by Nick Fattori
Home truly is where the heart is, at least for Curtis Sumpter here at Villanova. He has traveled all around the world and has long since graduated, now he’s home again with Villanova basketball.
Sumpter was one of the main components to the turnaround of the men’s program under head coach Jay Wright. Sumpter played here from 2002 until 2007, and he now returns to the basketball team in a different capacity.
After finishing up his playing career overseas and in the minor league of the NBA, he joins the Wildcats as an assistant coach.
“I had just finished playing basketball and was looking to transition myself into the working world,” Sumpter said. “I asked Coach [Wright] for some advice, and he offered me a position, and I took it.”
His official title is student athlete development assistant. Sumpter’s role on the team was specifically designed for him, as part of Wright’s plan to give former players an opportunity to get into coaching.
Even though this is Sumpter’s first year as a coach, he is not just easing into it. A typical day for him can run from 8:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night.
Besides the usual 3 p.m. practice when Sumpter is responsible for keeping the players motivated and noticing any mistakes, he works with each player outside of practice. He hosts individual workouts with the players in which they shoot, lift or watch film.
“We set the bar high,” Sumpter said. “My job in coming back is to make sure these guys keep it that way, and they understand how important Villanova basketball is to the people before them who got Villanova to that level.”
Sumpter consistently returned to Villanova to work out with the players during the summer while he was playing overseas, and already has great rapport with many of them.
Those players who have been here for a few years know Sumpter well and, as time has passed this season, his relationships with the freshmen and sophomores have grown. He even knew some of the players before his time at ’Nova.
“JayVaughn [Pinkston] lives literally across the street from my mom’s house,” Sumpter said. “We grew up together. James Bell’s dad lives in the same building I grew up in. I have known his dad almost my entire life.”
Things are a bit different now that Sumpter is not going through the daily grind of workouts and practices as a player, and he loves every minute of being a coach. He said his favorite part about his new job is helping the players improve and seeing the results firsthand.
“As a player, you know you are improving by results, but you can’t see yourself improving like other people can see you,” Sumpter said. “Seeing [the players’] confidence level grow and what it does for them is great.”
The bond between Wright and Sumpter started even prior to Sumpter being part of Wright’s first recruiting class here at Villanova.
Before coming to ’Nova, Wright was head coach at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y. Sumpter grew up not far from there in Brooklyn, so over time they got to know each other through the recruiting process.
“Coach is like a second father to me,” Sumpter said. “Even after I left ’Nova we never really lost contact. I always let him know what I was doing and whenever I made a somewhat big decision in my life would ask for his advice.”
This great relationship, however, almost never happened. In the early 2000s, Villanova was an average team coached by Steve Lappas. ’Nova approached Sumpter and offered him a scholarship, but he declined. After receiving offers from national powerhouses UNC, UConn and Illinois, it was hard for Sumpter to even consider Villanova.
Then, Wright got the head coaching job here and suddenly things began to change. He sold players not only on Villanova, but also on his system of basketball.
He brought together a class highlighted by Randy Foye, Allan Ray and all-American Jason Fraser. With these players’ perseverance, he was able to land Sumpter as well and put together one of the best recruiting classes of 2002.
“It was him,” Sumpter said. “I don’t want to take any credit away from him. We wanted to win a championship as a No. 1 recruiting class. I also wanted to be close to home and go to college and play basketball with my best friend Jason Fraser.”
Although Sumpter is loving his time as coach here, there still is a thirst to play the game. However, there is one obstacle. While playing here, Sumpter tore his left ACL during his junior season in a win against Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Upon returning to practice in October of 2006—his senior season—he reinjured the same knee, forcing him to take a medical redshirt and miss the entire season. To this day, the knee has never fully recovered. It is a shame because Sumpter has the skill set to make it in the NBA.
“I feel like I can still do it, but when it’s over, it’s over,” Sumpter said about the prospect of playing again. “I am too competitive to go out there and not give it my all, and I don’t want to go overseas anymore at this point in my life.”
Sumpter has accepted his injuries. He said he considers himself lucky for his skills and for everything he has been able to do with his life. Even though things did not necessarily go the way he had hoped after he left here, he is still happy.
“I’m content and happy with my decision,” Sumpter said. “I’ve seen the world, met so many great people and done so many different things in such a short period of time.”
When he did not make an NBA squad after graduating from Villanova, Sumpter decided to go overseas and play basketball. His first stop was Germany with the Koln 99ers. But while playing the game he loved, it was just not the same.
“It was different…it was lonely,” Sumpter said. “It is a six-hour time difference and thousands of miles away in an unfamiliar place trying to deal with the language barrier.”
His team would practice and train for seven grueling hours a day and would go over a month without days off.
