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How Kyle Neptune’s Brooklyn basketball roots led him to the top job at Villanova

Hoops tradition in Brooklyn stretches back to Connie Hawkins, Billy Cunningham and World B. Free. For Neptune, who succeeds Jay Wright at Villanova, this was his basketball upbringing.

New Villanova coach Kyle Neptune hugs president Peter M. Donohue during a press conference introducing him.
New Villanova coach Kyle Neptune hugs president Peter M. Donohue during a press conference introducing him.Read moreHeather Khalifa / MCT

NEW YORK – Early afternoon, life was just coming to the playground. A man shot at the only rim that had a fully hanging net. Another soon showed up with a ball and a dog. A mother brought her baby daughter in for some exercise.

A Monday afternoon in May is not prime hoop time at this playground in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, with three full-sized courts mostly resting comfortably. Just off the court, two 50-something men sat on a bench, trading opinions.

Excuse me … do you know the name Kyle Neptune?

“Haven’t seen Kyle in a looong time, oh God,” one man immediately said, sounding up to speed on Villanova’s new head basketball coach. “He went to Brooklyn Friends downtown.”

“Point guard?’ the second man asked about Neptune.

“Undersized three man,” the first said of Neptune’s position with some authority.

» READ MORE: Villanova’s Jay Wright era lives on with Kyle Neptune | Mike Jensen

Earlier this month, Neptune, now 37 years old, had sat in his new office on the Main Line and given a little verbal roots tour, talking about that specific playground off Willoughby Avenue — “definitely a place I spent a lot of time.” Neptune tried to explain all the different ways Brooklyn had shaped him.

“A big mix of people,” Neptune said. “Very diverse. A lot of close-knit families. It had a big neighborhood-y feel.”

Nobody sitting on a bench back then could have known this young guy Kyle was going to rise to his current coaching heights. Neptune’s friend who lived right by the court probably was the one getting more attention. Ramel Bradley went on to star at Kentucky.

“We kind of honed our craft there,” Bradley said over the phone about Emerson Park. “It was some of the best of the hood. We were going hard-core on the concrete.”

“It was like a luxury thing to play inside until I got to high school,” Neptune said. “I was probably more comfortable playing outside than inside for most of my teenage years.”

Where Kevin Durant calls home

Downtown Brooklyn may have invented the honking horn, but a 20-minute walk away, calm can descend. Clinton Hill is a neighborhood full of classic three-story brownstones. Neptune grew up in one. Mix in a 14-story apartment co-op, Pratt Institute in the heart of it, shops and restaurants on the main drag.

Talking about his life path, Neptune can’t know if he lived even one block over if it would have been quite the same. Maybe he could have ended up as a school principal like his sister, who knows?

Neptune’s Brooklyn tale really started before he was born. His mother was born in Trinidad, his father in Guyana.

» READ MORE: Kyle Neptune isn’t feeling the heat about succeeding Jay Wright. Yet. | Mike Sielski

“I don’t want to make it up — I think my mom was in her teens,” Neptune said of his parents getting to New York. “My dad was in his late teens, early 20s. I think my mom moved to the Bronx first, then moved to Brooklyn. I think my dad was in Brooklyn the whole time.”

The reasons for their separate moves …

“I think it’s the normal story of people from kind of a tougher situation going to America with the American dream,” Neptune said. “Just trying to better themselves and better their future family. I just think that anyone coming here for a better life has an extreme sense of entrepreneurship and just a hustler spirit. I think they definitely have that and they instilled that in my sister and myself. They were extremely hard-working.”

Neptune backtracked to make sure the context of “hustler” spirit is fully understood. He was talking strictly about work ethic.

“My mom was — don’t say an accountant; I don’t think she had that certification — but she had accounting-type jobs at high-level type places,” Neptune said. “She worked at Showtime, at Viacom. She worked for Coach. She had high-level corporate-type jobs. Eventually, she stopped working. My dad was an insurance adjuster, something with insurance for years and years.”

Maybe if an assemblyman hadn’t live down the block and that man’s son hadn’t put together an AAU team, Neptune’s whole path could have been different.

“I played in local leagues, but this was a way higher level,” Neptune said, explaining how that team run by Khalid Green eventually merged with another team run by Brooklyn legend Tiny Morton, coaching Lincoln High.

» READ MORE: Who is Kyle Neptune? Getting to know the new Villanova coach

“A hodgepodge of kids from downtown Brooklyn and basically Lincoln High’s team,” Neptune said.

When Sebastian Telfair, who eventually went straight to the NBA out of Lincoln, is your point guard, you’re in the big time. Telfair was as big as it got in Brooklyn at the time. There was no Barclays Center then, no Brooklyn Nets.

“That was an open train yard, a deep hole,” Neptune said of the nearby spot where Kevin Durant now calls home.

Legends of Brooklyn hoops

Hoops in Brooklyn always has had a rich and proud tradition stretching back to Connie Hawkins and Bernard and Albert King and Fly Williams and the borough’s great contributions to the Sixers, Billy Cunningham and World B. Free and even Larry Brown. Players such as Steph Marbury continued the tradition, then his cousin Telfair came along.

What was it like getting the ball from Telfair?

“He definitely wasn’t getting me the ball,” Neptune said, laughing. “I was the eighth or ninth man on that team. … I just wasn’t in the same class as those guys. Almost every player on the team ended up playing high-major somewhere.”

So a Villanova player taking a backseat … Neptune can relate. Over at Brooklyn Friends, Neptune had a different role.

