The kids in the basketball camp were running out of the Pavilion when Jay Wright stopped one of the seventh-graders in the middle of the court to tell him something. The seventh-graders father was there, too. Both of them eagerly leaned in to listen.
Your parents bled blue and white, the Villanova basketball coach said. And so will you some day.
The seventh-grader sheepishly smiled. His father did the same, not quite sure if Wright was being serious. It wasnt until he left the Pavilion, making the same walk to the parking lot he used to make as a student three decades earlier, that he began to think that maybe Wrights bold prediction was realistic.
Maybe his son Ryan could play college basketball at Villanova.
I remember it like it was yesterday, Joe Arcidiacono says. I remember thinking what a dream that would be.
He pauses. His voice rises an octave when he continues.
And it came true.
Exploding against the Storm
Six years later, Joe watches the dream unfold from his seat at the Pavilion.
Ryan Arcidiacono, now a freshman point guard at Villanova, is playing his first-ever Big East game and hes drilling one three-pointer after another. By halftime, hes made four trifectas. By games end, hes made seven of them, good for a career-high 32 points and his second straight Big East Rookie of the Week award.
That game, a 98-86 Nova victory over St. Johns last Wednesday, was certainly a high point of a debut collegiate season thats also had some lows. But through 15 games, Arcidiacono has been consistent enough to average a healthy 12.5 points per game while helping the Wildcats win seven straight heading into Saturdays showdown at Syracuse.
Sometimes for Joe, it still doesnt seem real.
Each game, Im like, Wow, the elder Arcidiacono says by phone, one day after his sons 32-point breakout performance against the Red Storm. Each game, he does something new or different. He always had a nice feel for the game but hes exceeded expectations. Were mildly stunned.
In a sport where freshmen often have a difficult time adapting, Arcidiaconos early success could certainly be described as stunning, especially when you consider the fact that he didnt play his entire senior season in high school after undergoing back surgery.
But if you look at his family history, it suddenly doesnt seem that stunning.
A family tradition
Joe Arcidiacono was a good basketball player but not a star. He had hoped to get an athletic scholarship to play in college and was a little upset when he realized that probably wasnt going to happen.
I was more of a D-II level basketball recruit, Joe says. Or even D-III.
On the advice of one of his friends, Joe tried out for the football team at the beginning of his senior year at Father Judge High School. He had never played competitive football before, but he was tall and he could run and he ended up being so good at the new sport that he got a full ride to nearby Villanova as a late recruit.
He had earned his scholarship after all.
Villanova was perfect for me, he says. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Joe was recruited as a linebacker but was moved to offensive tackle, where he started his final three seasons (1978-80) and was named captain his senior year. The Wildcats played .500 football during most of his tenure, which is surprising when you consider the team also featured future Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long.
He likes to joke around about that, Ryan says. He said Howie used to kick his butt every day in practice.
Away from the football field, Joe met a fellow Nova student from Long Island named Patti. They married and raised six children in Bucks County: Sabrina, Nicole, Michael, Ryan and twins Christopher and Courtney. And before long, Nicole carried on the Arcidiacono tradition of coming out of nowhere to become a college captain.
Like her father, Nicole was a good basketball player but not a star. She looked at a few smaller schools but decided to go to Penn State, in part because her older sister Sabrina was already there and also because she was sucked in by the football pageantry during one of her visits. As a sophomore, she tried out for the perennially strong womens basketball team, competing against about 14 other girls. She made the team as a walk-on. Then she was awarded a scholarship for her final two years. Then she was named one of the Nittany Lions captains as a senior in 2009-10.
Its amazing, says Nicole, who today works for Nike in New York City. I still think back on it and its so surreal for me.
Long before that, Nicole used to play friendly basketball games with some of her siblings, including Ryan. One of her dads favorite things to do, she recalled, was asking who would win in a one-on-one game.
For a while, I was like, Please, Ive got this, she says. Then he started growing up and I was like, Um yeah, Im going to defer that question.
She was starting to learn what many others would soon learn too: Young Ryan could play.
Impressing the recruiters
The six-foot Fisher Price basket in the Arcidiacono TV room got a lot of use. With a Villanova basketball game on in the background, Ryan would mimic the moves of the players he saw on TV. Reverse layups. Step-back jumpers. Spinning dunks. Some of his shots went in. Many others landed on his siblings or dishes.
By the time he started playing AAU basketball, Ryans skill caught up with his ambition. In one game, he made the first eight three-pointers he attempted. In another, he scored more than 50 points. When he was in sixth grade, a high school coach told Ryan that he was as good, if not better, than the players on his own team a conversation his father still remembers.
