Jay Wright was the head coach at Hofstra in 1993 when he first saw Kobe Bryant, the Philadelphia kid whom he had heard so much about, play basketball in an AAU tournament.
“I thought, ‘Let me see this guy. How good can he be?'’’ Wright recalled Monday after practice at Finneran Pavilion. “Right away, you just thought, ‘Wow, this is something special.’ And it wasn’t some freak athlete. It was a precision-like assassin on the basketball court at the age of 15 or 16. That’s what struck you.
“You saw in his eyes something you didn’t see of anybody that age, and you saw great talent, but also a drive and a competitiveness that was unmatched anybody you’ve seen of that age.”
Wright had followed Bryant’s career since that day, even continuing on after the player’s retirement in 2016 after 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, which is why he was saddened to learn of his death, with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people, Sunday in a helicopter crash.
“He’s a world figure, but he spent a lot of time here in Philly basketball and he’s really the consummate Philadelphia basketball player,” the Villanova coach said. “I don’t think anybody else around the world probably understands that, but everybody that sees that killer mentality, that tenacious competitiveness that Philly guys have, he’s got it … that drive that’s unique to Philadelphia basketball players.”
Wright, 58, said he underestimated how his players would react to Bryant’s death, that he thought the people most affected by it would be “more my generation and a little younger.” He sent a long text to them Sunday night and met with them Monday.
“A lot of these guys were visibly shaken, and still are,” he said. “I don’t think we did a good job in our pre-practice film session. Guys were crying. It’s amazing the impact he’s had on this generation. Because I asked them how old were they when they really started watching him, they said ’09-10.
“I told them what they heard about him, the kind of competitor, the professional, the man with the work ethic, the good father, the good husband, all those things are true. It’s not just stuff in the media now that he passed away. Your idol was the right guy. You picked the right guy.”
Asked about the team’s mood, junior guard Collin Gillespie said “emotions are all over the place right now."
“You grew up watching him as a kid, looking up to him,” he said. "Guys had certain connections with him even if they didn’t know him because he’s a hero to people. He’s legendary to the game. People looked up to him their whole lives. So we have to be there for each other, lean on each other right now.”
The Wildcats (16-3, 6-1 Big East, who moved up one spot to a season-best No. 8 in this week’s AP’s top 25, take on St. John’s (13-8, 2-6) Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, and Wright said starting forward Jermaine Samuels would be a game-time decision.
Samuels suffered what Wright called “a mid-left foot sprain” in the first half of Saturday’s 64-60 win over Providence. The coach said he did not practice Monday and “we’re just going to see what it feels like” Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s serious but it’s based on pain tolerance,” he said.
Freshman guard Justin Moore is expected to take Samuels’ place in the starting lineup.
The Red Storm, who broke a three-game losing streak Saturday in a win at DePaul, play a frenetic style of defense. They lead the conference in forced turnovers (17.7 per game), steals (10.5) and turnover margin (plus-5.5).