Combined with these long hours fact that teams only play about once a week, helped further damage Sumpter’s knee from the wear and tear of constant practice. This forced him to leave the team for rehab and to make a big decision.
“Is this what it is going to be like?” Sumpter asked himself. “Five months after leaving Villanova, I was ready to retire, and I felt like I couldn’t keep up with it.”
After recovering, Sumpter headed back to Europe, this time to France, and he had a great second stint overseas. He played well, and upon returning to the United States in 2008 was good enough to make the Los Angeles Clippers’ final cuts in training camp.
He would have made the team if not for star point guard Baron Davis breaking his finger, thus forcing the Clippers to sign a backup point guard. Sumpter, being the last one on the bench, was subsequently released.
Sumpter then returned to Europe and played in Belgium and Greece and once again showcased his skills, but his knee became more and more problematic.
Teams in Europe do not usually have as good training staffs as teams back here do, and because of this, Sumpter’s knee became worse and would not heal properly.
Sumpter’s last go around was last year during the NBA lockout. The Toronto Raptors wanted to sign him, but because of the condition of his knee, Sumpter was unable to pass the physical, so the Raptors were unable to sign him.
“I’m done trying,” Sumpter said.“It’s time to just be done with it.”
Sumpter’s window of opportunity to play may have closed, but he is excited by the prospects of the future for himself and this team. He said he truly believes the sky is the limit for this young group of Villanova players.
“No one knows the grind and sacrifices we go through every day,” Sumpter explained. “It’s not easy. We can’t worry about other people and what they are saying. If we keep believing and having faith in each other, the coach and the system, Villanova will be back on the national scale. That’s not even a question.”
He is extra enthusiastic because of the youth of this team. He sees their potential and knows how good some of these young men can be when they play together as a unit.
“They are such a unique group, all the pieces fit,” Sumpter said. “JayVaughn is a matchup nightmare. Daniel Ochefu doesn’t even know how good he can be. In the coming years this could be the most talented Villanova team ever, even more than my team and Dante’s [Cunningham ’09] team.”
If the team in a couple years will be the most talented ever, then who is number two?
Who would win a matchup between his ’05-’06 team and the Final Four team of ’08-’09? Sumpter said it would ultimately be his team…but not without a catch.
“I would say we would win,” Sumpter said. “People don’t realize how good Jason Fraser was when he was healthy. He would be a first-team All-NBA Defensive First Team player. People only saw him about 40 percent.”
What would the score be, and who would be MVP of the game? He said the score would be tough to come up with, but the MVP was clear in his mind.
“It would be a low scoring game, 57-54 or 54-50 us,” Sumpter said. “MVP of the game? Why not me? Haha…but in all seriousness with a healthy Jason I would say he gets it and has 15 points, 15 rebounds, five blocks, four assists and four steals.”
The prospects of good future teams led Sumpter to reminisce about his time spent at the University as a student and player. Sumpter said he absolutely loved his five years at Villanova.
Two specific games stand out to him out of the 120+ that he took part in during his career.
The first was during his junior season, the first game of the 2005 NCAA Tournament when the Wildcats played the University of New Mexico. This was the first NCAA tournament for the team since 1999.
Another important game was also a first-round game against the University of Kentucky in 2007, which ended up being his last game ever as a Wildcat.
“We worked so hard to get there and we finally got it done,” Sumpter said. “We got Villanova back to being relevant. That year  was tough for us. That team was mostly freshmen and sophomores and the year was about teaching them what Villanova basketball is and I think we did a great job.”
Sumpter said he loved everything about his team and all that they had accomplished, but that was not the defining element in his time here.
That moment came in 2006, when Sumpter received his degree in sociology and officially became a graduate of Villanova.
“My family is huge on getting to college and graduating,” Sumpter said. “It is a huge thing. Having my entire family come down here was amazing.”
Sumpter also notes that his time was enhanced by the great classes and professors he encountered here. Some of his favorite courses were the ones on race and gender. They were the highlights of his day. He also loved the fact that professors stayed in contact with him even after he had left Villanova.
“The classes were very interesting,” Sumpter said. “Those were a few of the classes I actually enjoyed going to. The relationships here last a lifetime. Barbara Zimmerman and Ernie Ramirez still followed me and kept in contact even after I had gone overseas.”
Sumpter said he wants to connect not only with student athletes here, but to the student body in general.
He knows how tough it can be along with class, schoolwork, activities and whatever else students deal with on a day-to-day basis.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Sumpter said. “People here are so helpful and want to see everyone succeed. If you are struggling with anything, all you need to do is ask and someone will help you. This is a great community, and I am happy I got the opportunity to be a part of it.”