Strong relationship with coaches key for Brunson at Stevenson, Villanova
Running hills in a weighted vest in 100-degree heat. Taping his thumb to the palm of his right hand to improve his left-hand shot. Hours of shooting drills at Life Time Athletic in Vernon Hills.
Jalen Brunson's mother watched, for more than a decade, as her only son diligently worked toward a chance to play Division I basketball and a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
She didn't expect it to come this quick, however.
Just a year after Adlai E. Stevenson High School's boys basketball team, led by Brunson, won the IHSA 4A state title, her son is a starting guard for the Villanova Wildcats, who will face Oklahoma on Saturday in the Final Four.
"Never in our wildest dreams would we have expected he would have come around and had the state championship and then go to play in the Final Four," Sandra Brunson said.
Brunson, who with her husband, Rick, and daughter Erica recently moved to New Jersey from Lincolnshire, said the family credits a strong relationship with Stevenson coaches as one reason for her son's continued success.
Rick Brunson, a former Chicago Bulls player who also worked as an assistant coach for both the Bulls and the Charlotte Hornets, has taken an intense interest in his son's development as a player, with his temperamental tongue lashings legendary.
But Jalen's father and coaches at Stevenson early on worked out a formula, Sandra Brunson said. Rick Brunson would teach Jalen skills as a player but stay away from anything that might contradict with Stevenson head coach Pat Ambrose's style.
"There was a tremendous amount of respect between Jalen, my husband and coach (Pat) Ambrose," Sandra Brunson said. "They just clicked early on and it remains that way to this day."
As Jalen, ranked 22nd in the ESPN 100 best players in 2015, went on to become a McDonald's all-American and play for coach Jay Wright at Villanova, Sandra Brunson said her son's relationship with Ambrose has continued, with frequent texts and calls.
"When he picked his final schools he really zeroed in on his relationship with the coach," Ambrose wrote in an email while on vacation. "He loves people, so having a great connection with a solid coach who was not going anywhere that produces great people like Coach Wright was important to Jalen and his family."
Ambrose called Jalen "such a quality human that any coach would love having him on his team."
On the court, Jalen Brunson is known for his poker face, and for his ability to mentally break down players.
But at home, during those rare moments when Jalen can relax, Sandra Brunson says her son is softhearted and a bit of a practical jokester.
"He's just a grounded kid who likes to have a good time -- understands there's a lot that's expected of him," she said. "He knows what his goals are. He doesn't flinch when it comes to 'Do I do this, or do I do that?' "
A news conference earlier this week gave a glimpse of that mindset.
"We've got to hold each other accountable," Jalen Brunson told reporters. "This is the Final Four, and it can definitely get to somebody. It can get to anybody on those teams. I'm sure it's gotten to some people already."
The Brunson family traveled to Houston on Thursday. Sandra says the tournament also serves as an opportunity to reconnect with members of the Stevenson basketball family, and many of them have made journeys across the country to see Jalen play.
"I keep pinching myself," Sandra Brunson said. "Maybe when I walk into the arena it'll be real."