The birth of the Nova Knicks

Illustration by ESPN

ON THEIR FIRST day at Villanova, Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo shook hands and unpacked all of their belongings. Then they sat down on their beds 5 feet apart from each other and started talking. This would be their new life for the next year.

In the fall of 2015, Villanova's two biggest recruits would be living together as freshmen, in one dorm room, a short jump shot apart. Right away, DiVincenzo had a realization that so many young adults feel when they move away from home for the first time: Oh crap, I've never lived with anybody before.

Brunson was in the same boat. Sleeping in the same room, sharing the remote, not taking up too much space in the mini-fridge -- this was roommate boot camp for both of them. They didn't really know each other much before that day. But they hit it off right away. Brunson has a straight-faced, tough exterior that hides a good sense of humor, and DiVincenzo is a loose, talkative and positive vibes guy with a feistiness underneath. In many ways, Brunson's interior is DiVincenzo's exterior, and vice versa.

"Within a week, boom, we were on the same schedule," DiVincenzo says. "If he stayed up late, I stayed up late. If we had a late-night pizza, we ate it together and got rid of it before the morning."

On their own, they came up with one rule they built their roommate life around: If you're not dirty, I'm not dirty. Neither one of them considers himself a traditional clean freak. But out of respect for the other, they worked as a team to make sure their room was as clean as 18-year-olds are capable of. "The room never got dirty," DiVincenzo says.

By the time preseason practice began, the two newcomers were already fast friends. Villanova had veterans at every position and Final Four-level expectations, so the two went through a bumpy initiation period on a loaded roster. That 2015-16 Villanova team had Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges, Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins and Phil Booth, and those guys were fed up with the program's recent string of getting bounced in the first weekend of NCAAs. The Nova stars were thinking national title, not how to produce the softest landing for the rookies.

Almost immediately, Brunson and DiVincenzo established themselves as talented enough to contribute as freshmen. Brunson especially showed a quiet fury in practice that generated quite a few wide-eyed nods between vets that he was going to help right away, especially as a spark plug playmaking guard. And coaches marveled at the way DiVincenzo could get on a heater in practice and be the best player on the court for a half-hour.

Villanova practices were tough, though. Most days Brunson and DiVincenzo would come home and laugh together in their dorm room about how bruising and physical their afternoon had been. They'd go back through the previous practice and talk out moments when they took their lumps. Almost every upperclassman and coach ended up making an appearance in those conversations.

But Brunson and DiVincenzo usually ended up bonding over one specific thing more than any other that year, a topic that brought them together and forged the foundation of a lifelong friendship: Josh Hart was an incredibly annoying person.

THE SCRAPPY 2023-24 New York Knicks are a playoff team held together by close friends Brunson, DiVincenzo and, yes, Hart. But to understand how those players got here, you have to understand them then, in 2015.

Brunson met Hart that fall and liked him right away. He found Hart's constant jawing to be coming from a place of love, and he often stood up for the junior when teammates railed on him. On a recent episode of their new podcast, "Roommates Show," Brunson described Hart as "a dog that needs to mark his territory."

So he understood why other players grumbled about Hart. Hart has thick skin and expects you to have it, too. And if that skin is thin, he tends to elect himself as your personal toughener. For almost every teammate, they go through stages of annoyance with Hart: despising him, avoiding him, tolerating him, embracing him. He's one of those Draymond Green-type guys teammates end up loving because he might be a nuisance but he's their nuisance.

Brunson had already worked his way through all the stages. He recognized right away that Hart was an essential element in what Villanova had built. Hart was a consistent scorer who also hit the boards hard as a guard, and his energy was the team's main power source. He somehow managed to stir the pot in a way that was usually a positive -- he always made things interesting.

But in that winter of 2015, DiVincenzo was not in the right mental space to deal with Hart. He hurt his foot early in the season and was sidelined for a few months as he watched his teammates prepare for a March run. It crushed him. "That first year was tough on Donte," says Booth, his teammate for three seasons. "He wanted to play so bad."

