Thirty minutes outside of the city isn’t the city. You’re commuting.
That was what we thought about Villanova when I was growing up in the inner city in the early 2000s. It was just geography — Villanova just wasn’t Philly. It was outside of Philly. A suburb, northwest of West Philadelphia. It wasn’t one of our schools, wasn’t one of the ones that we talked about when Philly basketball came up. Philly was St. Joe’s. If anything that was the inner-city team. Not Villanova. Definitely not.
Who was even on their team? Kerry Kittles? That was a long time ago, and he was from New Orleans. Marvin O’Connor for a year in 1997–98, until he transferred to St. Joe’s? He was from Philly, but come on, man. Villanova, for whatever reason, has never had big numbers when it comes to Philly-born players. I remember Jason Lawson and Alvin Williams, but that’s it, really. None of the starting five on the 1984–85 championship team was from Philly. You can’t put the weight of Philadelphia on the shoulders of two men.
All I’m saying is, you probably wouldn’t have seen very many kids rocking the ’Nova apparel in the inner city when I was a kid. The brotherly love, for whatever reason, didn’t extend 15 miles west.
And then Jay Wright got there in 2001.
He was some guy from Hofstra who nobody really knew much about, coming to coach a team that nobody cared much about. And even though he had grown up in Bucks County, he had the perfect Philadelphia attitude — he didn’t give a s*** about what anybody in the city thought about him.
Then all of a sudden it was like the Wildcats was looking a little better. Tougher, grittier, whatever you want to call it. And then the next season they got better again.
Then they weren’t a middling program anymore. They were up-and-comers. Underdogs.
And suddenly Philly felt like it had gotten a little bigger.
Jay Wright, if you didn’t know he was the Villanova basketball coach, you’d think he was a GQ model. He’s always looking sharp. When he came to recruit me in 2004, I remember the perfect part in his gelled hair and how clean his shoes were.
He pitched Villanova to me like, “You’ll be close to home! But without really being at home!” One of those mind tricks. I was like, This all sounds perfect. Being close to my family (without being too close) was nice, but the main thing that sold me on ’Nova was this idea that if I went there, I could be a guy who really lead the charge into greatness. I could be an example, and I could show Philly kids that the school was for real. And Coach Wright seemed like a smart guy. I’m telling you — something about his look. He doesn’t even seem like a real coach until you get to know him.
Then after you get to know him, you realize that for a clean guy, he is about as dirty as they come.
He worked us hard as soon as practice started. Like, super hard. I remember I was legitimately ready to quit after the first week of summer school. I just was not getting along with him at all. I came in with this attitude like I wanted to be a leader. I wanted to be a trendsetter at Villanova right away. And then I got there and it was like, Is this guy even going to play me?
But Coach Wright had a vision. I didn’t see it at first — not really until the end of my freshman season. We were playing North Carolina in the Sweet 16, and after one of our forwards went down, he told us that we were going to come out starting four guards. I had only started three games all year, and I had been waiting for my chance. But four guards? I had never heard of that before.
It might not seem like a big deal now, but back then it was.
It was a trust-fall moment — our coach was asking us to believe in his strategy, even though it was totally unconventional. We had no reason to think it would work, other than at that moment he asked us to believe in him.
And it was a turning point for us. For Villanova as a whole. Four guards in the lineup. The four-out, one-in motion offense.
Small ball, fam.
It was big for our team, big for the school and a cool moment for college basketball. Suddenly it was like you didn’t have to be a scorer to be a guard at Villanova. Didn’t have to be a spot shooter. You could be a grimey two-way player. You could be a rebounder, a passer. We were starting something, trying to define our own brand of college basketball — and it was working. We had a four-guard offense and people were paying attention to it. I think everyone on the team felt a new energy.
I remember watching Jalen Brunson as a freshman in 2015–16 and just being blown away by his raw talent. Seeing him grow over the past couple of seasons — really master Coach Wright’s offense and make it his own — it’s really something, man. Watching it all come together. AP Player of the Year. Should be the national player of the year. He’s not just a great college player, but he’ll be a great pro, too.
Hopefully he’ll also get himself another championship before then.
I only played in college for two years — it was my own choice to leave for the NBA, but looking back, I didn’t get to enjoy my time as a Wildcat the way I wish I could have. Ever since I’ve been gone it’s been amazing to see the support the team has gotten, not just in Philadelphia, but everywhere. Villanova — our school — is a powerhouse. Every single year.
It’s insane. Coach Wright has been there 17 years now. You don’t hear about him as much as you hear about some other coaches, maybe even some guys who haven’t been around as long. But that’s only because that’s not the kind of guy he is. Look at what he did for Villanova. The Wildcats went from Philly’s NIT-playing ugly stepbrother to here. A contender every year. And now they’re back to the Final Four.
I went back just this year and saw ’Nova play in the Big East tournament. The atmosphere was unreal. The pride students and alumni take in representing their teams. Being a fan is one thing, but being a part of it is so much more.
The thing is, no matter what, whether you’re watching or playing, the college experience will only last a moment. My two years were a blur. I look back and can barely remember a time when I wasn’t on the basketball court. I definitely missed some things at school that I’ll never be able to go back and do over.
I can’t say I have any regrets about how it all turned out, but if I had one message for the guys on the team, it would be just to remember that it doesn’t last forever. You’ll represent Villanova forever, but you’ll only be there for the blink of an eye.
I never played on a championship team at Villanova, but as a fan I was a part of one. And my house is just five minutes from campus. I still play ball there every summer, and I still work out there when I’m home. I see the guys on the team — how hard they’re practicing every off-season. Everything this school has achieved, those guys have worked hard for. Everything Coach Wright teaches is about scratching and clawing to get your respect. He taught it to us back then, and it still stays with me today, more than 12 years later.
Loyalty is everything in Philadelphia. I’m always going to be proud to be a Philadelphia native. Fly Eagles Fly. Let’s go Phillies. Let’s go Flyers. The 76ers … I mean, I’m obviously not rooting for them. But the point still stands.
It’s a great feeling to be able to represent your college and your city in big games. It’s great to have been a part of a program that changed the culture of the entire university. We worked hard, and we earned our place among the NCAA’s elite a long time ago. We’re not letting go anytime soon.
Some people will just never accept it. Some people will keep telling you that even though the perception might have changed, the geography is always going to be the same.
Thirty minutes outside the city will never be the city. That’s fine. The Final Four will never be the championship, either.
Let’s get it, ’Nova. We’re almost there. You got a city on your shoulders. Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.
And no matter what happens this weekend, I promise — Philly loves you. Forever.