MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, October. An annual loose-ball scrum called Big East Media Day. Each of the 16 basketball teams in this college athletic conference has a small table, and reporters cluster around the teams’ stations like ants on jellybeans.
The biggest crowd surrounds Rick Pitino of Louisville. You know Coach Pitino — he’s got the News-at-11 hair, the uniform by Armani, the follow-the-money résumé. Last summer, Pitino, author of Success Is a Choice, a married father of five known to have a priest sit on his bench, reportedly admitted he paid for an abortion for a woman he’d had sex with in a restaurant, after hours.
“The best thing for me is to put it behind me,” he tells the reporters.
Across the room, the second biggest swarm is around Jay Wright, head coach of Villanova. He looks the part. He’s tall, dark, George Clooney handsome. Salon-perfect hair with a touch of gray. (He’s 48.) Wright has a clothing deal with Gabriele D’Annunzio, a Newtown Square -tailor. Today he wears a charcoal pinstripe three-piece suit with a gray pocket square. But, surprise, he’s not that guy.
Although at the moment Wright, too, is trying to get the media to move beyond recent developments. A poster board in the lobby announces that Big East coaches have ranked Villanova number one in the conference in a preseason poll, thanks to the school’s trip to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament last spring. But Wright has a roster filled with freshmen, and he’s trying to tame expectations. “Everything that happened last year is in the past,” he’s telling his pack of reporters.
Mike Kern of the Daily News and Terry Toohey of the Delco Times are smooshed up front, and Kern gathers his papers.
“Thanks for making the trip, Mikey,” Wright says. “Terry, I know you don’t mind coming to our press conferences, but Mikey — you get him out of Philly and he’s like ‘Get me back for a cheesesteak and a Phillies game!’ Ha!”
Shannon Ryan, a Chicago Tribune sportswriter who covered Villanova for the Inquirer from 2004 to 2007, finds a lane and steps toward the table. “Shannon!” Wright says, giving her a fist bump.
Later, when I meet Wright briefly, he greets me by name, shakes my hand, reaches his big left hand out and cradles my triceps. He asks where I’m from, if I have any kids, makes a joke, then pardons himself as Villanova’s PR guy pulls him away to do a TV interview. What just happened? The second time we meet, a few days after this one-minute encounter, he puts his arm around my shoulders like we’re old buddies.
The consensus is that Jay Wright just may be the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being ever. I do not mean this as an insult. He inspires his players, respects his elders. Happy family. Still in touch with high-school buddies from Council Rock High in the late 1970s. He’s returned Villanova basketball to glory unseen since its 1985 national championship, and has resisted big-bucks offers to coach elsewhere, including the 76ers. Dirt? Reporters who have covered him for years can’t find lint.