We were all moving kinda slowly. There were some friends of friends who’d heard we were bringing Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo to this gym in Connecticut. A small group of people popped up asking for photos and for autographs. The guys were cool about it. They smiled, they listened, they signed. There was no real sense of urgency, which was fine with us. Comfortability is a big key to what we do. We like when players are feeling free. It was Donte who first made the move to switch into his uniform. He broke from the group of people to ask about a bathroom. All of a sudden, Jalen was by his side, grabbing Donte’s jersey from the chair it was hanging on. Jalen quickly took off his shirt and threw on his teammate’s jersey. He made his way back to the group, laughing alongside everyone else when they realized what was happening. That’s when we realized what was happening. 

These guys are friends. 

Sounds obvious, right? For sure. Easy to acknowledge it sounds obvious. But SLAM is celebrating its 30th anniversary. We’ve been around NBA players for a while now. We’ve seen that a ton of them are colleagues, not friends. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. These guys spend months on the road together. Their team responsibilities pull them away from their families. So most players keep it cordial with each other, but in the same way that you leave your work environment, they do, too. 

We’re not here to burst any bubbles. You should still believe in Santa Claus. Hell, hopefully one day the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot finally emerge. But we regret to inform you that most NBA players don’t kick it with each other outside of practice, even if they make it seem so when they’re in public. 

That’s why the genuine laughter of this trio, all three of them former Villanova Wildcats, was a much welcomed surprise. They seem to be friends off the court. There’s a ton of history between them, which we will get into. But you just never know what’s for the internet and what’s for real. 

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Josh pulled up first. He was early. He and one of his agency reps sat in the corner of the gym, with windows displaying the amazing manicured lawns outside the gym. It was the first day of March and the sun was reminding us it existed after a long winter. Finely-kept evergreen trees couldn’t block the natural light, so Josh, with his perfect braids and fresh white Ralphie tee, was illuminated. 

He deserves some of the spotlight. He’s the one who does the dirty work for Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau. Deflections, switches, backside call-outs all fall under his list of responsibilities. He also plays a lot of minutes. Like, a lot. As we go to press, he’s averaging 41 minutes a game over his last 22 contests. He even played the entire 48 against the Golden State Warriors on March 18. Hart’s role increased when the Knicks suffered injuries to two of their best players; he was called on to essentially be a 6-4 power forward. He has to get bruised up down low, fly around on rotations, jet back down to the paint and then grab rebounds. Over that same 22-game stretch, he pulled down an average of 11.3 boards a contest, way up from his career average of 6.5. Recently, his rebounding numbers have been major. In a stretch from late February to mid-March, he’s had one game of 18 rebounds and two with 19. And to make those two 19-board moments even more impressive, they were both part of triple-double performances. Triple-doubles are portraits of desire and technique—they require reading the game on a serious level. Hart has had five triple-doubles in his seven-year career. They’ve all happened in this current season. 

Hart’s a serious competitor on the court, which, according to Brunson, is the only time he’s ever serious at all. The two were roommates at Villanova and know each other very, very well. For example, Hart knows that Brunson’s favorite childhood player was Steve Nash. Brunson can counter that knowledge by adding that Mike and Ike is Hart’s favorite candy. Brunson, who was named an All-Star this season, says plainly that besides being about his business in basketball, Hart loves to joke around. There’s no arguing from Hart. In fact, Brunson and Hart only communicate in one way throughout the entire shoot.  

Brunson and DiVincenzo arrived together at the gym in Connecticut. It was starting to get dark when they walked in. No more individual spotlight on Hart. Instead, the three of them were the center of attention. Right from the jump, Brunson and Hart speak to each other through veiled inside jokes and outright insults. Sly smiles followed everything they said. Whenever Hart did or said something ridiculous, Brunson would look around helplessly, praying somebody else noticed the insanity. DiVincenzo, the youngest of the trio, consistently cracked up with laughter no matter what. 

DiVincenzo has had a winding road since making it to the League in 2018. The Bucks picked him 17th overall, but he didn’t get a ton of burn in that first season. To go from the height of winning the 2018 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player to only appearing in 27 games (a nagging heel injury can be blamed, too) is a fall off that would take the heart of most. That speed bump, however, gave us the first look at DiVincenzo’s resiliency. He came back the next season, played 66 games and averaged 9.2 ppg. The following season, he started every game he appeared in and upped his points average yet again. He would have been a huge part of the Bucks’ NBA Finals-winning group if not for an ankle injury that needed to be surgically repaired. 

