Jay Wright had just finished his third season as the coach at Hofstra University, which the 35-year-old was slowly building into a basketball school. That spring of 1997, as Wright coached his team, a man who was only a few years older than the players would walk into the gym frequently.
Wright was happy to have this young man work out alongside his players. After all, the man had been a four-year star at Temple University in Wright's hometown of Philadelphia. He was grinding for lesser-known pro teams -- the Adelaide 36ers in the Australian league, the Quad City Thunder of the CBA -- as he tried to make it in the NBA. And the non-stop pace of the young man's workouts provided a great example to younger players.
There was something else interesting about this young man: He'd always bring a stroller. In that stroller was his son, a boy 7 or 8 months old. The boy's mind was active, and his eyes followed his father. His father ran up and down the court – down and back, down and back – and the boy's eyes followed him like someone watching a tennis match. His father gave him a little basketball, and the boy cuddled it like a stuffed animal. Sometimes, when the baby got fidgety, the father would take him out of the stroller and place him on some mats in the corner of the gym. But no matter: The baby didn't cry, didn't fuss, didn't do anything except watch that bouncing basketball.
"He was an observer of basketball from the moment he was born," the boy's mother said. "This kid was always aware of his surroundings, but with basketball it was almost as if he was watching it deliberately, watching it so he could pick it up."
In the ensuing years, the boy and his basketball would become inseparable. His father would make the NBA, playing for eight teams over nearly a decade, never close to a star but always someone lauded for working his way to the top. His son was right there alongside him.
When Rick Brunson was playing for the Portland Trail Blazers, his kindergartner son, living in New Jersey, refused to go to sleep until he watched his dad's entire game and talked with his dad on the phone afterward. When Brunson took his son into the Washington Wizards' locker room to meet Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time asked if the 6-year-old if he wanted him to sign the Jordan jersey he was wearing.
"No, you'll mess it up," the boy said.
When the boy was in fourth grade, friends offered him tickets to a New York Knicks game, but the boy said no -- he didn't want to be in the stands when he could be handing towels and water to the players or mopping up sweat from the floor or being the ballboy for his dad's team. When the boy was in eighth grade, his dad asked him if he really, truly wanted to become an NBA player. When the boy said yes, his dad told him that he needed to trust his coaching, even if it wasn't always pleasant. When the boy was in high school, he would stay up with his dad until 2 a.m. watching film, even if he'd rather be sleeping, because he knew this was how to become great.
And that boy would become great.
Two decades after he sat in the corner of the Hofstra gym, Jalen Brunson is perhaps the smartest player in all of college basketball, and this season is leading a Villanova Wildcats team that is low-key ranked No. 4 in the nation. The team is not ranked so high because of hype or flash or one-and-done recruits but instead from track record, from hard work, from film study, from program culture and, quite simply, from outsmarting everyone else.
You could talk about his measurables this season: the 17.9 points per game, the never-miss shooting that has given him one of the top shooting percentages in college hoops, the all-around offensive game that has him as one of the most productive players in college basketball. But what makes Villanova's junior point guard so great has been right there all along, from when he was a baby boy enamored with watching his father's practices.
"He'd sit there on the mats in the corner and just watch," Rick Brunson said. "He never cried, never was needy. And I remember Jay Wright saying to me, 'This baby is one good baby.' "
Ryan Arcidiacono remembers the first time he met Jalen Brunson, too. It was fall of Arcidiacono's junior year at Villanova, a year before Arcidiacono and Brunson would lead Villanova to its first national title in 31 years. Brunson came to campus on a recruiting visit. Arcidiacono took him to a football tailgate. He stayed at the apartment that night with Arcidiacono and other teammates. The next morning, they all played pickup. The high school kid tore it up alongside all the college kids.
"He was just a heady player," said Arcidiacono, who is now on a two-way contract with the Chicago Bulls. "He knew how to play. That clearly came from his dad. He could shoot the ball and create for others, and he knew how to think the game way past the level of a high school senior. He was thinking like a college kid. He was committed to making every single play, not doing anything crazy but just being effective, unlike lots of high school players."
The fit between Bruson and Villanova was as obvious as it was immediate. The heady Villanova guard is a staple of today's college basketball landscape: Kerry Kittles and Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and Ryan Arcidiacono. They outwork you as much as they outthink you. It's why Villanova is known as Guard U.
"A Villanova guard is just a ballplayer," Arcidiacono said. "He's got to know what to do and when to do it. He's got to be a tough guy who can guard against big men, who can create for himself and for others, and who just does the right thing and makes the right play."
And so it was appropriate that, when Brunson set foot on campus, it was as somebody who told people his favorite NBA player wasn't a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James or a Yao Ming, those athletic freaks he'd met as a kid in NBA locker rooms. But it was instead two less physically gifted point guards whose brains were their biggest assets in Hall of Fame careers: Steve Nash and Chris Paul. He loved their vision; he loved how they always made teammates better; he loved especially how Paul was so quick but never too fast, a player who you could never speed up.
The refining of an elite basketball brain was Rick Brunson's main contribution to his son's basketball career. Sure, Jalen mimicked the glitz and glamour he saw around his father's profession. He took a pair of his mother's Banana Republic trouser socks and cut them into an Allen Iverson shooting sleeve. He'd dress in a suit and drag a duffel bag around the house, just like his dad did when he was leaving for a game with the New York Knicks. But more than the extraneous stuff, he mimicked the way his father thought about basketball.
"I always used to tell him this, that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, they get so much credit for the time in film room, reading defenses," said Rick Brunson, who is now an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves. "But you never hear basketball players getting the same credit. A guy like Chris Paul, he studies, he's in the film room, he's watching tape all the time. We'd study film, and I'd ask Jalen, 'What you do? If this is how the defense played against you, how would you attack it?'
