NEW YORK — For Villanova head coach Jay Wright, winning championships for a storied university in the basketball-mad city of Philadelphia only should cement his status as being a “Philly guy” through and through. That is surely the case, being that he grew up – and later became a high school basketball star – in the shadows of the Liberty Bell and Broad Street in nearby Bucks County in southeastern Pennsylvania.
But the more wins he racks up in the Big Apple, which have been aplenty in his near two decades at Villanova and at his other coaching stops, Wright may almost be as synonymous with New York City basketball as some of the neighborhood playgrounds in the city that have produced some of the game’s all-time great players.
On Saturday night, he and the rest of the top-seeded Villanova Wildcats won their second Big East Tournament championship in the last three years, dispatching No. 6 Creighton 74-60 and most likely sewing up the No. 1 overall seed going into the NCAA Tournament. About 12 hours earlier, on Saturday morning, Wright, who is unabashed of his pride in being from the Northeast, got to do what many New York residents come to enjoy doing on a regular basis: take a trip to Central Park.
“I love Central Park,” Wright told me while standing just outside his team’s locker room after the win against the Blue Jays. “I love going for a run in Central Park and my wife, it was a little cold today, but my wife and I went for a walk today. We went to the ice rink and we just love it.”
The love affair with New York has been present for Wright for many years, going back to his days when he was head coach at Hofstra University in nearby Long Island and even before that stretch between 1994 and 2001.
“Every Christmas Eve, we would come in [to Manhattan], the kids would take the carriage ride. [My family] was just talking about that today. We just love it here.”
While Wright cut his teeth as a Division I coach in the Keystone State during his days as an assistant at Drexel and at Villanova under the legendary Rollie Massimino, Wright got his first head coaching gig in the shadows of New York City, taking the Hofstra job in 1994. From being one of the downtrodden teams in the America East Conference, Hofstra quickly ascended under Wright, mostly on the back of New York City area kids recruited to play for him in Hempstead. His tenure was capped off by two consecutive America East championships and back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2000 and 2001.
There are not many better ways to endear yourself to natives of the Big Apple than raising the profile of New York City basketball, and the Philly kid was slowly becoming beloved in the five boroughs as he continued to raise the standards – and the profile – of the Hofstra basketball team.
“One of things that’s really unique about New York basketball and people wouldn’t probably understand is this — I’m from Philly and I came here to coach Hofstra, and they just welcomed me,” Wright said. “As long as they see you respect New York basketball, they welcome me. And I always took that really seriously, that we got to represent New York basketball.”
Hofstra’s championship teams under Wright clearly had a New York flavor, so much so that, at one point, any player outside of the area – no matter how close in proximity they were from the city – was an extremely rare sight.
“We had all New York kids on our Hofstra team,” Wright said. “We had 13 guys on scholarship: 12 New York City kids and one foreigner, who was from Jersey City. And we called Ricky Apodaca, we called him a foreigner. We took great pride in that. I always would say, ‘I’m from Philly, but I appreciate being a part of this.’ I wasn’t a New Yorker but they included me and I always appreciated that and took great pride in that.”
Wright took that approach of building teams with the help of New York talent to Villanova, where players like Brooklyn-born forward Curtis Sumpter and Bronx-born guard Allan Ray were instrumental members to the 2006 Elite Eight team that tied Connecticut for the Big East regular season title with a 14-2 conference record. While the core that has made up the team in the past few seasons hail mostly from the Philadelphia and Washington D.C. areas, there is the presence of New York City area talent on the roster as Eric Paschall, who hails just north of the Bronx in Westchester County, transferred to the program from Fordham University and has played an instrumental role coming off the Wildcats bench.
And when it comes time to put their best foot forward, it almost seems as if the Wildcats have done just that every time Wright has been able to coach his team at The World’s Most Famous Arena and in New York City in general.
“I love my guys being here, I love playing in this building,” Wright said. “Just that excites me. And then when you win it? This is Northeast basketball. This is what it is. This is where we all grew up and this is what we take pride in.”
Instead of heading back to Philadelphia on the same day after a game in New York City, the Villanova team will stay in Manhattan overnight and won’t start heading back to Philadelphia until tomorrow. That’s good news for Wright, who might be able to get one last chance to indulge in another part of New York City life that he has grown accustomed to.
“You know what I love the most? The nuts. The roasted nuts from the vendors. I get bags every time.”