Jay Wright will always cherish his times with Rollie Massimino

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Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright, left, cracks up as former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino tells a joke at a news conference on November 4, 2014.

Jay Wright will always remember his introductory encounter with Rollie Massimino, who in many ways would become his guiding light.

“I was working at a camp,” Wright said, as if it happened yesterday. “When camp was over, he would ask the coaches to stay around and work with the kids individually. So I would do it. He would walk around, and this would be like 10, 11 at night, inspiring the kids and the coaches. He was watching me work with some kids and he said, ‘What’s your name?’ I said, ‘Jay Wright.’ And he said, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ That was it. At that time, that meant the world to me. He had just won the national championship. But for me, that was like winning the national championship right there.”

Nor can he ever forget when it was time to say his final goodbye. He called being the closing speaker at Massimino’s funeral on Sept. 12 one of the hardest things he’s ever had to get through. But he knew it was something he needed to do. For himself, for coach and the Villanova community.

“I was emotional the whole time,” acknowledged Wright, who’s usually the coolest person in the room. “He’s as close as I’ve been to anybody besides my parents. I knew I wouldn’t be good at it” — (even though he was).

“I didn’t want to do it. But when the family asked me, of course I felt I had to. That’s why I began by thanking Father Peter [Donohue] and Father Rob [Hagan], and all the Augustinians, for bring coach home. It was so nice to see everyone there.

“When we went to his grave site, it was right next to Mike Stack [who died in 2005], one of his all-time favorites. So we got to kind of hang around and laugh about that … It couldn’t have been better.”

It’s been a month since Massimino passed, following a lengthy battle with cancer. And two weeks since he was laid to rest, after a 90-minute Mass at St. Thomas of Villanova church. Wright, whose voice cracked several times during his talk that morning, has had even more moments to reflect. Still, he has trouble getting out the words sometimes.

Without Massimino, Wright might not be where he is. And without Wright, Massimino might not have been welcomed back into the Villanova universe in quite the way he was in his later years. It’s a simple reality. They will be forever connected.

“I was there when he left [in 1992, to go to UNLV],” Wright said. “It was just a tough time, for both sides. Coach was frustrated with things, and so was Villanova. It probably was a good move on his part, at the time, because of what was going on. Like typical coach, the relationships between them were so passionate. Both sides were hurting. He didn’t do anything halfway.

“There was a love affair, for 19 years. He didn’t want to leave, and I don’t think they really wanted him to leave, either. But he thought he had to. So I knew it wasn’t easy for him to come back. And it certainly wasn’t easy for everyone at Villanova to have him come back. Because he left.

“When Father Peter went down to see him [in Florida], we knew he was going to pass. And someone asked, ‘Would you want the funeral at Villanova?’ They just jumped at it. It’s where it should be.”

The reconciliation understandably was a process.

“I think it would have happened [without me], somehow,” Wright insisted. “I don’t know how. I didn’t have to do a lot. I don’t think of it that way. It just seems natural, you know. It couldn’t have happened right after UNLV. It took a little time …

“There aren’t a lot of people around that realize how big he was in the late ’80s. It was a different time. But he was larger than life, man. I’m proud to be linked to him.”

Time does indeed take care of a bunch of stuff. But if somebody else had become the next Villanova coach in 2001 instead of Wright, we’ll never know whether the healing would have been so thorough. Or genuine.

They had each other’s backs. Not that Massimino’s legacy needed a caretaker. Nonetheless, Wright’s ongoing reminders provided meaningful reinforcement.

“If not for coach, I don’t have any of the jobs I’ve had in coaching,” Wright insisted. “I mean, from hiring me at Villanova to bringing me with him to Vegas. Even the Hofstra job. They had three finalists, and I was not one of them. He called [athletic director] Jim Garvey, who’d was a former Big East official. And he said, ‘I don’t care. You need to take a look at this kid.’ So he met me in Charlotte at the [1994] Final Four, I think out of respect for coach Mass. And we hit it off. Just because of coach.

“When I was an assistant at Rochester, my first job, all I wanted to do was be a Division III head coach. I thought that would be awesome. Really. When coach Mass hired me, Dave Pauley, who was an assistant at Pharmacy, wrote me a note that said, ‘Congratulations. Now your footsteps are in the stars.’ We all knew that once you worked for him you were going to get opportunities. He already had like nine or 10 assistants who were head coaches.”

Not all of the stories had happy endings. Yet when people pass, we tend to recall the good memories. Wright got to see Massimino mellow as he grew older, ultimately finding the right place to succeed again in the past decade at NAIA Northwood (now Keiser), where he nearly got another ring.

Massimino was there in 2009 when Wright made the Final Four. And he was there 17 months ago when Wright’s Wildcats cut down the nets in Houston, 31 years after his team did it. The reaction from a beaming Massimino needed no words. Neither did the responsive smile from his most cherished pupil, who was thankful that Massimino could be part of it. Those images won’t fade.

“He was Villanova basketball,” Wright said. “One of my concerns after we won was I wanted to make sure that [’85] team remained special in everyone’s eyes. After a week or two, I could tell it was no different. We hit a shot. Their run was historical and magical. It’s still magical when those guys are around.

“He was funny. We’d have conversations, about difficult situations. He’d say, ‘You know what I would do. But you’re better than me at handling that.’ It was his way of saying that I was a little bit different, and he was OK with it. Kind of like giving me the blessing. And that was reassuring, knowing what he did back in the day. They were great conversations.

“He always counted Villanova basketball as all of his guys. He’d yell at my assistants, and they never worked for him. He’d love them up, too. I wanted our players to know this isn’t something new. It’s a longstanding tradition. Here’s the guy who’s responsible for a lot of that. We’re going to miss that.”

Loyalty and humility. Wright says those were the two qualities he associated most with Massimino. And he wants that part of the legacy to remain relevant.

“He just loved coaching a team,” Wright said. “Then he proved it by going to Northwood. He was still very confident. I hope I can live up to that. I know I can’t do it at the level he did …

“I knew the huggable side of him. But not everyone did. In the ’80s, he was maybe one of the toughest guys in college basketball. The last few years everyone got to see the other side. It was almost comical. The thing is, a lot of our players now think that’s what he is. He had everybody laughing, saying he loved them. Then he’d leave and I’d say, ‘You know, that’s not the guy I worked for, I’m telling you.’ He had battles with a lot of people. But he was the same person. He was going to play St. Joe’s this year, and he was excited about it. Think about that.”

Wright has. Probably more than anyone. And that might never change. Even if it concerns nothing more than their respective wardrobes.

Remember those commercials for Windsor shirts?

“If he liked your pocket square, he was taking it,” Wright noted, laughing at the quirk. “And he never gave it back. At the funeral, I heard so many people saying, ‘My God, do you know how many pocket squares he probably has of mine?’ That was him.

“He saw a shirt I had, by my tailor, that had a special lining in the back. And he said, ‘I’ve got to get those shirts made for me.’ That’s a great compliment from him. I mean, he was hanging around with Tommy Lasorda and Frank Sinatra and Perry Como and Bobby Rydell, and they’d be at the postgame party at his house. Unbelievable.”

And worth holding on to.