championship game. He also has been the president of the Coaches Association for Public League boys’ basketball since 2013. He also started the Isaiah Thomas and Chris Woods basketball camp, which is part of the Thomas and Woods Foundation, which is “dedicated to solving issues of health and wellness among at-risk urban youth.”
The free camp, Thomas said, has grown from about 40 kids when it started seven years ago to more than 120 last summer.
According to the school’s website, “Sankofa” is an African expression that translates to “reach back to move forward.”
Last week, Anthony Wright-Downing, who now plays at Cabrini, was among a few other former stars of the program who came back to chat with its current players.
“This has been an awesome experience,” Thomas said. “For us at Sankofa, it’s always gonna be bigger than basketball. So for this team to be in a position to represent District 12 is truly an honor.”
Later, Thomas added: “Some of these same guys were able to come with us the first time we made it to states. They made that road trip and this has been a goal of theirs since elementary school to try and win a state championship, so this is a special time for us.”