Villanova men’s basketball coach Jay Wright teaches Israeli kids how to play the Big East way.
It definitely was not a Cheers moment. When Villanova coach Jay Wright went to Israel last month as part of PeacePlayers International’s program to promote brotherhood through basketball, virtually nobody there knew his name, nor that of Philadelphia 76ers’ coach Brett Brown, who accompanied him on what turned out to be a memorable journey.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said the 53-year-old Wright, who conducted a series of clinics with Brown throughout the Jewish state, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “The whole experience was mind blowing.
“The historical perspective in itself was so amazing. To go into the Old City of Jerusalem and see the Mount of Olives, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Al Aqsa Mosque — all the places you read about in the Bible — was incredible. Those are the three most religious places — and they’re all right next to each other.”
Basketball was only a small piece of the experience, which Wright got to share with his entire family — wife Patty, his 22-year-old son, Taylor, who just graduated from Bucknell, and his 16-year-old daughter, Reilly. In addition to it being a bonding experience, he enjoyed the anonymity.
In fact, most Israelis have never even heard of Villanova, let alone the Wildcats’ record of 29-5 and 33-3 the last two seasons — nor their failure to get into the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen either year. “The beauty of the process is, once you get on the court, you forget about all that other stuff,” explained Wright, who’s currently in the midst of recruiting for 2016, even though the 2015 season is still months away. “Kids are thinking basketball and about their teammates and having fun. Part of PeacePlayers’ approach is having Jews and Palestinians on the same team. The goal is for them to look at each other as teammates working together, rather than as Arabs and Jews.”
It’s rarely that simple, and there were definitely moments on the trip where Wright could feel the simmering tension inherent in a country that can turn into a powder keg without notice. During his trip, a firebomb killed an infant in the West Bank, and an Israeli teenager was stabbed to death in the midst of a Gay Pride parade.
“There was a lot of tension. You could feel it,” said Wright, 2006 Naismith Coach of the Year and four-time Big East Coach of the Year. “When we went to the West Bank, armed military men with machine guns came on the bus with us. I’ve gone to a lot of places on my trips with USA Basketball. But this one was so unique in that we could see the political side” of the lives of his Israeli counterparts.
“I realize what we have going on here at home — our little issues — are so minor compared to the tension, fear and instability Israelis and Palestinians live with every day.
People had tried to explain it to me before, but I was nowhere close to understanding it until I was there.”
In addition to soaking in that experience, Wright also had the opportunity to be a sponge watching and listening to Brown. “It was really nice to see an NBA coach in Ramallah passionately working with 7- and 8-year-old kids and teaching them,” said Wright, who only knew Brown casually prior to this. “We shared our amazement at the entire situation, along with the beauty of the country.
“It was funny. We’d promised not to do it, but we’d find ourselves at meals with our families at some point getting into our own little world talking basketball. We’d be talking out-of-bounds plays, end-of-game situations.
“I got a lot of good stuff from him, even hearing some of his international experience coaching the Australian national team. He’s got an incredibly creative mind basketball-wise and great optimism, which is really inspiring. He’s still optimistic. It’s not fake or it would’ve come out at some point.”
Israel is one of four sites where PeacePlayers, an apolitical organization created in 2001, along with South Africa, Northern Ireland and Cyprus, ran programs this summer.
Their motto — “We are all human despite the conflict” — is most evident when you see Jews, Christians and Arabs co-existing on the court.
That made an impression not only on Wright, but his entire family. “It definitely brought us closer,” said Wright, who’ll be entering his 15th year at ’Nova, after starting out at Hofstra.
“For my kids to have a perspective in that part of the world I never had until I was 53 is invaluable. I think one of the things I take from this is a perspective on the situation there that is different from when I came in. I recognize the courage and mental toughness of the Israeli people and have an empathy for the Palestinians maybe I didn’t have before.”
He can thank basketball and the folks from Peace Players International, including former player agent-turned-NBA executive Arn Tellem, a recent inductee into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, who suggested he make the trip.
“It sounded like a great opportunity,” said Wright, who was particularly struck by the cultural differences between vibrant Tel Aviv and historic Jerusalem. “It was just awesome.” Even if nobody there knew his name.
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