PHILADELPHIA — All the makings of a hangover are here in Lot D6 outside Wells Fargo Center on the last Sunday of January. It is 11 a.m.; the temperature is 35 degrees. Four gates to the parking area have already been open three hours by now, and Villanova flags fly as handles of Vladimir vodka are hoisted up. “Thunderstruck” blasts out of speakers in the back of a pickup truck rented for $19.95 at U-Haul. Natural Light flows through a funnel; co-eds mix mimosas. Tipoff for the top-ranked Wildcats’ game against No. 12 Virginia nears while frat brothers and sorority sisters, brought to the site via 24 yellow buses and a caravan of Ubers, tap Busch Light kegs and tipple. Sophomore William Bantner and senior Thomas Brew toss a football across 12 spaces. Brew, in a vest and Aviators, lifts a bottle of André champagne.
“Drinking it pretty much every game,” he says. “Great year to be a Wildcat!”
Brew is not alone in his champagne taste. It is the drink of choice for Main Liners as they revel on, at least 22 students swigging from green champagne bottles throughout the party zone. Corks litter the lot; cigar smoke swirls above a crowd dressed in championship swag. Down the block, the team makes its way through the bar at XFinity Live!, into the locker room and on court for warmups. It is known as the Wildcat Walk; forecasts suggest cauldron conditions coming as white T-shirts emblazoned “We Are One” cover 3,000 seats. The largest crowd for a college game ever held in Philadelphia is expected. University officials point out that all 20,907 tickets have been gone for a month. Jason Donnelly, a former assistant coach now operating on the business development side, notes, “Every seat, every suite, sold.”
They all bear witness to a buzz kill courtesy of the visiting Cavaliers early on. There is a first-to-50-points-wins feel as Josh Hart, a national player of the year candidate, misses his first six shot attempts. Fellow senior Kris Jenkins, a heavyset marksman who knocked down the buzzer-beater in last April’s NCAA national championship win over North Carolina, goes 0-for-the-first half. The Wildcats are getting caught on screens and can’t quite figure Virginia’s bone-thin freshman Ty Jerome, who buries a pair of 3-pointers several steps beyond the NBA arc. From the home sideline, Villanova coach Jay Wright, dressed in one of his Winner-Within wardrobes accented with always-be-closing accoutrements, grows incensed when Hart is whistled for a foul call. Wright is at first held back by two assistant coaches, but he shakes them off, marching determinedly on court in a timeout. He fumes.
“No f—ing way!” Wright says, holding up two fingers toward the referees. “That’s two! Two f—ing calls!”
There is a Fathead of Pope Francis, His Eminence’s mouth agape, being waved by a student fan on the baseline in front of Wright. In the coach’s wake are two upset defeats that inspired court storms at opposing arenas in recent weeks. First, it was Butler; then it was Marquette. Wright needed to be restrained by two of his players and an assistant while leading by one point 12 minutes into the game at Hinkle Fieldhouse as he shouted, “You mother f—er! You mother f—er!” at an official. This contest against Virginia is the game immediately after the Marquette defeat, and Wright recognizes a need to stir a comeback cocktail. By the scorer’s table, he wipes spittle from his chin and goads his guards to get going. A 13-point deficit is trimmed to one in a seven-minute span, mainly on the back of Mikal Bridges, a sophomore with arms as thin as capellini. Then the bucket brigade hurries into motion. First comes a three from Hart; Jenkins follows his classmate by setting his feet — one, two — to knock down back-to-back baskets from 3-point land. The finishing touch comes with the score tied, 59-59. Hart heads into the lane with the ball, and misses a layup. He is on his back when freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo, the “Michael Jordan of Delaware,” as Wright brands him, leaps to tip in a miss for a game-winning follow. Wright is stoical still, hands in his pants pockets before he pivots for handshakes. In a back room, away from the din, he chides himself for not playing DiVincenzo more.