The team started 7-0, with seven double-digit wins, to rise to No. 8 in the country. Brunson almost instantly emerged as a major contributor. He was a five-star recruit who had spent his entire life in locker rooms as the son of longtime NBA vet Rick Brunson. But the coaching staff was still surprised to see how quickly he fit in. "Everybody around him who thought they were workers saw what an actual worker looked like around Jalen," says Villanova assistant Ashley Howard. "When your best players have that kind of work ethic, how can everybody else not do the same?"

But the fast start didn't last. Nova ran into No. 7 Oklahoma and Buddy Hield on Dec. 7. Hield, wearing his famous white sleeve on one arm, was the best player on the floor, and the Sooners beat Nova in a 78-55 blowout. He single-handedly outscored Brunson and Hart, who went a combined 5-of-22 from the field for 16 points. The entire team looked overmatched.

After the game, coaches noticed the team looked deflated. That got worse two games later when No. 8 Virginia whacked the Wildcats 86-75. They thought they belonged on the list of the top 10 or so teams capable of winning the NCAA tournament. But they just got run off the court by two others from that group of 10. They'd already heard chatter that coach Jay Wright's Villanova teams were always good for a nice roster, a nice record and a nice second-round exit from March Madness. They seemed to be starting to believe that themselves.

But the Wildcats rallied. Hart is the perfect player to have in those moments when self-pity can become a warm blanket. Former teammates -- especially Brunson -- pick on Hart as a half-asser in practices. But they also say that he's a live wire who picks his moments to go hard and that his demeanor makes complacency impossible. He's a pest in the best possible way, and he went full Hart during what could have been an existential crisis for a team. It's easy to see why the injury-depleted Knicks never quite flatlined this year. "He plays like he is possessed," Booth says. "Once you got to know him, you know that his heart is good. You realize he's just Josh being Josh."

Josh being Josh helped propel Nova to rip off a 19-2 finish to the regular season that had the Wildcats consistently ranked in the top five down the stretch. Brunson was a key addition to the rotation, scoring 9.6 PPG in 24 minutes per night. He wasn't nearly the scorer he is now. But he was and is a fierce firebrand who is all business. He's usually short and bland with the media and wasn't made available for this story. But, as Hart often says about him, Brunson has a fun side behind the scenes. He and Hart are the perfect blend of flavors in a locker room. "They really play off each other well," DiVincenzo says. "It's a good balance."

But DiVincenzo wasn't feeling that, at least not back then. He struggled on the sideline from December through February. He was in a boot for most of that time, and he'd sometimes take off the boot in their dorm room and show Brunson how springy he felt. He seemed to want Brunson to tell him that he was ready to return and that he should lobby to get back in the lineup. But Brunson was a good friend -- the best decision was for DiVincenzo to sit and apply for a medical redshirt.

Even today, DiVincenzo seems to struggle to process being on the bench back then. As he sat at his locker in late March, DiVincenzo says, "Tough, tough year." He doesn't speak for a second. Then he shakes his head and repeats the exact same thing. "Tough year."

The Wildcats lost in the Big East title game, netting them a 2-seed at the NCAAs. As they prepped for March Madness, though, players and coaches felt as if they had the best roster in the country if they could put it all together. And when they ripped off three straight double-digit wins to get to the Elite Eight, then took out No. 1 seed Kansas, the entire team began to believe this was the year the Cats would break their reputation for flaming out in March.

In the Final Four, they'd face a familiar foe that had drubbed them earlier in the year -- Oklahoma and its white-sleeved Wooden Award winner, Hield. Lucky for Villanova, it had a secret weapon who'd help it win the game without playing in it: Donte DiVincenzo.

