Villanova’s Jay Wright took the long road to a deserved spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame
By KEVIN McNAMARA
Maybe the best part of seeing Jay Wright elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame comes with a deep dive into his roots.
Wright grew up in suburban Philadelphia, worked his way into the city’s famed Sonny Hill summer league but wasn’t deemed talented enough to play at a Big Five power like Villanova or Temple. Instead he became a solid player at Bucknell University, met a lot of lifelong friends and pondered just what to do next.
Insisting on trying coaching, Wright wasn’t slotted into a graduate assistant job by his appreciative coach. Think of the hot shot alums who’ve been handed opportunities at Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse or Kansas.
Instead he took a job at the University of Rochester. He ran the intramural department, coached the JV hoop team and assisted head coach Mike Neer with the varsity. In other words, he started at the bottom.
Then, two years later, he caught a break. The Bucks County (Pa.) native sprinted home for a Division One assistant’s job at Drexel. One year later Rollie Massimino needed to fill a hole on his staff and saw a dark, handsome, hard-charging guy. Daddy Mass later joked that he thought Wright was Italian but the young coach had him fooled.
The Wildcats were still rightfully breathing in the rarified air of the 1985 National Championship – the Perfect Game upset of Georgetown – but the program stagnated over the next five seasons. By 1992, Massimino had escaped some heat and took the job at UNLV as Jerry Tarkanian’s successor. Wright came along and in 1994 landed his biggest break by getting a crack at a head coaching job at Hofstra.
Midway through his third, losing, season on Long Island Weight and assistant Tom Pecora were wrapping up a visit with a recruit. The young man’s mother like Hofstra, but was hearing some ominous predictions about its coaching staff.
“The parent mentioned that you guys might get fired,” Wright recalls. “I said, `nah, we’re fine.’ We walk outside and Tom says to me `hey, we’re not fine. If we lose, we’re getting fired this year.’’
As fate would have it, the Pride had already recruited a freshman guard named Charles `Speedy’ Claxton. In his last three seasons, the future NBA guard led Hofstra to 19, 22 and 24 wins. Wright’s career was off and running and in 2001 Villanova called.
The rest, ‘Nova fans will say, is history. In truth a vote of confidence after three years of not making the NCAA Tournament helped push the Wildcats to what would become Hall of Fame heights.
“None of this happens if I’m not the coach at Villanova,” Wright said. “Everybody has been successful here. I think it’s the best place to coach college basketball in the country. That tradition, that success, has always been here.’’
It all starts with recruiting, of course. When Wright and his staff landed Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Jason Fraser and Curtis Sumpter in 2002, the pieces of greatness were in place. That recruiting success came as little shock to Wright backers.
“His gift — and he can sell red, white and blue to ISIS — is the guy can sell,” Neer, Wright’s boss at Rochester, once told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.
That class led to more great players and more wins. Kyle Lowry, Scottie Reynolds, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu and so many more. The first Final Four came in 2009 but six straight years of no second weekend runs led to ‘Nova being branded as the team that couldn’t win in March.
That ended in 2016 with the dominating run through the Tournament and the historic, pulsating last-second, game-winning Kris Jenkins 3-pointer to beat North Carolina for a National Championship. A second followed in 2018 and, truth be told, that title cemented Wright’s spot in the Hall.
When the Hall nominated the 59-year old a few months ago, you’d assume that was nice but Wright may have to wait a few years for his election. No Sir. He’s going in with NBA stars like Paul Pierce and Chris Webber, as well as heavyweight contributors like Big East commissioner Val Ackerman and Five Star chief Howard Garfinkel.
“I definitely do NOT feel like a Hall of Famer. I don’t know what that’s supposed to be,” Wright said. “It’s very humbling and something I’m trying to come to grips with, to be honest.’’
Wright added that when word came from Hall of Fame chief Jerry Colangelo last Wednesday he was `emotional’ and that the honor is `humbling, overwhelming.’
Well it’s also very deserved and, God knows, Wright’s path to Springfield was not a gold plated one.