“I have a lot of weaknesses as a coach, but one is that when you get older in this program, it’s like a blanket to a baby. I’m just so comfortable with those guys,” Wright says. “Too many minutes I played Josh, too many minutes I played Kris. This is a byproduct of my insecurity of wanting to have them there. I have to get better.”
This is what Wright has wrought. March’s maw is more than a month away, but the ramp-up to a repeat attempt demands constant improvement, all-out leaps and heightened vigilance. It is the greatest challenge of his 23 years as a head coach, and a test of the competitive wiles he gained in Philadelphia. It is also a heat check of the philosophy he has honed since his Hofstra days, where he went from failing to fill any of the retractable bleachers to regularly running a lob play called “Wiggle” for a 5-foot-11 guard. In his ascendance, Wright has been obsessive and assertive, a peddler and a pointillist, constantly curious and evolving as he re-evaluates every decision, from diction to worldview. Atop his field, he mixes sermons from a team chaplain with sleight-of-hand lineups sans guard Phil Booth (knee) and power forward Omari Spellman (NCAA ruling). With a seven-man rotation, resourcefulness is a prerequisite. Wright’s offense is a parade of well-sold pump fakes; defense is a 1-2-2 trap led by Bridges’ overwhelming wingspan. Wright manages the minutes for them all. He also monitors minutiae with marketing intern Nick DiPaola.
“You got pictures of students?” Wright asks DiPaola.
“Tons of pictures of students,” DiPaola says.
DiPaola offers a photo on his phone screen.
“Look at that picture!” Wright says before calling his wife, Patty, a former Villanova cheerleader, over. “Pats, the kids at the tailgate are drinking champagne and smoking cigars!”
“At what time in the morning?” she says.
“We have a 10-second video of the tip-in,” DiPaola says. “You want us to post it from your account?”
“Put this,” he says. “@DonteDivincenzo: High basketball IQ. This was all his idea”
“This was all his idea?” DiPaola says.
“It was,” Wright says.
Concertina wire tops two chain-link fences around Charlie’s Country Ribs on Diamond Street in North Philadelphia. One door down, a black iron gate guards Shizz’s Steaks & Hoagies. An adjacent sign warns against trespassing between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. at the Hank Gathers Youth Access Center. Inside, three wall murals celebrate basketball careers of native children: Gathers dribbling, Dawn Staley going behind her back and Wilt Chamberlain dressed in a tuxedo and bow tie. There is no hardwood on site, only blue rubber, the result of sneaker soles being repurposed as flooring. Two plywood backboards with double rims remain. A stage abuts one side.
“If these walls could talk…” Jimmy Richardson, a graybeard coach, says.
… One might hear echoes of Wright calling out a screen. This gym is one of the band boxes where Wright responded to inner city basketball’s siren call decades ago. Long-armed and olive-skinned, Wright hopped in the driver’s seat of his family’s light-chocolate Capri station wagon with the wooden sides. He is the son of Jerry, a power tools salesman, and Judy, a homemaker. They lived in Churchville, a comfortable Bucks County suburb 30 miles northeast of the intersection of Diamond and 25th Street. Council Rock High coach Mike Holland had counseled Wright to seek better basketball competition. Wright did. First it was Sonny Hill League under coach Bob Black, a 6-foot-5 city cop who ran his players hard. One time, Wright returned to his ride to find a passenger side door stripped. Another time there was a bullet hole in his windshield. Unbowed, Wright returned, ball in hand, bounce in step. Where others fell off for lack of rides or failure to report to mandatory tutoring sessions, Wright and Council Rock teammate Rick Kamin met all requirements.
“We would go all the time and there would be like five high school All-Americans who couldn’t play because they didn’t go to tutoring,” Wright says. “We would get our butts kicked, but you just knew that’s the level you have to play at.”
There was one player known as “Red Top” or “Hick.” He brought Wright by Diamond Street in summertime. His given name is Derick Loury, and he played with Darby Township as a teen. Wright met Loury at Blue Mountain, a basketball camp in the Poconos, but it was in Philly that Loury showed his friend a new world. Loury remembers a “silky” shot and “finesse game” from Wright. They strode together down Cecil B. Moore Blvd. to McGonigle Hall. Wright walked in with black, slicked-back hair. He wore color-coordinated warmups and sneakers. He was dubbed “Jay Bird,” but rarely took flight, instead firing off jumpers with his high release.
