THE BASKETBALL worlds of 76ers coach Brett Brown and Villanova's Jay Wright couldn't be further apart.
Brown is guiding a team that might tie the NBA mark for worst record in an 82-game season. If his club loses its remaining seven games, it would tie the futility mark of 9-73 set by the 1972-73 Sixers. Brown's team is riding a 10-game losing streak, part of a 23-game stretch in which it has lost 22.
Wright, of course, is the toast of the town as he and his Villanova Wildcats left for Houston on Wednesday afternoon for their national semifinal game against Oklahoma on Saturday and a possible trip to the championship game on Monday against the winner of North Carolina-Syracuse. It was the third consecutive season in which Wright's team garnered a one or two seed in the tournament, and they are advancing to their second Final Four in eight years.
The two, however, share a friendship that was forged by basketball and fortified on a trip they took last summer as part of PeacePlayers International. The organization's mission is to use basketball to unite young people in divided communities all over the world.
Wright, his wife, Patty, and two of their children joined Brown and one of his daughters on a five-day trip to Israel to teach lessons about basketball, and wound up learning lessons about how fortunate we are in America.
"There are different programs around the world, and I was introduced to it by R.C. Buford back in my San Antonio days," said Brown, a longtime Spurs assistant, referring to the team's general manager. "There are different programs around the world, in conflicting parts of Ireland and all over the world where there are conflicts due to religion or politics, or whatever. So we were in Tel Aviv, deep into Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Ramallah. We gave clinics to Palestinian and Jewish kids, which is interesting, to say the least.
"We got on a bus to go to Ramallah and there were two 18-year-olds, one at the front of the bus and one in the back, with AK-47s. When the one headed to the back, he checked every passport, bag, under the seats. All the while, the one at the front of the bus had his hand on the trigger, very aware of everything that was going on around us. It wasn't scary, but it was a reality check, for sure."
Reality checks have been plentiful for Brown when it comes to basketball in his three seasons with the Sixers. But the relationships he's built in this basketball-rich city have helped Brown keep his sanity.
"There's just a connection to the city's basketball culture," Brown said. "We share gyms and conversation. I love having coaches come to my practice. Coach Giannini (John, of La Salle) stopped by. Fran Dunphy (Temple) was a visitor to almost all of our preseason meetings. Coach Martelli (Phil, of Saint Joseph's) and Steve Donahue, the new Penn coach, I've had conversations with. And then you have days when Jim Lynam or Herbie Magee stop by. The late Jack Ramsay, I'd pick his brain. I can talk to Billy Cunningham. That's just Philadelphia.
"And the trip with Jay and his family enabled us to form a friendship, to draw plays up on a napkin and to share a life experience with each other and our families."
The clinic Brown and Wright gave in Ramallah was the eye-opener of the trip.
"First off, it wasn't easy to get in and out of," Brown said. "To navigate it, you have to be right on point. Then once we got there, it was a dust bowl, and you get on a court with no nets. And it's not just a clinic of showing kids to shoot layups and shooting. It's drills that allow kids to truly have collective interaction. Kids are running drills where they have to set screens and touch each other, which is not something that they do. Many of the kids had never played basketball before. It was just so much more than basketball.
"We shared dinner with Jay and his family at restaurants, at a Palestinian family's home. It was a special time, brought together because of basketball but having so much more to it than basketball. Jay is a great guy, just easy to talk to, like all of the coaches I've come in contact with during my time in Philadelphia."
Brown has been glued to Wright's team during its run through the tournament. While the Sixers will be playing Saturday during the Villanova-Oklahoma game, Brown will no doubt watch the game later that night, and the one he believes Villanova will be playing on Monday.
"I think they are going to win it all, I really do," Brown said. "I think it's going to be 'Nova and North Carolina in the final. I think the pain of losing early the previous two seasons has hardened Jay's team. They have a mental toughness. They shoot free throws, they share the ball, and they play great defense. I love their guards and, let's face it, it's a guard-oriented game. I really think they'll take it."