The Grittiest Athletes in Town

Villanova’s basketball team is—again!—in the Final Four this year. So why do so few seem to care about yet another championship run by the most Philly of teams?

The Grittiest Athletes in Town

Villanova’s basketball team is—again!—in the Final Four this year. So why do so few seem to care about yet another championship run by the most Philly of teams?

Imagine, for a moment, that, in two of the past six years, the Eagles won the Super Bowl—and that they’re currently deep into the playoffs on the way to another championship. And imagine that not only did they do that with hardly any staff and not much of a budget, but at a time when most of their more established opponents actually kinda cheated. Our collective head would explode, no? Not to channel he who shall not be named, but Jeffrey Lurie could shoot somebody on Broad Street and we’d welcome him out of lockup with open arms, right?

Well, that scenario is no flight of fancy. It’s actually happening right now—save the shooting on Broad Street—only the team isn’t the Eagles. It’s the Villanova Wildcats men’s basketball team, which, under the Zen-like leadership of longtime coach Jay Wright, is arguably sports’ least likely, and grittiest, dynasty.

This weekend, the perpetually undermanned Wildcats, the second-winningest team in men’s college basketball over the last decade, goes for its third national title in seven years. In a game where the traditional powers make a mockery of the term “student-athlete,” this 6,000-student Main Line Catholic school that graduates 100 percent of its players has dominated in a way that defies credulity. There isn’t another story like it in sports; it’s as if Rocky didn’t just fight valiantly—he kicked Creed’s ass again and again, against all the odds.

Yet, it’s sort of no big deal in the consciousness of Philly, right? ‘Nova, owing to its Main Line roots, is often looked upon by city-dwelling sports fans as somehow elitist and not reflective of the city game. Whatever you think of the Main Line, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to this team, and their coach. Contrary to popular belief, there is no grittier, tougher team than these Wildcats—including our Birds—and no more of a Philly guy stalking the sidelines than the well-coiffed Wright.

Just look at the way they play. They absorb body blows and counterpunch with sniper-like precision. They wear you down. They are trained by their coach to liberate themselves from fear; their on-court leader, choir-boy look alike Collin Gillespie, long ago bought into Wright’s Be Here Now ethic, with its “Humble and Hungry” bracelets and its cliched “we’re all in this together” aphorisms, and the result is a group of young men, wise and tested beyond their years, all occupying a space above the limits of their own anxiety.

Gillespie, a native of Northeast Philly, plays with a fierce fearlessness, charging headfirst into behemoths, daring them to test his will. Have you seen his dad in the stands? The beefy 30-year veteran of the Philly police force? Dude looks like a superhero. Yo, Jim Kenney, there’s your police commissioner.

And Wright? There may be no more misunderstood character on the national sports stage. Every talking head finds it impossible to refer to him as anything but “GQ Jay,” owing to his preference—abandoned since the pandemic—for stylish suits. But spend some time with him, as I did back in 2017 after his first NCAA title for a feature in, yes, GQ magazine, and you find a guy who bleeds scrapple. This week, I dug up my notes from back then, and there’s all this Philly stuff that had to be left on the cutting room floor for a national publication. Rereading the material now, it seems clear that Jay Wright ought to be deified here, not merely tolerated by a sports fandom that dismisses ‘Nova as part of sports’ tea and crumpets set.

“You know why I love college basketball so much?” he asked me then. “I like the teaching part of it—the life lessons—as much as I like the basketball. As I get older, I like it more. When I came up playing basketball, I idolized [Philly coaching legends] Rollie Massimino, Jimmy Lynam, Paul Westhead, Harry Litwack, Jack Kraft. Growing up here in Philly, the Sixers were good and I was a Sixers fan—but the coaches I idolized were those Big Five guys. They were teachers. They were all basically high school teachers who got college coaching jobs and they coached as teachers, right?”

I was once in legendary Temple coach John Chaney’s office, I told Wright, right after the O.J. verdict. When his players cheered the news of the acquittal, Chaney canceled practice and sent them to their dorm rooms. “Two people are dead!” he yelled; as he related it to me, when one player said that the criminal justice system had finally broken “our” way, Chaney, a renowned social justice champion, lambasted him: “Whose way? Murderers’ way?” he asked. Another time, I was there on a frigid winter day when point guard Rick Brunson sauntered in, wearing a windbreaker. “Get a jacket on!” Chaney bellowed. “A bug the size of a thimble gonna get in you and kick yo’ ass!”; a bevy of assistants snapped into action, finding something for Brunson to wear before braving the cold once again.