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE Jalen Brunson letting out a belly laugh. He plays basketball without restraint like a shaken-up can of Mountain Dew that explodes on the floor. But his public persona is cerebral and settled, so an uncontrollable guffaw doesn't seem possible. On the podcast, though, Hart brings out the humorous side of Brunson. He goofs on Hart in a way that Hart seems to enjoy, and teammates and coaches say Brunson is an exceptional, warm presence once he knows someone.

That warmth saved DiVincenzo during his first year. By late January, he was climbing the walls at being away from the team. He hadn't practiced in months, and his already tenuous connection with some of the vets -- especially Hart -- was almost nonexistent by that time.

Brunson was breaking out as a freshman starter on a team ranked in the top five, and his roommate was begging the medical staff to get him back on the court after his boot came off. During those moments, DiVincenzo credits Brunson for being the bridge from the team to him and one of the main reasons he was able to play a pivotal role in Nova's postseason without playing a single minute. The fabric of that relationship? Despising Josh Hart.

"Josh will tell you, I hated him," DiVincenzo says. "A bunch of guys did. Jalen and I were best friends, and Jalen had to say, 'Come on, he's fine.' But yes, that was our common bond."

DiVincenzo was cleared to return to the court for practice in early February. He was in freshman eligibility purgatory -- he had already played in December but was likely to be granted a medical redshirt if he didn't return that season. Since he wasn't officially redshirting, though, DiVincenzo could travel and practice with the team.

And he practiced a lot. Rookie Villanova assistant Matt Fraschilla, son of legendary coach Fran Fraschilla, was tasked with all of the logistical riffraff that staffers have to handle -- wakeup calls, forgotten phone chargers, random car rides, monitoring class schedules. He remembers getting a call one night at about 10 from DiVincenzo right after he'd been cleared. Fraschilla was out on a first date.

"Can you come shoot around with me?" DiVincenzo asked.

Fraschilla looked across at his date and said he had to go because of a work obligation. His date said she was a huge Villanova fan and asked what he had to do. "Donte DiVincenzo wants to shoot around," he said.

His date told him to go. He rushed off to shoot with DiVincenzo, and Fraschilla scheduled a second date with her. That was it, though -- the only happily ever after in this anecdote is that DiVincenzo was cooking on the scout team by the time the tournament rolled around.

Villanova romped into its Final Four matchup against Hield. Then the coaching staff came to DiVincenzo and told him he had to become Hield. They gave him total freedom to run the scout team and said no shot was a bad shot. Howard was tasked with coming up with an Oklahoma counterintelligence game plan to beat Villanova, and he taught DiVincenzo as many Hield plays as possible. "Practice is your game day," Howard kept telling him.

For that week, DiVincenzo watched endless Hield tape and tried to learn his game. By the end of the week, he was Buddy Hield, and he destroyed his own teammates. To this day, Nova players and coaches shake their heads in disbelief at DiVincenzo, in a red pinny, torching the Wildcats every practice. He was ridiculous. One player remembers a coach muttering, "Buddy is going to kill us."

Half the players felt great because they didn't believe Hield could possibly be as good as DiVincenzo had been. "If you saw a player play like that in a regular game, you wouldn't believe it was real," Booth says. "I remember feeling like if we compete hard, we could beat Oklahoma after that."

The other half felt terrified because they had had no answers for a freshman pretending to be a guy they had already struggled against. "He was roasting us," Hart says. "The shots he was hitting were absurd. If Buddy was going to make those, it was a wrap for us."

On the first OU possession, Hield hit a step-back 3-pointer that Hart remembers vividly to this day. Oklahoma led 3-0, but then the practice hours of chasing after DiVincenzo kicked in. Nova defenders -- including Brunson and Hart -- swarmed Hield to the point that he had one of the worst games of his career (4-of-12 shooting for nine points). He got so frustrated at various points that he kept taking his white sleeve on and off, and nothing ever clicked. Hart scored 23, Brunson had 8, and Nova beat Oklahoma 95-51 in the worst Final Four drubbing ever. "That was just one of those nights," Wright said afterward. "I feel bad for Oklahoma."