“For a white boy, he could play,” Loury says. “His trademark was his looks, though, a pretty boy, but he could light that net up on you. His mom and pop made sure he had all the right gear. A relentless competitor, just like his teams now.”
Net twine is taped to the double rims at the center today, and incense burns on a stick beneath a poster celebrating Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game in the lobby. Loury is the warden at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, overseeing 1,500 inmates and 600 staff members, and Loury allows that he cried when Jenkins hit the long three to win the title last April. Jenkins is held up as an inspiration to the youth at the Gathers gym, his photo pinned to the wall in a backroom. A blue-and-white rubber ball gifted to the gym by Villanova when Wright brought his whole team there for a Christmas visit in 2004 is in a trophy case. Kyle Lowry, an NBA All-Star and a veteran product of the recreation center, was a freshman with the Wildcats.
“Coach and I had some battles,” Lowry says. “You know how when you get kicked out of practice, you’re supposed to go to your dorm? Nah, I never did that. I just went all the way home.”
Wright returns to the city’s taut spaces from what he calls his “La-La Land” lot on the Main Line, down by split-rail fences and Fox Run, when prospecting for the likes of Lowry, as well as when he wants to drive home a point. Wildcats attest to Wright bringing them in his black SUVs for private conversations, whether on West Campus after a winter practice or through West Philly, as he did with former forward JayVaughn Pinkston in 2010. Pinkston was put out of school as a frosh after punching a student at a frat party. Pinkston, a forward from Brooklyn’s Brownsville section, rode shotgun alongside Wright while considering his path forward.
“I wanted him to see how far he had come, and told him, ‘Look, if you decide you want to go transfer or anything, that your treatment here was unfair, I support you,’” Wright says. “It was a long car ride but I remember him saying, ‘I’m staying.’”
Richardson considers the cross-section of players who have come and gone at the center. He knows the next prospect is Cameron Reddish of Westtown High. Reddish is 6-7 and one of the nation’s top juniors. Richardson notes that Reddish cut his teeth on site by the anti-gun posters emblazoned “STOP SHOOTING PEOPLE.”
“Cam got his heart here,” Richardson says. “Jay can get in that door.”
“I suppose the statute of limitations is up at this point,” Wright says while he relaxes in a folding chair on the second-floor of the Davis Center on campus. He is in between taping his weekly television show and making a phone call to the national fundraiser for Sigma Chi, the fraternity he pledged at Bucknell. On television screens throughout the office, footage of Charles Oakley being pinned to the Madison Square Garden floor the night before airs, and Wright shakes his head. He talks about his Pat Riley fixation, including the bedroom in his first condo with his wife, née Patricia Reilly, that they dubbed “The Pat Riley Room” for film review. The connection between Riley and Wright was Bob Salmi, an old Wright roommate and Riley’s video guru. “Bob let me copy a book Riley gave the team. He swore me to secrecy on that.”
The outline filled 300 card-stock pages.
“Everything was covered in there,” Wright says. “How you talk to the media, how many hours before a flight we meet, what time we eat, philosophies. A lot of the terminology we use is from then: warring screens, converting defensively, loading.”
Salmi’s role opened doors for Wright to observe and listen to Riley behind the scenes, though Wright only made his way into practice once and had to sit in the rafters. After games, Wright gained access to a family lounge at the Garden. Riley came in and spoke for a minute or so, sharing a few thoughts with the staff. Wright scribbled them down, but he knew his greatest coup was copying out the policies.
“We do so many things of his that I never even spoke to Pat about,” Wright says. “Bob knew how enamored I was with Pat. I begged just to get in that practice.”