That was the moment, Joe says, you realize hes going to be a special kid.
If it was Ryans shooting accuracy that first opened many coachs eyes, it was his toughness and ability to play through pain that helped him get to the next level. Once, after a backyard football game with some of his siblings, he came inside the house and held his hand up for Nicole. He was perfectly calm, but she nearly screamed when she saw his pinky turned at a 90-degree angle.
Years later, at the end of his sophomore year at Neshaminy High School, Ryan and his AAU team the PA Playaz, coached by Gene Rice traveled to North Carolina for the prestigious Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions. In his teams first game, Ryan took a nasty spill, crashing into the court face-first. Blood was everywhere. He went to the Wake Forest University Medical Center and got eight stitches in his forehead. Rice thought he should sit out the rest of the tournament and the doctor thought the same thing. But knowing that there were hundreds of college coaches in attendance, Ryan called his parents and pleaded with them to let him play. They agreed and the very next morning Ryan came in off the bench to score 35 points. He continued to pour in the points throughout the rest of the tournament and many major college programs took notice. (Today, if you google Ryans name, one of the first photos that pops up is him at that tournament with a giant bandage over his eye.)
At that point, Joe says, it just exploded.
The recruiting war was intense, with programs from Syracuse to Florida to Texas calling. But it was also short-lived. Early in his junior year, while crammed into the familys Dodge Caravan on the way home from Villanovas Hoops Mania recruiting event, Ryan told his parents he wanted to play ball at their alma mater. Patti screamed with excitement. The first three Arcidiacono kids all went to Penn State, so this was a big deal.
In the end, I figured out myself that it was the best fit for me, Ryan says. There was no pressure from my parents. But once I told them I wanted to go Villanova, they were just ecstatic.
Its a testament to his demeanor that Ryan casually brushes off his back surgery, like its a slow-footed defender on the perimeter.
It really wasnt that upsetting, Ryan says a little more than a year after the procedure at Thomas Jefferson Hospital fixed the herniated disc that had caused him pain during most of the summer of 2011. I took it as, OK, Im just going to get better for college then.
Thats just the way he is: cool and levelheaded. Hes someone who, according to his father, doesnt have highs and lows and internalizes everything. But his father also knows the whole ordeal was also a lot tougher than Ryan may have let on.
It was an absolutely crushing blow to him, Joe says. But he would never show anything other than that really tough mental outlook that he has.
It was also a crushing blow to his parents, who looked on helplessly as Ryan stayed home and rested for three weeks after the surgery while he should have been leading Neshaminy back to the state basketball tournament. Sometimes, Joe would take him on walks up and down the block, where Ryan would take small steps or, as Joe called them, senior-citizen steps. When they got to a curb, Joe would tell him, Ry, watch your step. And Ryan would do just that, this high-level athlete managing a simple curb like it was the shot clock.
Listening to doctors, I knew hed play again, Joe says. But the fact that there was a certain element of doubt and that hes having a back surgery at such a young age, it just seemed wrong. It just seemed like something that should not be happening.
As he recovered from the surgery, the coaches at Villanova were supportive, telling him that this kind of thing is part of life. They told him not to worry. That helped with the healing process.
They werent like, Oh my god, hes never going to play again, Ryan says. It was just like, All right, we have a good kid. Lets hope he gets back on the court. And thats what I did.
By mid-February, Ryan started playing again. And by the time he arrived at Villanova, he felt completely fine so much so that when Wright wanted to hold him out of certain practices, he insisted on playing. Just like the giant gash on his face, this surgery was not going to hold him back.
Hes a very, very determined kid, Joe says. Hes got a lot of confidence and a lot of heart.
Sometimes, at least early in his college career, determination isnt enough. In a November loss to La Salle, he shot just 1-for-7 on the field as the Explorers veteran guards harried him all afternoon. Less than two weeks earlier, he shot 3-for-11 in a loss to Alabama at Madison Square Garden.
Im sure in the scouting reports, they take a look and see that I sat out my senior year and Im a freshman and Im 18 years old and say, Lets get on him a little bit, Ryan says. So maybe theyll try to pressure me more. But now I feel more prepared. Now that I went through games like La Salle and Alabama, Im more prepared for games like that in the future.
Yes, the 18-year-old kid who had major back surgery feels prepared to lead Villanova through a brutal Big East schedule against teams with much more experienced guards.
After what hes already done, do you doubt him?
Its been an amazing ride, Joe says. And its only been four months.
Dave Zeitlin covers college sports for CSNPhilly.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.