"I always wanted him to be smart player. I never let him play a game without talking about it afterward. Every time. I wanted him to educate me, teach me as if I didn't know. Then I'd correct him: 'This is what I see – when they double you here, you should be looking at that pass there.' There's not a pick-and-roll defense he hasn't seen. If you blitz him, he knows what pass to make. At this point, he just knows."
A father who is elite at something teaching his son that same thing can be a fraught enterprise. Where does coaching stop and fatherhood begin? Where do a son's dreams stop and a father's dreams begin? It is love, but it is a tough love, and this was something that always worried Jalen's mother and Rick's wife, Sandra Brunson. It broke her heart once when she watched Rick kick Jalen out of the gym when he wasn't paying attention to Rick's coaching.
"How could you kick him out of the gym?" Sandra said.
"He doesn't want it bad enough," Rick replied.
In eighth grade, Rick took notice that his son was becoming an elite basketball player, a type who could play Division I basketball, maybe more. Father and son had a conversation. "Do you want to be an NBA player?" Jalen said yes, absolutely – that was his dream. "Are you sure?" Rick replied.
"He still asks me: 'Are you sure you want to do that?' " Jalen Brunson said the other day. "Because he never wants to push me into something I don't want to do. And I have to tell him, 'This is what I want to do, and I want you to help me, because you've been there.' Literally, when I'm having a tough day in a workout, he'll ask me, 'Is this what you want to do?' I'm always like, 'Yes, this is what I want to do.' I have to get over through whatever I'm sulking about, whatever I'm frustrated about, and push through it."
A couple of weeks ago, 21-year-old Jalen Brunson -- who as a freshman averaged 24 minutes and 10 points for a Villanova team that won the national title, who as a sophomore took a back seat to Josh Hart during Villanova's remarkable 32-4 season, and who as a junior is finally in the driver's seat as the unquestioned leader on KenPom's top-ranked team in the nation -- was sitting in a shadowy nook inside a resort in the Bahamas. A handful of Villanova fans were tossing back late-afternoon cocktails at a nearby bar. Over the next three days, Brunson would score 18, 25 and 16 points as Villanova stormed through the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
His mom was here, but his dad was back with his team in Minneapolis, where the Timberwolves were about to tip off against the Orlando Magic.
"He was definitely tough on me," Jalen Brunson said of his father. "There were some days I didn't want to even think about basketball. There's been a lot of times, times when it was, 'Why can't this wait until tomorrow?' 'Why now?' 'Why at 2 a.m. are we watching film?' But everything had a purpose. At the time it didn't feel like it was necessary, but it molded me into who I am today."
"I fell in love with the game at such a young age, it's been hard for me to say, 'I don't want to do this today.' He's always been tough on me, but I've had to figure out when he's being a coach and when he's being a dad. Once I figured that out, it was much easier. It's definitely tough, something that took years to figure out. Just knowing he was looking for what's best for me, not just yelling at me as a parent. It took maturity."
Brunson remembered one game from when he was in high school. A crazy game, double-overtime. Brunson's team won. Brunson had 57 points.
"The first thing my dad says: 'Should have had 60,' " Brunson laughed. "It's never going to be perfect for him, which is how I want it."
Then Brunson recalled another game from back in high school. It was his senior year. His team was in the Final Four for the state championship. His team had lost in the Final Four the year before, and in this Final Four game, Brunson couldn't make a bucket. Right before halftime, Brunson was 0-for-10. They ended up winning on pure guts.
"Everything was just frustrating that game, but we just kept grinding, grinding," Brunson recalled. "My dad looked at me after the game and said, 'You guys are going to win tomorrow.' That was the championship. I was like, 'Why you say that?' And he said, 'Because you were 0-for-10, and you would have thought you were 10-for-10, the way your demeanor was, the way you were playing – and I was really proud of that.' "
The next day, they won the state title.
It's a simple mentality: Work harder, play smarter, reap the benefits. It's a mentality that's gotten Brunson this far, to be leading one of the premier programs in college basketball, and he hopes it will take him to the next level as well.
I asked him about that – the NBA dreams, and how likely they may or may not be. He's not blessed with height or length or elite athleticism. Jonathan Givony, one of the premier draftniks out there, ranks Brunson's teammate, Mikal Bridges, as the No. 1 junior in college basketball as an NBA prospect, but Brunson does not make his top 25. I asked Brunson about this. He told me that he's living his dream now, playing Division I basketball for a great coach at a great program and with great teammates.
"But the dream is also to come," he said. "My dad always says that size doesn't matter, and I agree. Some guys are always gifted: Amazing length, amazing athleticism. But just put me in front of that guy. That's my mindset. I'm gonna battle. That's the mindset my dad has given me since I was a baby."
As Brunson spoke, I thought about a conversation I'd recently had with Rick Brunson. I brought up whether his son's size would put a cap on his NBA potential. He stopped me mid-sentence. He asked me who are some of the best point guards in the NBA. Chris Paul: Not even six feet. Isaiah Thomas: Even shorter. Steph Curry: Maybe an inch taller than Jalen Brunson. Kyle Lowry: About the same height.
His point was this: Jalen Brunson has unquestionably one of the most advanced basketball minds in the nation. He scores at an elite level, both from 3-point range (he's shooting above 50 percent this year) and at the rim (he was third in the nation last year at finishing at the rim). We all want a 6-6, ridiculously athletic human being we can turn into an elite point guard. That's not Jalen Brunson. He's a basketball savant at a position that values the mind more than any other in basketball.
"You don't make a point guard," Rick Brunson said. "You've gotta be born a point guard."
Which, when you think about it, is exactly what Jalen Brunson has been all along.