Wright arrived in New York resembling a Riley clone. It was 1994, just as the Knicks squared with the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, and Hofstra, the woebegone program that ranked 286th of 305 in Division I, was Wright’s first position as a head coach. He had worked his way up from selling season tickets for the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL, at one point dressing up as the furry Star mascot during rush hour inside 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. Next, there was a $10,000 gig as an assistant coach at the University of Rochester, where he set out on one recruiting trip that doubled as a personal Iditarod — six-hour drive in the snow. (The kid later signed, but Wright missed the next day’s practice session.) Next stop was Drexel, where he steered the Dragon Wagon — a navy blue station wagon — to Five Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh. From there, he connected with Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, joining his staff in 1987, just two years after Villanova won a national championship. By then, Wright was already labeled “NBA Jay” for how he carried himself. Wright was 25 when he oversaw offseason conditioning that autumn. Kenny Wilson, a senior starter, didn’t appreciate Wright’s pressing him.
“He’s not making time. I am up his butt,” Wright says. “He turns, freaks out, says, ‘You’re new here, man. We all been here. You just got here. I’m not listening to you.’”
Wright relayed word to Massimino, who then phoned Bob Hurley, head coach at St. Anthony High in Jersey City, where Wilson went. Hurley and Massimino came to an arrangement where Wright would meet Hurley by the tollbooths at Exit 9 on the Jersey Turnpike. Wright, driving a Toyota Celica, brought Wilson, and Hurley, joined by his wife, Chris, pulled up. Chris Hurley and Wilson switched vehicles for about 30 minutes. Wilson and Wright then stopped for dinner on the way home.
“We don’t mention it today,” Wright says. “Great friends ever since.”
Wright was still learning when to ball his fists and when to take a deep breath. Prior to his first game against Georgetown, he observed an exchange in the Spectrum hallway. Massimino had Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda in his locker room. Hoyas coach John Thompson Jr. and Massimino emerged at the same moment.
“What are you doing with another f—ing (Italian)?” Thompson Jr. said.
“F— you!” Massimino retorted.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna fight!’” he says. “Then they hug. They loved testing each other’s toughness.”
Massimino considered Wright family, and Wright followed Massimino to UNLV when the head coach uprooted from Lancaster Ave. in 1992. They flew west in a golden private jet, and relished the crowds of Gucci Row at first. Wright was not in love with all of it, though. He recognized a crush of interest in the program that Jerry Tarkanian had taken to a national title when his wife went into labor for the first time. Standing over her during the delivery, the doctor quizzed Wright about the basketball game to be played that night. Their son Taylor’s first word was “Webel.”
After two seasons, Wright returned east. Patty was nine months pregnant again when he accepted the Hofstra job. She returned to family in Philadelphia to have the baby. Patty tasked Wright with finding an apartment for their young family.
“I got all caught up in the recruiting, she had the baby and we didn’t have anywhere to live,” he says. “We stayed in a dorm. She is a saint. I was so obsessed, so into working that first year.”
Patty, a licensed attorney, can laugh now. The two walk hand-in-hand down the sterile arena bowels after most games and play tennis in down time.
“When we started dating, I think he liked Pat Riley more than me,” Patty Wright says. “My name, that’s why he liked me.”
Pat Riley laughs when informed that Wright married a Pat Reilly. He remembers Wright chasing after him the way he once begged Bob Knight for a beer at clinics across the country. Wright mined for his favorite morsels of information when “The Winner Within,” Riley’s book on leadership skills, was published in 1994. When Wright reached his first Final Four with Villanova in 2009, Riley contacted him. He requested a ticket from Wright, which Wright accommodated. Riley later wrote Wright a congratulatory note that Wright keeps in a top drawer at his home office.
“I’m a write-a-card type,” Riley says. “St. Joseph’s Academy taught me script, and I have good handwriting. No text, no e-mail. Some moments deserve stationery.”
There is a copy of Wright’s first book on leadership, entitled “Attitude” and just published, on Riley’s desk by Biscayne Bay. He already knows the conclusion, and believes that Wright is ready to make the NBA if he so chooses.
“My gosh,” Riley says, “a coach’s dream ending.”
