PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jay Wright and Brett Brown forged a bond in the Holy Land, where the Philadelphia-area coaches taught basketball on floors lined with rubble, bent rims and no nets.
The setting was far removed from anything that resembled Brown’s “Process” with the Philadelphia 76ers or the powerhouse Villanova program built by Wright. But on a 2015 goodwill summer trip to the Middle East designed to unite children from communities in conflict through basketball, Wright and Brown received an education on a journey through Jerusalem and Ramallah that has shaped both men.
“To get on a bus and have an 18-year-old with an AK-47, Jay and I are on the bus and you’ve got some young people that are checking us all out, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking,” Brown said. “Finally, we end up getting to Ramallah in the West Bank, and we’re on a desert dirt playground with a broken hoop doing a clinic. The experience and spending time with him was great.”
Brown and Wright texted each other this week after the top-seeded Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16 and began preparations for the NCAA Tournament regional final in Boston. Brown has the 76ers poised to clinch their first playoff berth since 2012, and possibly home-court advantage in the first round.
“He’s good people. He’s a hell of a coach,” Brown said. “I’m a big fan.”
Brown and Wright are involved with PeacePlayers International. The U.S-based organization was founded in 2001 on the idea that children who play together can learn to live together. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is among the notable names on the board of directors, and it was former agent Arn Tellem and San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford that helped get the Philly-area coaches involved in the outreach program.
Wright said he was humbled by the experience.
“I remember being on a court in Ramallah on the West Bank, a broken-up basketball court. We could hardly even dribble.” he said. “I had 10 Palestinian kids at one end of the court and he had 10 at the other end of the court. I could hear him down there talking: ‘Get down low. Put your fingertips on the ground.’ I remember thinking, here’s an NBA coach working with these young kids, and these kids hadn’t even seen a basketball, and he’s intensely teaching them and enjoying it.”
The highlight of the trip came when Palestinian, Israeli and American high schoolers played a game together. Wright visited Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives on a tour of Jerusalem.
But the press and the post up came up as much as peace when Brown and Wright got together over meals.
“We had lunch in Ramallah on the West Bank and … there would always be a time at lunch where he and I would get together and just start talking basketball at a table with everybody around,” Wright said. “It was funny because it was so intense and then we would always gravitate toward each other, sneak in (talking) basketball.”
Brown will be rooting for Wright and the Wildcats to win their second national championship in three years.
Villanova is a heavy favorite to win it all. Here are some things to know:
OLD BIG EAST
The Wildcats (32-4) will try to knock off fifth-seeded West Virginia (26-10), a former Big East Conference rival, on Friday night to avoid the rash of upsets that have hit some of the tournament’s top teams.
“We always get the teams that are better than their seeding,” Wright said. “I think they are capable of being a Final Four team, but once you get this far in the tournament you aren’t going to get anyone that doesn’t deserve to be there.”
Big East player of the year Jalen Brunson of Villanova and Jevon Carter of West Virginia, both Amateur Athletic Union teammates, are set to go head to head in a battle of talented point guards. Carter scored 28 points with five assists and five steals in a win over Marshall that sent West Virginia to the Sweet 16. His pressure could be key in disrupting a Villanova offense that made 31 3-pointers in its first two tournament games.
“We just have to protect the ball and we can’t be afraid to fail either,” Brunson said. “We have to go be the team we know we can be and try to get better in the days ahead.”