Still, he has a ring. 

The Bucks traded him to the Kings in February ’22, where he suited up in only 25 games for then-coach Alvin Gentry. His next stop, the Warriors, reminded the NBA of how he plays when healthy. More resiliency. After fighting back from injury, he showed that he can run the 1 or play the 2. The Dubs had him dishing the ball to their Hall of Fame shooting duo. They had him filling the slots on cuts. He was one of the very few guards in the NBA allowed to crash the offensive glass (in this age of otherworldly athleticism and aerial acrobats, most teams prefer to send guys back for transition defense). When given the opportunity, he showed the ability to create his own shot off the bounce. 

He’s doing all of that now for the Knicks. This season, his three ball goes down nearly 40 percent of the time, above the League average. He has four games of more than 30 points this year, too. He had never had a 30-point game in his NBA career before this season. In his last 21 games, he’s going for 20.8 per. Big jump. Big, big jump. 

As most basketball players know, being on the same team as your friends usually increases production. There’s a foundational layer of trust that underlies everything when hooping with the bros. A portion of the stresses that come from playing with strangers get replaced by the fun of running around with your boys. Taking crazy shots or throwing stupid passes are usually followed by choice words from teammates. But sometimes those bad shots or wild passes result in strokes of genius. Genius is more likely to happen with brothers than it is with strangers, when people trust in those choices, when you really know the guy who has something to say after those shots and passes. And defensively, that trust shows up in the form of big rotational swings—a gamble in the passing lane getting covered by that dude who really enjoys Mike and Ike. 

Playing alongside friends is a treat. Winning alongside friends is a special privilege from the basketball heavens. 

These guys won together on the biggest collegiate stage. 

Hart was a junior by the time DiVincenzo and Brunson got to Nova. Though DiVincenzo didn’t play much in that 2015-16 season, Hart and Brunson were two of the Wildcats’ leaders. Along with Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono, they guided the Wildcats to the 2016 national championship. They conquered close games, raced back from big deficits and survived the gauntlet together. Together is the key here. 

It’s a fact that the bonds we as humans form get deepened by stressful environments and heightened situations. When you’re 18-21 years old and the entire nation is watching your every step, giving you all their opinions, placing their hopes on your shoulders, that’s a stressful environment and a heightened situation. 

Then when Hart was playing for the Lakers in 2018, Brunson and DiVincenzo won the natty again. More stressful environments and heightened situations. 

So, of course these guys are actually friends. Their bond began in college, where young minds are shaped and formed without nationally-televised basketball games. Add in the games on TV, the thousands of screaming fans, the legacy of a Hall of Fame coach and that would’ve made for a deeper bond together. Now fast forward a few years and add the layer of Madison Square Garden, the generations-deep Knicks fandom and the pressure of possibly playing in May or June…that’s a lifelong bond. 

The three of them hit the bathroom together to change into their uniforms at our shoot. When they come back to the gym, Brunson’s no longer wearing DiVincenzo’s jersey. But they’re all still laughing. And they continue laughing. Hart is the ringleader. Brunson is the seemingly-innocent-but-actually- devilish instigator. And DiVincenzo uncontrollably laughs at it all. 

None of this happens without Brunson, by the way. He’s the All-Star, he’s the Knicks’ best player. He’s their floor general. He’s their clutch scorer. He’s the heartbeat of the Garden. All the numbers point to this being his best season yet. Those numbers actually become redundant because they all make it clear that he’s an elite player. One number, however, sums it up. Five

He’s fifth in the NBA in scoring, as of this writing. 

Nobody thought that the 33rd overall pick in the 2018 Draft would one day lead the Knicks’ franchise revival, be an All-Star or be near the top of the League in scoring. But the game is easy when playing with friends. 

Especially with friends who love to compete. All three of these guys are physical. They hustle hard. Hart hits the glass, DiVincenzo recovers from injury after injury and Brunson goes down into the land of trees despite his height. They relish the big moments. They love the challenge. It’s obvious they love playing together because they play together

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau spoke about them after a big road win over the Golden State Warriors in March.

“Josh’s role expanded,” Thibs said at his postgame press conference. “Donte’s role expanded. And Jalen just keeps rolling. It’s a team, and that’s what we prioritize. We want guys to sacrifice and put the team first, but there has to be that belief. I think when your best players have that belief, then your entire team ends up having that belief.”

Even when they’re making fun of each other and laughing at each other, they do it together. After about an hour in front of our cameras in that Connecticut gym, they leave, together. 

Portraits by Marcus Stevens.


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