PITTSBURGH - Phil Booth Sr. went to nearly all of Villanova's games this season to watch his son play as a freshman for Jay Wright on one of the best college teams in the country. Wright caught a glimpse of the father here and there, but the two didn't have a conversation until after the NCAA tournament bracket was announced Sunday.
"I grabbed him and said, 'Hey, you are the best parent in the world,' " Wright said. " 'Anybody else, with a kid as good a player as yours and only getting 16 minutes a game, would have been bitching and complaining all year. He's a great kid because of you and your wife and you make sure you tell her that he's going to be a hell of a basketball player.' "
Booth took it for what it was, a compliment, but it also took him by surprise.
"Maybe I'm old-school, but that caught me off-guard. To me, he plays a lot as a true freshman," Booth said. "And he earned it. He could have gone somewhere else and started, but I brought him up that way, to earn it."
The father is definitely old-school, proudly so, and the same goes for Phil Booth Jr., the only freshman to be part of Villanova's regular rotation. The Baltimore city player of the year in 2014, Booth could have gone a lot of places and started right away. He was one of the most heavily recruited point guards in the country. But that wasn't the plan.
"When we were recruiting him, his father said, 'This is going to be easy. He's going to go to school for four years. Wherever he goes, he's staying. He's going to get a degree and he's going to play basketball,' " Wright said. "The father is a Philly guy and he would have loved for him to go to a Big Five school, but it was Phil's choice."
Sometimes, a son gets to do what a father never did, and the younger Booth did choose to play his college ball for a Big Five school. His father, a 6-foot-5 swingman who played at Northeast High, didn't get the same chance.
"I was lightly recruited," the elder Booth said diplomatically.
Instead, he played one season for Ron "Fang" Mitchell at Gloucester County College and then followed Mitchell to Coppin State in Baltimore to join what would become a MEAC powerhouse in the 1980s and 1990s, a powerhouse built on an I-95 pipeline from Philadelphia. Booth played along with Derrick Orr from Mastbaum, Otto Barbour from Lincoln, Will Crandell from Southern, Reggie Issac from Bartram, and Larry Stewart from Dobbins among others.
Coppin made the NCAA tournament field for the first time in 1990 at the culmination of a season that included an upset win on the road at Maryland. Maybe it wasn't Philly, but it was pretty good. The Philadelphia connection would just have to wait another generation, until Phil Jr. came along, became a star at Mount St. Joseph's in Baltimore, and suddenly had his pick of schools.
"He didn't push me to Villanova, and he was open to anywhere I wanted to go, but he definitely liked the decision when I wanted to come here," the son said. "I thought this was the best place for me. I wanted to come to a good team with good older guys that I could learn a lot from. You can't come out as a freshman and think you're going to play a lot. At this stage, they are stronger and faster. I've played behind great guys and I like the role I'm in."
Booth averaged 16 minutes during the conference season and he made the most of them. The 6-foot-3 guard shot 49 percent from the field and 37 percent on three-pointers, and had a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"He's special. He's going to be one of the great guards here," said starting point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. "He knows what the coach wants and he's able to do it efficiently. Just a smart overall player."
Some of that toughness came from his father, who, rather than enrolling him in AAU programs as a very young player, would drop him off at playgrounds to hold his own in pickup games against older guys. Booth didn't know whether his son would develop into a good player, but he was giving him a chance, and doing it his way.
"He went to a camp at Maryland when he was about 10 and he was chosen the MVP and I thought, 'Well, that's kind of impressive,' " the father said "Then, maybe a year later, he went to an overnight camp at Villanova and my wife and I went up to watch the games at the end. His team was losing the championship and he was crying and cheering and doing everything he could to get them back into the game. Driving home, I said to my wife, 'Well, at least we know he loves the game.' "
That's a gift from father to son as well. (And from mom, too. Robin Booth played at Bowie State.) It is a gift that is turning into a good education and the opportunity to play basketball at the highest college level. Next season, when Jalen Brunson, son of former Temple star Rick Brunson, joins the Wildcats, there will be an increasing logjam at the guard position. Brunson, from Chicago, is the top-rated point guard in the country. Wright said there's no worry that Booth will get lost in the shuffle, however.
"Nah, he's too good. He's going to be a stud. We'll go small with four guards to get him on the floor. He's that good," Wright said.
Good enough that, nearly 30 years late, a Phil Booth got to play a game in the Palestra. On Jan. 17, when Villanova visited Penn, the son was on the floor and the father was in the stands.
"It's the best place in the world to watch a basketball game," the father said.
A nice place to play one, too, even if it took a while for the public address announcer to finally call his name.