Forget the man crush. Focus on the man purse. Tom Pecora sits inside Donovan’s, an Irish bar and grille in the Bayside section of his native Queens. He recalls an early visit to the old tavern when Wright was ingratiating himself to the Catholic League coaches in the city, stopping in at jayvee games to show greater interest than coaches coming only for the varsity tips. Local coaches were still taking the measure of Wright, who entered most gyms in a long black leather jacket. Some joked that he was either in the FBI or being tailed by agents, riding from gym to gym in a black Lincoln Town Car. Pecora, his top assistant, offered a piece of advice to Wright, who carried a man purse at the time, before they entered Donovan’s.
“Leave it in the trunk,” Pecora said. “I’ve got cash.”
There were more debits than credits on the program’s depth chart. When one assistant checked on a guard’s class attendance, the player was smoking a cigarette outside. When a player brought a guitar on the bus, Pecora informed him that Wright might react like El Kabong, the cartoon character who bashed guitars over heads. At the first game, Pecora counted heads prior to tipoff, and reported to Wright: “74.” Wright asked if that was the point total Hofstra needed to hold the opponent to in order to win. No, Pecora said. That was the attendance. Afterward, Wright asked to add metal soccer bleachers to close off an open area by the baseline.
“Why don’t you fill the other seats first?” said Larry Bloom, a facilities manager.
Wright learned to identify power. One campus broker was senior captain James Shaffer, a Marine Park product and feisty competitor. He absorbed Wright’s rants in practice, but believed the coach needed to be reined in after a loss at Yale. On the bus back, Wright heard players goofing off, and, despite the hour, informed the team that they would run suicides back on campus past midnight. Shaffer, the team captain, stepped in, and contacted a security guard who was a recent football graduate, and arranged for the guard to inform Wright that they could not practice due to lighting timers. Wright argued with security, but the sabotage worked. Later that season, after learning of it, the coaches called Shaffer into Wright’s corner office.
“Do you really have that much pull?” Wright said.
Shaffer did. Wright would later hold more sway as he jerry-rigged the team long enough to lure Speedy Claxton, a spindly lodestar. Claxton developed with the Flying Dutchmen and decimated opponents with plays called “Wiggle” and “Butter.” His efforts led Hofstra to the 2000 NCAA tourney as a senior, and a new arena opened. Teammates went to another NCAA after he graduated. Wright leaped to Villanova a few weeks after the second, but returned to the tri-state often. He had a recruiting meeting scheduled at 101 Barclay Street on September 11, 2001. He was to meet Gary Charles, coach of the Long Island Panthers, at Charles’ Bank of New York office. From Philadelphia, Wright watched as a plane hit the North Tower at the World Trade Center. He tried to contact Charles multiple times to see if the meeting was still on, but got a busy signal each time. Wright stayed put, and later learned that Charles walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. The building they were to meet in was a block north of Ground Zero. It was damaged by falling wreckage and did not re-open for 10 months. Tom Crotty, Wright’s running partner in Rockville Center, worked for Sandler O’Neill on the South Tower’s 104th Floor and was among those killed. The Crotty family had helped ease the Wrights’ Long Island transition.
“I felt like we weren’t really New Yorkers when we came,” Wright says, “but the Crotty and Mulkeen families really welcomed us, beach club advice and all. Our hearts were still there on Sept. 11. Our children’s friends were still there. We called around to everyone the next morning. It was crazy. That day still means a lot to me.”
New York never left Wright, who made the 90 miles to Villanova look like nine city blocks, as Cardozo High coach Ron Naclerio says. His first class featured Allan Ray of St. Raymond’s, Curtis Sumpter of Bishop Loughlin and Jason Fraser of Amityville High. They stumbled early on as Fraser dunked on the wrong rim at the McDonald’s All-American game at the Garden, but eventually reached the Elite 8. Randy Foye, from Newark, recalls eating KFC with Wright on his Third Street porch during the coach’s home visit. Foye watched denizens eyeing Wright’s Range Rover. The coach’s calm impressed Foye. Once signed, Wright’s wrath raised eyebrows.
