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A night off turns into an honor for Mikal Bridges

Maryland v Villanova Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Mikal Bridges did what he was asked to do at Villanova ... and more. He spent four years on Philly’s Main Line, won two NCAA championships and played in 116 straight games. He also got his degree, a rarity among high-achieving college athletes nowadays.

On Friday night, during a lull in the Nets schedule, Bridges traveled back to his alma where his uniform number — 25 — was retired, sent into the rafters at Finnerman Pavilion.

Modest sometimes to a fault, Bridges spoke about his expectations when he traveled the short distance from Malvern, Pa. to Villanova as a high school senior.

“Leave with a degree and try to play. That’s really it, was just trying to find minutes every year. Nothing bigger than that, honestly,” Bridges told reporters. “I think just everything comes with just playing well and winning. So all my goal was just to obviously go get a degree and just go try to get some minutes out there.”

Over Bridges’ four years as a Wildcat, Villanova posted a combined 136-16 record. He was part of two NCAA championships at the Big East power, one in 2016, one in 2018. His teammates included NBA stalwarts like Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo and Ryan Arcidiacono all of whom play for the Knicks and three of whom were on hand Friday.

Like so many things in his life, Bridges attributes his and his Wildcat teammates success to former Villanova coach Jay Wright who was on hand for the ceremony.

“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be the player I was if it wasn’t for (Wright) and everybody here,” said Bridges “Just (learning) mental toughness, I think just going through tough times and be able to get through adversity.

“And he just showed me how to work hard. I thought I worked hard until I got to college, and even when I was working hard I still felt like I wasn’t working hard enough. So I think just falling in love with the game more when I came here. It all starts with all my coaches.”

Bridges also spoke about how his Villanova and NBA careers aren’t just about wins — he also got to the NBA Finals with the Suns. It’s about the relationships he’s built.

“Yeah, I think maybe just the players that I grew up watching and idolizing and wanting to play like and be like and was a big fan of, just getting close with them and then being friends with them and them complimenting me and stuff like that.

“So I probably just take away just the players I play against,” Bridges said. “I’m really close with (Damian Lillard); he’s one of my favorite players ever. And it’s just how we became friends and close through a trainer was really dope.”

The Nets, like the Wildcats, made a big deal of the night...

Sending a delegation of coaches, players and fans to Philly...

... and filling their social media pages on Twitter, Instagram TikTok and Weibo with video tributes.

After the collapse of the Big Three era, the Nets couldn’t have constructed a better player to represent them, move on. If he didn’t exist, they would have had to invent him. Whether he’ll win big enough in Brooklyn to warrant a jersey retirement ceremony at Barclays is a question for the future. As for now, they couldn’t be happier with their good fortune.

Sunday afternoon, it will be back to work for Bridges in Brooklyn, facing his favorite team growing up, the 76ers. Time for another show.