Brunson was ecstatic about what the blowout win meant for the team but also for his roommate. DiVincenzo had felt like a real Wildcat during that stretch, and the coaching staff and players had been wide-eyed imagining what the future would be when DiVincenzo was out of the red pinny. "He did more damage in practice than Buddy Hield did in the game," Hart says.

In the national title game, Villanova beat North Carolina, a 2-point favorite, 77-74 on Jenkins' 3-pointer at the buzzer. Not long after the celebration ended, the coaching staff huddled together and smiled. With Hart, Jenkins, Brunson and Bridges all coming back -- and their redshirt Hield clone healthy -- the 2016-17 Nova team seemed like it might be even better than the national title team.

But then, The Incident happened.

BRUNSON AND HART recently invited DiVincenzo as a guest on the "Roommates" podcast. They're all very close now. But with both teammates egging him on, DiVincenzo goes deep on how much he despised Hart during his first two years at Nova. DiVincenzo and Hart got into several physical altercations that, in retrospect, seem as if they could have derailed the whole program.

One was in the locker room as a freshman, when Hart was needling DiVincenzo and DiVincenzo refused to just take his ribbing. They jawed back and forth for a bit until they got close physically and Hart locked DiVincenzo into a headlock. "Donte couldn't move," Brunson says on the podcast.

"The thing about Josh is, I don't ever see him lift," DiVincenzo chimes in. "But he is hella strong."

They got broken up, and DiVincenzo decided he'd keep his distance from Hart. They stayed civil as much as possible, and Hart couldn't help but appreciate DiVincenzo's talent and work ethic. There's also something about his personality that he likes when people stand up to him. "Josh respects that," Booth says. "I think he likes to know he has guys around him who are as tough as him."

But as the next season began, the Villanova team weight room was being renovated and DiVincenzo found himself in an open student fitness center jawing with Hart. Hart made some sort of insult that caused an agitated DiVincenzo to tell him, "Say it again," as he stood with a 10-pound plate in his hand. Hart said it again, and DiVincenzo swung the weight at him.

The ensuing brawl was eventually broken up by teammates, including Brunson, and the two ended up having to meet with Wright. Wright couldn't believe that DiVincenzo swung a weight at Hart. But he also couldn't believe Hart said what he said -- nobody who spoke with ESPN for this story would repeat it. "The plate should have hit him with what Josh said," Brunson says now.

Inside the Knicks locker room in March, DiVincenzo is seated at his locker when I bring up The Incident. He smiles and declines to comment on what specifically happened. He says that over the years -- especially when he got to the NBA and started exchanging pleasantries with Hart when they'd face off -- he began to appreciate and understand Hart. Brunson continued campaigning for Hart with DiVincenzo, emphasizing that Hart throws high heat only at people he truly cares about. "That means he values you," Brunson told him.

DiVincenzo says that they're both adults now and that he didn't think twice about signing with the Knicks because Hart was on the roster and that it actually helped win him over last offseason. He shrugs and says, "Josh was just a bully. A playful bully."

He pauses and starts to smirk as he looks over at the entrance to the locker room. "Speaking of the bully, here he is," DiVincenzo says.

He yells across the room to Hart that he'd just been asked about The Incident, and Hart lets out a hiss that sounds like a scuba tank broke. "Why are you wanting to know our business?" he shouts at me.

"It was nothing," DiVincenzo adds. Hart rattles off a few expletives aimed at me, and DiVincenzo gives a jovial look that seems to say, Welcome to the Josh Hart experience.

Hart's not done. "Tell him to just listen to the 'Roommates' podcast," Hart yells. "We talked about this, bro."

When approached two minutes later, Hart is lacing up his sneakers. Without even looking up, he says, "You got one question, bro."

Hart never raises his eyes as he gets ready to go out for a shooting session. But he answers several questions and finally says he needs to leave. He starts to jog out of the locker room and says he will answer one more as he runs.

