Jay Wright was prepared, as any head basketball coach would be.
But the arena he was about to enter did not include a court or two baskets. This was the Vatican, where a delegation from Villanova that included Wright and his wife, Patty, was about to meet Pope Francis. Wright had a basketball signed by his team to present to the pontiff as a gift.
“I practiced my Italian,” Wright recalled of the April 14 meeting. “I was supposed to say, ‘Grazie, Santo Padre, coraggio,’ which means, ‘Thank you, Holy Father, be courageous.’ Some of the priests told me to say that.
“When I handed him the ball, he said to me in perfect English, ‘Thank you. Do you want me to sign this?’ It totally took me off guard because I was expecting Italian. I was laughing. I said, ‘No, no, this is a gift for you’ and he said, ‘Thank you.’ It was truly one of the great experiences of our lives.”
The visit to the pope, which had been planned as part of the Villanova board of trustees’ spring meeting in Rome, was the highlight of an off-season of events for Wright after the Wildcats’ second national championship in three years.
Wright said he was a little more judicious in choosing which postseason events to attend this time because “you can’t do all of them and be effective at your job.” But there were some memorable ones.
Accompanied by Wildcats players Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, Wright spoke May 2 at the celebrity-studded National College Signing Day initiative headed by former First Lady Michelle Obama at the Liacouras Center.
“That was really cool,” he said. “Jalen, Phil and myself got to meet her and got to take pictures with her and a lot of other really cool people. It was a nice event.”
There also was the day, April 24, when Villanova’s national champions were invited to ring the bell before the 76ers’ playoff game against the Miami Heat at the Wells Fargo Center. However, they were bumped from the ceremony after rapper Meek Mill was released from prison, headed directly to the arena, and performed the honor instead.
Wright said his guys weren’t bothered in the least.
“I think our guys were more excited about meeting Meek Mill and [comedian] Kevin Hart than ringing the bell,” he said. “They took pictures with them and got to talk to them, and that far superseded ringing the bell for them.”