Nova's Wright fetes hoops title with pope-pourri of events
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jay Wright had some time to chat before he met with Michelle Obama. The former first lady was in Philadelphia for an education event and Wright was invited to give a speech. Wright and the Obamas go way back — to at least 2016 when President Barack Obama teased Villanova's coach as "the George Clooney of coaches" for his GQ style while winning a national title.
It's a second national championship that has Wright and the former first family intertwined again. Villanova's Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth — stars on the '16 and '18 national title teams — also gave a short talk Wednesday at the celebration expected to draw more 8,000 high school students.
Wright also caught up with Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo before he was called on stage. The perks of a championship keep rolling for Wright and the Wildcats in a month jammed with activities since they beat Michigan to win the program's third title .
Wright even met Pope Francis last month at the Vatican and presented him with a basketball signed by the team.
"Probably the most moving and inspirational experience (my wife) and I have ever had," Wright told The Associated Press. "You could just sense that God was with him. It was really moving."
Take that, Sister Jean!
Like any good coach with a smart game plan, Wright prepared to speak in Italian to the Pope: "Grazie, Santo Padre. Coraggio." (Loosely translated: Thank you, Holy Father. Stay strong).
"When I handed him the ball, he said in perfect English, 'Do you want me to sign this?'
"I choked," Wright said, laughing. "I said, 'This is a gift!' He said: 'Oh, thank you. Thank you.' Everyone said to me to speak to him in Italian. That's why in the pictures you see, we're laughing."
Wright will stay longer at another Catholic institution — he'll start his 18th season at Villanova after rebuffing requests from NBA teams to talk to him about coaching vacancies. The 56-year-old Wright has long been one of the hottest names attached to marquee-program or NBA openings but has never really considered leaving the Wildcats.
"Depending on who the guy is, I'll say, 'I'm honored, I'm humbled, I'd love to work with you, but I love my job,'" Wright said. "It's always that simple."
What's not that simple? Figuring out how to keep the Wildcats national title contenders as they undergo an offseason of change potentially unlike any other on Wright's watch.
Brunson, the AP Player of the Year , and Mikal Bridges are headed to the NBA. Donte DiVincenzo , who scored 31 points in the title game, and Omari Spellman have put their names in for the draft but not hired agents, meaning they retained their college eligibility.
"I think Donte and Omari could go either way," Wright said. "If they're first-round picks, we want them to go. We're kind of rooting for that. If that happens, we've got to get some players to replace them. We might have to get some graduate transfers just to have enough players."
So Coach, will they go?
"My gut feeling is, they're both going to be faced with challenging but positive decisions," Wright said. "I think they're borderline late-first round, early second right now. But that can change as they go through the workouts. You can't go wrong either way."
The Wildcats already had one key loss — assistant coach Ashley Howard took the head job at La Salle. Former Wildcat Mike Nardi will slide into Howard's role.
The Wildcats were feted with a parade and a rally at City Hall in what's become a banner year in Philadelphia sports. The Eagles won the Super Bowl, the 76ers had the city buzzing with a first-round win in the playoffs and the Phillies are an early season surprise. And the Flyers even made the playoffs, too.
Wright — who is considering a follow-up to his book, "Attitude," — and the Wildcats weren't always the headline act. They were bumped from ringing the 76ers' ceremonial bell before a playoff game once rapper Meek Mill was released from prison and got the nod instead.
"They were so happy to meet Meek Mill and Kevin Hart. It didn't bother them at all," Wright said.
There is still one more A-lister left on the docket: the champion Wildcats have not made a decision on a White House trip, if invited.
"We would definitely talk about it as a team," Wright said.