These are not Platonic life lessons, of course. Rather, they are what Wright suggests—the type of practical guidance a caring high school teacher might offer. I’ve seen it for years in Big Five schools—whether it be Fran Dunphy’s modeling for his players what it means to be the most gentlemanly of gentlemen or Phil Martelli wise-cracking his way to sagacity, our college coaches have long offered object lessons in how to balance grace with pressure. Wright, who grew up in Bucks County, stored away his share of just such wisdom.

“I’d go to those Philly coaches’ camps as a kid, and they’d teach basketball, but those guys would always talk to you about life,” he recalled. “I remember specifically being at National All Star Basketball Camp, and Jimmy Lynam was the guest speaker. Jimmy’s 5’8”, right? I remember him doing a lecture and calling the biggest guy in the camp out to the court. He says, Take my ball from me, and he’d hold the ball and the big guy would go at it softly, and he’d yell, Cmon, man, you’re 6-4, take my ball!” and he’d make the guy try to rip the ball from him as he gripped it tight. Here was a 40-year-old guy and he was tougher and smarter than the biggest kid in the camp. His lesson was that little guys can be tougher and smarter and work harder. He was teaching that as a basketball player, but he was teaching that in life. I remember thinking, Little guys can be successful.”

Ah, the early roots of that David versus Goliath script his players have brought to life more than any team in the nation. As Wright reminisced, a parade of assistants barged into his office time and again, breathless, awaiting decisions on this or that. Being a big time college basketball coach is to be the CEO of a particularly persnickety operation. But he was lost in reverie.

“All those guys—[legendary longtime former basketball coach of Thomas Jefferson University] Herb Magee used to come up there, he’d shoot, sure, but he’d teach you that your work ethic and commitment to a goal was the most important aspect to being a good player—not whether you were a star,” Wright said. “Rollie would come and do a clinic on defense and how the guy that plays defense is the most valuable guy on the team, not the leading scorer. It was just drilled into you. I remember I used to work Harry Litwack’s camp in the Pocono mountains. Harry was retired but still owned the camp. He’d be walking around the cafeteria with a lit cigar—can you imagine? It stunk!—all these little kids would be eating and he’d have a cigar in his mouth the whole time. He was a great coach, but he never talked about basketball. It was always, clean up after yourself. Be nice to each other. Be on time. That’s what I thought a coach was. Teaching life lessons. I thought that’s what NBA coaches were doing, too. I didn’t realize till I got older that that was a business, you know?”

More than most type A coaches, Wright is an introspective sort; for many years, he had his own personal Zen master on the bench with him for every game, charged with coaching Wright in his own interactions with his players. He smiled when I asked if finally winning the national title was the ultimate in fulfillment.

“The national championship gives you a sense of serenity, not satisfaction,” he said. “The satisfaction and the accomplishments come with guys like Kyle Lowry. He was a rough dude coming in here. And he really grew up here and even when he went early to the NBA, he struggled with maturity issues — never character issues. And now, when you see how he handles himself…”

Hee, Wright started to choke up. “I texted him after a game they won in the playoffs, his postgame interview was incredible,” he said. “His maturity and composure and taking responsibility as a leader and not making it about him—I was watching it on TV and I texted him as soon as I saw it. I said, Forget the game—the leadership you showed for your guys going forward is amazing. Those kind of accomplishments, that’s satisfaction. A guy like Randy Foye, who basically grew up without a family and then came here and after his junior year I wanted him to leave for the NBA because I knew he didn’t have anywhere to go back to. I really thought, If anybody’s got to make it, this kid’s got to make it. And he said to me, You know what? I’m not ready. This is my family. I’m not ready to leave my family. I promised my grandmother I’d get a degree. And he did, but not only did he do that, he went back and formed a foundation in Newark and does all this great work for the inner city in Newark.”

The other thing about Wright is that he’s clued into his own corniness. “I know it sounds cliche,” he said. “But that’s the real championship.”

After last weekend’s evisceration of the University of Houston, Wright got choked up in the postgame interview when talking about “his kids.” “I’m just so proud of them,” he managed to say.

He’s had far more talented teams, and the loss of guard Justin Moore to injury makes another miraculous run even more unlikely. But, in style of play and in the wearing of emotions like patches on one’s jersey, Wright’s ‘Cats will be representing Philly ball this weekend…even if Philly reacts with a disinterested shrug.


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Header photo by Steve Cheng / Flickr

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