Mike Jensen: Former Villanova star Randy Foye convinced Jay Wright his voice on social justice issues was needed

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Villanova head coach Jay Wright, left, embraces Randy Foye, who fouled out in the closing moments of a season-ending loss against Florida on March 26, 2006, in Minneapolis. - Jerry Lodriguss/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — It wasn’t a reflexive move.

Jay Wright’s Twitter feed, going out to his 94,700 followers, typically is a celebration of Villanova basketball, with birthday wishes to ’Nova players past and present, and frequent updates of ’Nova alumni in the NBA. An NBA draft film evaluation of Saddiq Bey brought a tweet from Bey’s former coach: “Our man Saddiq is ready @NBA — a true worker — always #HumbleAndHungry.”

“I want everyone to see what we’re trying to do in our Villanova family,” Wright said over the phone this week. “If that inspires somebody else, good.”

Wright made it clear that within his program he is always trying to bring the wider world to his own players. His Twitter feed, however, stuck to those basics, until this summer.

Now? The hoop tweets are there — a video of Mikal Bridges expertly guarding Kawhi Leonard, a nod to Kyle Lowry’s leading the NBA in charges — but mixed in there, you now see a sprinkling of social commentary. Nothing too radical. You’ll see Wright bringing up the words Black Lives Matter in different contexts. You see public support for his players and other athletes speaking out. You see calls to register to vote.

You see a college basketball coach, at the top of his profession, outside his comfort zone, by his own admission.

A phone conversation with former Villanova great Randy Foye, now retired after an 11-year NBA career, really got Wright to use his platform in a slightly different way.

“Randy talked to me at length,” Wright said. “He hit me square between the eyes.”

“I understand exactly who Coach is,” Foye said. “He’s tough on his players, but it always comes back full circle. He talks to you and explains why he’s doing something.”

Foye said their conversation about this was along the lines of, “You are the best coach in college basketball. You’re winning national championships with these kids. I’m not saying you have to be first, that you have to be second, but you have to put out a statement.”

Then Foye pointed out that if the names Kyle Lowry or Mikal Bridges or Jalen Brunson were substituted for Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor or George Floyd — if one of his players had been pulled over and ended up under the knee of a police officer for 8 minutes, 46 seconds — Wright would be very outspoken.

“What would the Villanova community be saying then?” Foye remembers telling his coach. “If those three were your three players, you would be irate. You would be nationally passionate.”

None of this national discussion is new to him, said Foye, who grew up in Newark, N.J.

“There’s a lot of pain and suffering that’s never talked about because we’re supposed to be strong and determined and fierce,” Foye said.

The conversation veered toward how this really shouldn’t be anything political.

“When has racism ever been a debate?” Foye remembers saying to his old coach. “It’s a problem. If someone says something to you on your Twitter account or the Villanova basketball account, they’re part of the problem. These people can’t sit courtside and cheer for these kids with so much passion, and when they walk outside, the passion is gone.”

Maybe for the first time in his career, Wright has gotten some online pushback that doesn’t involve hoops. Tired of the left-leaning politics … Not watching anymore. …

Whether those are genuine Villanova fans responding to Wright’s messages on Twitter, who knows, it’s Twitter. But there was little chance Wright would be aligning with 100% of his fan base on all these issues.

“I’ve lost 800 (Twitter) followers since it started,” Wright said. “And I get it. I’ve always tried not to be political. I’m a basketball coach. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing politically. I shouldn’t be out there. But this issue isn’t political. This is a social justice issue.”

That was part of the discussion with Foye, Wright said.

Wright: “I don’t want to come off like I’m taking a stage here.”

Foye: “But we know you. We know you live it.”

Foye also told him, “If anybody comes after you, we’ve all got your back.”

That was no small thing to Wright. Foye occupies an important place in the hierarchy of former Wright players. Wright joked that the other NBA players told Foye he should be the one to talk to Wright. In fact, Foye said, the current NBA players are just busy in their current bubble set up to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We feel like the grandfathers — I don’t want say the grandfathers — the big brothers,” Foye said of his generation and how they relate to the current players.

Does winning two NCAA titles make it easier for Wright to be more outspoken?

“I don’t look at it like that at all,” Wright said. “I don’t think I’ve earned anything. That was kind of Randy’s point. I don’t feel like anything I did in basketball gives me anymore of a right to say anything about social issues.”

But obviously no less of a right either. Just a more noticeable platform.

“I really feel like what I’m doing is going on my feelings as a Christian and a human being — this is a humanistic issue,” Wright said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Without COVID-19, Wright would have been finishing up his time in Tokyo this week, as an assistant coach with the U.S. Olympic team. Wright spent six weeks last summer as the U.S. prepared for and played in the FIBA World Cup in China, working under Gregg Popovich and with assistant Steve Kerr, two of the most politically outspoken coaches.

“It’s interesting, we talked about these types of issues almost every night at dinner,” Wright said. “Every night. … Being around those two, it enlightened me to how much more educated they both were on issues. I considered myself educated on a lot of things. I read a lot. But being around those two. … We’d be on the bus, sitting next to Steve, I’d see the stuff he was reading. I’m checking on recruiting. He’s reading about what’s going on in the world. It was humbling.”

He’s not trying to be those guys, Wright suggested. That wasn’t the big influence here.

“We’re hurting,” Foye told him.

“I said to him, it’s so easy to say we want you to come and enjoy our culture, the Villanova community, to learn from it,” Foye said, talking about pitches to recruits, specifically Black recruits. “I said, I want the Villanova community to join and appreciate our culture. It’s like a fair trade-off.”

He meant clothes, hairstyles, any of it. All of it. If Foye was hitting him right between the eyes, Wright wasn’t knocked down. He didn’t shy away from a public discussion of it, volunteered the importance of the conversation with Foye. He asks his players to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

He’s just trying to be the best person he can be, Wright said. “Supporting good human beings who deserve to be treated with respect.”

“I just want ’Nova to be on the right side of history,” Foye said over the phone.

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