“He was a star,” said Neptune’s friend, Al Vora. “I knew who he was before he came to our school.”

This was sixth grade.

“The first few weeks, butting heads, clashing, getting into arguments about who was the best player – at the time, it was Kobe vs. Allen Iverson.”

Vora was the Kobe guy.

“At the young age of 12, I was smart enough to know Kobe’s career was going to be longer.”

So Neptune was the Iverson guy. No points deducted for that.

“He’s a special guy,” Vora said of Neptune. “He was the kind of guy you would hate to play against at recess. But if you played with him, it was the most confidence you would have. He was super locked-in, never fazed by anybody.”

Vora thought he understood how it all came together.

“He was two different ballplayers,” Vora said. “It was partly because of the two different teams he played on. He came off the bench [for the AAU team], a defensive stopper, the hustle guy. On our team, when he got the chance to be the go-to guy, he really shined. He made the all-Brooklyn team.”

With Neptune leading the way, Brooklyn Friends did something it had never done, winning a state title.

“C Division,” Neptune said, making a point of emphasizing the C. Still, a big deal. Kyle scored 1,650 points, most in school history, and Brooklyn Friends beat another private school featuring Joakim Noah along the way to that title.

“He got 50 in his league,” Ramel Bradley said of one game.

AAU to the NBA

Maybe there is no typical path out of Brooklyn Friends, but it’s more likely alums end up working in Brooklyn Borough Hall across the street or they attend Brooklyn Law School right there near the Brooklyn Bridge than end up in big-time basketball. Eleven illustrious alums are listed on the school’s Wikipedia page, including actor Fisher Stevens (currently on HBO’s Succession) and one of the Beastie Boys. Neptune makes the list as the only sports representative.

As much as his time at Brooklyn Friends, Neptune’s AAU experience was key in charting his path.

“Not only did I grow up on an extremely high level of AAU basketball, but I met all those people,” Neptune said. “At that time, AAU was huge — you had AAU to the NBA. Those guys were legitimately kingmakers at that time. They were the guys who the NBA people were directly dealing with, and the sneaker companies were directly dealing with.”

Fast-forward to Neptune getting out of Lehigh, trying to play overseas for a year, then quickly deciding coaching was his path.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but ... ‘Oh, I know all these people.’ Normally, as a coach, you have to create new relationships with people,” Neptune said. “That’s part of your job as a recruiter. I had these relationships just based on growing up with all these people. I was extremely fortunate.”

Neptune doesn’t have to guess how that impacted his path. First job, Villanova’s video coordinator. Entry level, but in the big time. Patrick Chambers, now Florida Gulf Coast’s coach, was Villanova’s associate head coach. He was the first to hear the name Neptune, and got him on the staff.

He’s a special guy. He was the kind of guy you would hate to play against at recess. But if you played with him, it was the most confidence you would have.

Al Vora, on his friend Kyle Neptune

“Relationships in NY from guys that played at Nova,” Chambers texted about where he heard of Neptune.

Jay Wright, who was only 39 himself when he took over Villanova, offered perspective on his successor.

“Every transition he made, he was inexperienced and handled it with intelligence, maturity and composure,” Wright said of Neptune.

Each new step … “outstanding,” Wright said, right to the year at Fordham … “great poise, composure, confidence, mixed with a nice touch of humility.”

When Neptune starts to list things he learned from Wright, he pretty much lands on everything. His first full-time assistant job, however, was working for Joe Mihalich at Niagara.

“He puts so much time into X’s-and-O’s,” Neptune said of Mihalich. “I think it kind of expanded my basketball knowledge, just being around him for three or four years. We’d literally sit around the office and just talk basketball for three or four hours.”

Driven!!!” was the text from Mihalich about Neptune.

So he’s as crazy as the rest of these head coaches?

“I think anyone who does something at a high level and is successful at it is going to be driven,” Neptune said in his office. “If it was easy, everyone would just do it. I think people who are successful in any business are just wired a little different. You want to call that crazy, OK. I would say wired different.”

Neptune immediately made the point that he has learned as much from Villanova players as they ever did from him, that “I wasn’t close” to as driven as players such as Jalen Brunson and Ryan Arcidiacono when he was in college.

“You’re talking about special people,” Neptune said.

The Villanova challenge

For Neptune to be considered successful at Villanova, second-round NCAA playoff games will have to be won. The bar is higher than he’s ever had it in his life. If he does, his past will surely factor in.

“I think I lived so many lives because here’s this kid who has a Caribbean background, living that kind of life,” Neptune said. “You can have a life living in Brooklyn where you are around nothing but Caribbean people. A different vantage point of all people who are first-generation Americans, all trying to make it. Extremely hard-working and diligent and goal-driven. Then a whole different set of friends in the neighborhood. Then basketball, a different set of friends. Mix in private school. That’s a lot of different types of people.”

In each bucket, he said, there is this: “People took pride in being from the neighborhood. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ll take from my neighborhood and Brooklyn in general – I think New Yorkers take immense pride in where they’re from.”

“It’s overwhelming to witness,” said Ramel Bradley of his friend’s rise.

A favorite stop, Neptune said, is Not Ray’s Pizza on Fulton Avenue, where a plain slice is perfect, properly oily. There are some famous photos on the wall. The young guy behind the counter was asked if he knew Villanova’s new basketball coach liked to come in. He did not, but the counterman’s response suggested that neighborhood pride runs in both directions.

“I’m going to tell the boss to add a new picture,” he said.