Jay Wright himself says it’s easy to forget all the little stops on the road. This summer you might have caught Wright yelling out defensive assignments to some of the best basketball players on the planet, part of his duties as assistant coach for the USA Basketball team that won gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
You picture Wright as Villanova’s coach, coolly saying “Bang” as Kris Jenkins drops in an NCAA shot for the ages, two years before Villanova runs over the whole field for another title.
All that is why Wright will be on a stage Saturday night in Springfield, Mass., trying to get his arms around a journey that enshrines him in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Day to day, you’re in your Villanova world, and your coaching world, and your relationship world,” Wright said. “That’s your day-to-day world.”
The announcement of Wright’s Hall of Fame selection just led him through a This is your whole life door.
“Like checking IDs at Rochester — I did forget about those times,’’ Wright said of his first coaching stop, as an assistant at Division III Rochester, with all sorts of tasks piled on. In life you have these seemingly mundane interactions and move on without remembering, except a bunch of people on the other end never forget. They follow your path with increasing interest. They met him when.
Like Tim Carroll, Council Rock High, class of 1983, who was in junior high when Wright was at Council Rock High.
“I certainly can’t say I saw the future and expected him to make the [Hall of Fame],” Carroll said. “However, all of my teammates could tell he was destined to be a successful coach.”
Wright was a ballplayer, bound first to play at Bucknell. The head coach at Council Rock, Mike Holland, would hold clinics for younger kids in the district.
“I was fortunate as a seventh- and eighth-grader to have Jay as my coach,” Carroll said. “He knew the game, created plays as well as offensive and defensive sets. Drew the plays with his finger on his hand! He knew the Four Corners offense in detail — that was the thing with Dean Smith back then.”
Sweet memories, fitting into a puzzle.
“It’s fascinating to me how some people rise and others do not,” said a man named Dan Comer. “So much in life goes on to influence that.”
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Comer is the one with those intramural memories at Rochester, where Wright worked for a year while Comer was a student from 1983 to ‘87.
“He was always at the gym,” Comer said. “Always, it seemed. … Mostly I remember him sitting behind a small desk at the front of the gym facility checking student IDs, making sure only students had access to the wonderful Division III facilities.”
Somehow, Comer said, everyone knew Wright had Philadelphia ties. He had already left for an assistant job at Drexel by the time Villanova took out Georgetown in ‘85, when Rochester students gathered at Wilson Commons to see David take on Goliath. That memory merged with Wright memories for obvious later reasons.
“He was very affable, approachable,” Comer said. “And sometimes during intramurals, Jay would referee games, and sometimes at stoppages in play, he would create a teaching moment.”
The memories stuck, while Wright himself has this whole different set of memories, like the bus ride on a Sunday morning in May during the Hall of Fame announcement, Mohegan Sun to Springfield.
“It was overwhelming,” Wright said. “It was sensory overload. Everybody on the bus was a Hall of Famer. Sitting in the back with Vlade Divac, Calvin Murphy, Bill Russell, Gary Payton. They’re all just telling stories like they’re at a park, at a pickup game. Dawn Staley was right across from me. I was like, no one would believe this. Chris Webber was in the back, and Paul Pierce. Those guys were telling stories.”
Memories pile on from all these different angles. Comer, the Rochester graduate, said he was at the Pavilion a couple of years back for a Villanova game. “Maybe against Creighton?”
The game wasn’t even the memory.
“After the game, it was pouring so hard that no one wanted to walk back to their cars,” Comer said. “Behind the court, players were milling around with their parents, and as Jay was walking out, I said, ‘Hey, Coach, great game today,’ and he stopped, turned around, smiled, and said, ‘It was a good one, wasn’t it?’ And that was the guy I remember.”
Ease of manner didn’t put Wright in the Hall of Fame. (His players know that smile does not always follow them through a practice.) But maybe there was a common thread to the whole journey.
“He loved the game and Philly basketball,” said Carroll, Wright’s fellow Council Rock grad.
If a Hall of Fame is, above all else, a gathering and recognition of memorable characters, these men from Wright’s distant past offer testimony about how Villanova’s coach clears the bar.