Friday, December 22, 2017

Jamil Greene, Jay Wright's first recruit, comes home

Jamil Greene (left), Jay Wright's first recruit at Hofstra, poses with men's basketball SID Stephen Gorchov, Wright's first employee at Hofstra, at Wednesday night's game. Photo courtesy Stephen Gorchov.

Jamil Greene decided to have a little fun recently with a friend who informed him, as they watched a Villanova men’s basketball game, that Jay Wright used to be the head coach at Hofstra.

“I told him, you know what, I’ve got a trivia question for you,” Greene said. “I said ‘You know who his first player was?’ He’s like ‘I don’t know.’

“‘It’s me,’ I said. I was his first player.”

Wright won’t be the only one enjoying a reunion tonight, when his top-ranked Villanova squad faces the Flying Dutchmen at Nassau Coliseum. Greene, the one and only scholarship player Wright added to the team he inherited from Butch van Breda Kolff in April 1994, will also be in attendance, watching his former head coach and alma mater and understanding, better than almost anyone at the Coliseum, just how far both parties have come in the last 23 years.

“It’s like, OK, we came in together back in ’94, now we are back again,” Greene said from his Garden City hotel room late Thursday night. “It’s like a Hofstra homecoming.”

The connection between Greene and Wright goes back to long before either man ever set foot on the Hofstra campus. In the early ‘90s, Greene, a native of Buffalo, attended a summer basketball camp at UNLV, where he hit it off with Wright, an assistant to Rollie Massimino, the former Villanova head coach who had moved on to the Runnin’ Rebels.

As a high schooler, Greene garnered interest from mid-majors such as Maryland Eastern-Shore, Central Connecticut and Hawaii. But after he fell short of the qualifying SAT score, he opened his college career at Genesee Community College in Rochester, where he played under Bill Van Gundy — the father of future NBA coaches Jeff and Stan, as well as a longtime friend of Wright, who began his coaching career as an assistant at the University of Rochester in 1984.

Wright was hired at Hofstra on Apr. 14, 1994, and a few weeks later, Greene completed his degree at Genesee. 

“I guess (Wright) was actually speaking to coach Van Gundy that summer,” Greene said. “(Van Gundy said) ‘I maybe, perhaps, got a scholarship for you’ and he mentioned Hofstra. I was like ‘Hofstra? What’s a Hofstra?’

Fortunately for Greene, Wright knew what he liked in the 6-foot-7 forward, who offered the type of height and versatility the Dutchmen otherwise lacked.

“He needed a player of my ability — somebody athletic, high-energy, high-motor type player,” Greene said. “I guess I was his guy. I was very fortunate.”

Greene headed downstate, where he immediately became the best post player on the 1994-95 Dutchmen. He averaged 8.0 points and 6.1 rebounds while playing in all 28 games for the Dutchmen, who went 10-18 in an inaugural season in the North Atlantic Conference that ended with a lopsided tournament loss to eventual champion Drexel and future NBA player Malik Rose.

“Honestly, I felt like I had to work extra hard than the other guys, because I was Jay’s guy,” Greene said. “I didn’t really want to let him down, you know? He expected more out of me, too.”

Greene battled a nagging quad injury during his final season at Hofstra, during which he averaged 5.5 points and 4.1 rebounds. He was limited to two points or fewer in eight games — including an 83-55 loss to Penn at Nassau Coliseum, where Greene recalled draining a jumper for his only points of the contest — before missing the last three games for the Dutchmen, who finished 9-18.

Even as the Dutchmen struggled, though, Greene believed he was being coached by a rising star. 

“He’s young and he’s hungry and he’s going to be a good one,” Greene said. “I just kind of felt it. I just knew it. He had a vision and he put it all together.”

Greene played overseas until 2003, when he moved out to Las Vegas, where his Dad relocated decades earlier. He works as a bellman at the Aria hotel and lives less than a mile away from former Hofstra public address announcer Ken Weprin.

This week’s visit to Long Island is Greene’s first since 2000 — one he began planning the moment the Hofstra-Villanova game was scheduled. Greene has crammed as much reconnecting and nostalgia as possible into a three-day visit, including a lunch at Jim’s Deli where he saw Cindy Lewis, one of the few athletic administrators remaining from his playing days. Upon discussing his calf injury Thursday night, he asked if the health center is still located near the entrance to campus (it is). Greene also said he preferred Flying Dutchmen to Pride (he’s right).

In addition, Greene received a tour of the basketball facilities and marveled at the practice facility, which is located in the building (the Physical Fitness Center). His guide was assistant coach Speedy Claxton, who arrived as Wright’s first star recruit the season after Greene graduated.

But there’s only one first recruit for Wright, and tonight’s reunion will mean as much to him as the national championship-winning coach on the other sideline.

“As soon as I heard it on the schedule, (he said) I’m there — no ifs, ands or buts,” Greene said. “I couldn’t miss this game — there’s just too much to it, to come back and see my alma mater play Jay. I cannot miss this I’ve got to come back. It was just the right time for me to come.”

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