Hart is moving fast now, so I ask him why so many former Villanova players say he is annoying. Hart is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds and can gallop. He never breaks stride as he contemplates how to assess his own personality. Hart breaks into a sprint as he gets to the court. He yells back over his shoulder, "I don't know. I guess I'm just a polite a--hole." And with that, he is gone.

Hart and DiVincenzo made it work during that 2016-17 season. But they both thought they were never going to be friends, and they both decided that was OK. The Nova team was a juggernaut during the season, never dropping out of the top four as the Wildcats went 31-3 and were the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Brunson made a huge leap as a sophomore, although still mostly as a distributor rather than a scorer. DiVincenzo came off the bench and averaged 8.8 PPG. Hart was the Big East's Player of the Year, leading the team in scoring (18.7) and rebounding (6.4 RPG). He's never been a dominant scorer in the NBA, but he is impactful. Brunson recently jokingly asked what Hart (career NBA scoring average of 9.8 PPG) does to earn his $12 million salary, and Hart said, "Run around like an idiot during the game and just f--- s--- up."

In the second round of the NCAA tournament, Villanova stumbled again. Hart got stripped in the closing seconds, and No. 8 seed Wisconsin ended the Wildcats' season -- and Hart's career -- in a 65-62 victory. Multiple sources interviewed for this story said the DiVincenzo-Hart chilliness was real but played no part in the loss. "Wisconsin was just really good, and a bad matchup for us," Booth says.

After the loss, Hart was heartbroken. He had declared for the NBA draft a year earlier, then opted to make a run at back-to-back titles. Now it was over. A few days after the season, he was getting ready for the 2017 draft when he took a break to go to the Wooden Award ceremony in Los Angeles. He did all the L.A. things and then went to the banquet, where he didn't win. Before he left L.A., though, he had one last task -- a walk-on cameo for an episode of "General Hospital."

He and the other Wooden candidates were each given some dialogue, and Hart nailed his. In a line that Villanova people still sometimes say to him, Hart stood near the nurse's station and said, "Damn it, Kiki" to character Kiki Jerome. It was his final act as a Villanova basketball player. Now, Hart was off to the NBA, and his time playing beside Brunson and DiVincenzo was over, or so he thought.

AS YOU WATCH the 2023-24 Knicks cobble together wins through a maddening rash of injuries, including to star Julius Randle, it's impossible not to see the team's similarities with the 2017-18 Villanova team.

The Wildcats started 13-0, with a roster that ran nine deep with different parts that somehow latched together perfectly. Brunson was electric, a full-blown NBA prospect who had grown into a scorer along with his playmaking ability; he would ultimately win the Wooden Award that year.

DiVincenzo was certainly among the five best players on the roster. But coaches marveled at his ability to watch from the sideline, even for just a few minutes, and instantly decode the flow of the game. He'd come in a few minutes into the first half and he would've already figured out how to provide an instant spark. DiVincenzo posted a rare stat line for a guy who'd be an NBA first-round pick a few months later: 40 games played, only 10 starts, 29.3 minutes per game.

The team got to 22-1 and No. 1 in the rankings, emerging as a legit national title contender and potential top overall seed. But then a bizarre flood of midyear injuries -- including three guys with broken hands -- had Nova down to six or seven healthy players on many nights. DiVincenzo had to play major minutes, and Brunson and Bridges, a redshirt junior, basically couldn't come out.

The team sputtered to three losses in its next six games and often looked gassed at the end of games. As good as the Wildcats' stars were playing, they needed their guys back or else they'd wither during the postseason push. Does any of this sound familiar, Knicks fans?

The big difference between this year's Knicks team and that Nova squad is that Hart is playing his polite ass off at MSG and back then Brunson and DiVincenzo had to do it without him. The team sagged badly down the stretch, culminating in a late-season Sunday afternoon loss at Creighton that had everyone on the team silently boiling in their seats as the plane sat on the runway ahead of the flight out of Omaha.