“My first two months, it was, ‘If f—ing Speedy was here, he’d f—ing rip your heart out. He’d pick you up full, take the ball and dunk on you,’” says Foye, who has purchased several Range Rovers in modeling himself after Wright. “Everything was Speedy, Speedy, Speedy. I thought (Wright) was Bobby Knight for a second.”
Wright is the elder in the Big East now, a personality in pinstripes. Gone are Boeheim’s glasses, Carnesecca’s sweater, Carlesimo’s beard, Thompson’s towel and Calhoun’s quips. Commissioner Val Ackerman notes, “If we want to talk our coaches into something, Jay’s the guy we call.” That was the case when Fox, the conference’s television partner, wanted cameras in huddles. Wright has helped twist a few arms, and Ackerman adds that there are elements of Wright that confounded her at first.
“Jay is not his real name. You know that, right?” she says. “When I took the job, I got e-mails with résumés from a Jerold Wright. It was @Villanova.edu, but I did not know who it was for the longest time. I was like, ‘Who is this?’ He has been a key cog, very helpful from the start. He is deeply respectful of the old league.”
Wright is scheduled to return to Long Island next Christmas. Villanova will play Hofstra in a refurbished Nassau Coliseum then. Shaffer, who exchanged text messages with Wright on the occasion of his 500th career win last month, plans on attending. Jamil Green, the first scholarship player Wright brought to Hofstra, will fly in for it. Green now works as a bellman at the Aria in Las Vegas. He remembers Wright picking him up at JFK in his black Town Car. Wright pumped up Hot 97.1 FM.
“He was singing along to Biggie’s ‘Juicy,’” Green says. “I was like, ‘This is going to be an interesting ride.’”
There is a red shack down the Jersey Shore where Wright likes to go once the season is over and recruiting relents. It’s an old speakeasy with mounted fish on paneled walls and coconut heads lining a shelf in the back. On a recent day, the 18 stools in the tight space are overturned on the bar and no outdoor sign marks the locale as Twisties, a bayside bar where Philadelphians find their way to drink in sunsets. The Homemade Bloody Mary, Painkillers and Rum Runners are popular. One sign is affixed to the side of the building as chairs and kayaks are stored inside.
“Thanks for a great season!” it reads.
It is owned by a Villanova graduate from Bucks County, and Al Capone is rumored to have bellied up against the bar. Dress code is Phillies hats and flip-flops.
“Just good, salty Philly people,” Wright says. “One of my favorite places in the world.”
There will be time to take it all in come summer. For now, March is upon the Wildcats once more. They are Big East tournament champions and the No. 1 seed in the East Region. Net-cord nostalgia is en vogue at Villanova with seniors wearing shirts emblazoned “Four years felt like 4.7 seconds,” a nod to the winning sequence at the championship. Plans are also being ironed out to find home games next season as The Pavilion, the on-campus venue, will undergo a $60 million renovation. Wright toasted donors as athletic director Mark Jackson noticed a leak from the roof while the team celebrated its regular season title on Senior Day. Water was pooling by the three-point line. Overtime may have meant a rain delay.
“I thought it was a player sweating on me at first,” Jackson says. “The building just said, ‘No más.’”
Wright’s vision is to host a housewarming party when complete.
“One way people criticize Villanova is they say, ‘They’re still partying from 30 years ago,’ which is true,” Wright says. “Someone said, ‘Now can you stop partying for 1985?’ Nova people are like, ‘Yeah, but we’ll party 30 more years on this one!’”
Game watches are going on all along the Jersey Shore. One is at a house in Rumson. Foye is a Net now, and he tunes in with his young family. Wright gifted him a championship ring — etched “Humble & Hungry” — in Indianapolis when Butler beat Villanova, and Foye keeps it secure in his home office. Foye sat in the front row by Wright’s wife that night as Wright was restrained. Foye recognized the fire. He believes Wright is revving up to repeat.
“Different squad, different leadership,” he says. “Same head of the snake.”