Monday, April 2, 2018

Why we root for Jay Wright

The most dramatic national championship victory in the history of men’s basketball was not even 12 hours old when a friend and fellow Hofstra graduate who is about 10 years younger than me popped up in Facebook chat.

“It’s really odd that we celebrate Jay Wright like WE won a national title,” he wrote.
I didn’t completely disagree, but told him he had to be there during Wright’s tenure to understand it. One hundred and four weeks later, as Villanova looks for a second title in three years tonight in the national championship game against Michigan, I would like to amend my comment.

To understand why we celebrate and root for Jay Wright, my friend had to be at Nassau Coliseum the Friday before Christmas.

In the most macro of senses, we celebrated Jay Wright in April 2016 and root for him tonight for the same reasons we celebrated him when he returned to Long Island Dec. 22, when no. 1 Villanova cruised to a 95-71 win over the Flying Dutchmen: Because while he has been at Villanova more than twice as long as he was at Hofstra, every mention of his gobsmacking success with Villanova is a reminder his footprints in Hempstead remain fresh and visible every time we gaze downward.

Wright’s Hall of Fame tenure with Villanova reminds us that, as students, staffers or alums, we were there with him at Hofstra, experiencing and enjoying a tangible real-time stake as he helped lift the school from the very bottom of the Division I ranks.

I wore a 2016 Midnight Madness T-shirt under my sweater to Wright’s homecoming. Wright, of course, brought Midnight Madness to Hofstra (I should have worn that shirt, goodness knows it’s not bringing wins during its once-every-decade wearings). As I cleaned my living room earlier that Friday in preparation for a family party on Christmas Eve, I found the Hofstra Flying Dutchmen placard given out by the Buffalo News during the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

Thanks to Wright’s rebuild, Hofstra has, in less than a quarter-century, gone from playing in the ECC and facing Manhattan in something called the ECAC Challenge at Nassau Coliseum to playing in a league with two Final Four trips on its resume and taking on the no. 1 team in the land at Nassau Coliseum.

But the celebration would be less jubilant if Wright’s connection with Hofstra didn’t feel as strong as Hofstra’s connection with him, and if every glimpse of Wright strolling the sidelines at Villanova didn’t remind us he appreciates what this university’s done for him as much as we appreciate what it’s done for us.

For most of us, Hofstra was our first and maybe only shot to springboard ourselves into what we wanted to become. Most of us weren’t of the born on third base thinking we hit a triple variety. Most of us got to Hofstra by legging out an infield hit, or maybe blooping a double into the Bermuda Triangle in between second base and short right field.

I was a mediocre to awful student in high school who parlayed a good year-and-a-half at community college into good enough grades for Hofstra. The smartest people I knew during my days at Hofstra went there because the full ride made it impossible to justify going somewhere else with a more academically prestigious reputation.

What happens if Jim Garvey doesn’t do Rollie Massimino a favor deep in the hiring process and grant an interview to this 32-year-old assistant about whom Massimino raved? It’s easy to say now that Wright would have landed a job somewhere at some point and began his rocket ride to stardom. But there are no guarantees. All we know is he needed a break, and that Hofstra became his proving ground. 

Success was not instant at Hofstra for Wright, whose first three teams went a combined 31-51. Wright said to Pat Forde yesterday what he has said for nearly two decades: That the patience of Hofstra’s administration — specifically the late duo of former President James Shuart and former athletic director Jim Garvey — allowed him to survive those early seasons, during which he experienced frustrations and self-doubt, makes some mistakes and occasionally wondered if he was about to fall off the tightrope into the grand unknown below.

In other words, he went through what we all went through at Hofstra.

And if we were fortunate enough to achieve as adults what we dreamed as college students — political aide, lawyer, teacher, successful businessman, financial journalist, sportswriter — we appreciated those leaner times and never forgot the role Hofstra played in our development. We remembered the activities we participated in, the classes we took, the friends we made, the successes we enjoyed,  the laughs we had, the struggles we endured and the tears we shed, understanding it was all an indelible part of us and who we became.

We could be working in a dream job, doing what we were trained to do at Hofstra except at a higher level, but also forever understand that no one will ever know us like those who knew us decades ago, when we were at our most hopeful and our most vulnerable and our canvas was cleanest. 

To see those long-ago friends is to bring us back to those days, no matter where we are right now. That’s the trip Wright took 101 nights ago, when he spent half an hour after the game in the bowels of Nassau Coliseum with several members of his first teams who traveled distances great and small to see their head coach.

Jamil Greene, the first player recruited by Wright, came from Las Vegas to visit his alma mater for the first time this century. Tim Beckett, a member of Wright’s first freshman recruiting class, traveled from his home in Puerto Rico. Darius Burton, who played his final three seasons under Wright, raced to the Coliseum and made it for the second half after coaching a basketball game at Baldwin High School. 

Wright remembered stories about everyone. He began a tale with “one more, than I’ve got to go” too many times to count. Wright recalled Greene’s shyness in his first television interview, a car ride with Beckett during Beckett’s first recruiting visit and the New York-bred, we’ll-take-care-of-this demeanors of the senior leaders, James Shaffer and John Mavroukas, that he inherited from Butch van Breda Kolff’s final team.

Wright also remembered being in the driver’s seat for middle-of-the-night van rides and how each side pushed the other during nine-game losing streaks in his first two seasons. More than once, Wright thanked his first players for putting up with him when he was scuffling to figure out just what he was doing.

By the time the crowd finally broke up, after dozens of pictures, handshakes and hugs, everyone had a goofy grin on his face, as if dazed by the euphoria of the memories and the realization he had a stake in what Wright and Villanova had become.

Tonight those players, as well as anyone who was at Hofstra during Wright’s seven seasons at the helm, will be rooting for Villanova against Michigan. And if, come 11:30 or so, we are celebrating like we’ve won another national title, it’ll be because we see a little bit of ourselves and the best of the Hofstra experience in Wright, who parlayed his one chance into achieving his dream, all the while never forgetting where he built his foundation.

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