But that's where they stayed for a few hours. The pilot kept announcing that the plane was delayed while the crew tried to deice the wings so the plane could take off in a nasty wintry mix. Finally, the pilot said that the deicer had broken and that the plane was being pulled back to the terminal. The entire Villanova team and staff groaned about getting off the plane and shuffling back to a hotel for the night.

That's about when the silent scorn began to break. Players were upset and complaining, and the coaching staff had no patience for it. When they got to the hotel, players and coaches asked for an open conference room to air it all out. And they did. Multiple sources said the meeting was particularly ugly, an hour of brutal honesty from a staff that thought the players were feeling sorry for themselves and a roster that felt as if the players were being run into the ground. "What happened in there stays in there," says current Villanova coach Kyle Neptune. "But it wasn't pretty. Everybody got a chance to get things off their chests."

But hey, at least nobody swung any 10-pound plates at anybody. After an hour or so, the temperature had dropped enough that people went back to their rooms. Booth stayed with DiVincenzo that night, but all the players were in a series of rooms right next to each other. As midnight approached, all of them had their doors open and room service had arrived.

Players remember grumbling about the coaches for a bit, but then Brunson and DiVincenzo steered them out of the negativity. "It's all about pulling together and starting over, starting now," Brunson said. "We're better than this."

That was the mantra the next morning -- We're better than this -- as Villanova took off on a charter flight back to Philadelphia feeling as if the team had a fresh start, courtesy of a broken deicing machine.

On team flights, coaches tended to stay up front, with players seated in the back. But on this trip, Wright had told the staff members they needed to rally the guys after the bad cop stuff from the night before. So players were surprised when assistants started coming to the back of the plane and pulling them, one at a time, to come up and sit with Wright for a few minutes.

Each of those conversations was a little different, with Wright expressing exactly what the expectations for the stretch run would be for each player. But the overall tone was upbeat. "We're good enough to beat anybody in the country," Wright emphasized. The coaching staff didn't know it at the time, but the players had already convinced themselves of it.

That infamous Omaha runway stranding is now folklore at Villanova because of what happened next. Nova got healthy, then romped through the Big East tournament with four straight wins. In the NCAA tournament, the Cats starched six straight teams by double digits to win it all. Brunson was his normal steady self, scoring 97 points and playing 31.3 minutes per tournament game. And DiVincenzo had a star-making turn coming off the bench to dominate the national title game with 31 points in a 79-62 win against Michigan.

That kicked off a relentless debate among Villanova players that rages to this day: Which team was better, 2016 or 2018? Brunson and DiVincenzo are diplomatic with their answers, saying both were great. But Booth, who was on both teams, says what the general consensus seems to be: that the 2018 squad was just a hair more explosive and athletic.

Right before Hart takes off onto the MSG floor in March, I ask his opinion on the 2016 vs. 2018 debate and he gives a succinct answer: "Suck one. How about that? Next question."

There's DNA from both of those title teams on this Knicks squad, though. Brunson, DiVincenzo and Hart have arguably been the most important three-man group in the NBA since the All-Star break. They've played more minutes (691) than any other trio since mid-February. With a depleted bench, the three Nova Knicks scored a combined 63 PPG as New York surged into the No. 2 seed. That push got them a date in the first round against the Philadelphia 76ers and -- who else? -- Buddy Hield.

As Brunson and DiVincenzo celebrated after the 2018 title game, DiVincenzo was announced as the most outstanding player of the Final Four despite not starting a game. At that moment, they couldn't help but think about those days sitting 5 feet apart as freshmen and then everything that happened after that.

But they also felt bittersweet. Hart was off to the NBA, and they would be now, too. What were the odds they'd ever be teammates again?

DiVincenzo shrugged and hugged Brunson, saying: "Hey, you never know ..."