Mikal Bridges’ homecomings to Philadelphia look a lot different than they did just a few years ago. Philly is still home, but things have changed — for the Phoenix Suns, for the former Villanova star and for his mother, Tyneeha Rivers.

Returning to his hometown on the second night of a back-to-back to close out a four-game road trip, Bridges’ time in the City of Brotherly Love was limited on Tuesday. But he certainly made the most of it, dropping 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting in an impressive win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

“It’s a blessing, man, just to be able to come back here, have my family watching,” he said. “I was happy we got the win, it makes everything way much better. I’m blessed, man. Blessed to be in this position with my family and friends, teammates and everybody.”

Devin Booker’s high-octane battle with Matisse Thybulle took centerstage, but it wasn’t lost on anyone how much Bridges has grown from when he first left home almost four years ago now — even if his teammates enjoy ribbing him about it.

“Is he from here? Man, I told him before the game, if I don’t see no Villanova jerseys in the crowd, I don’t know if you were ever here,” Booker joked. “But nah, I think his first start ever came here in Philadelphia also — what, 3-4 years ago now? We always talk about that moment. I gave him his first assist on his first bucket. I knew he was excited to be back home and be starting, and now we get to see how his game has evolved and his career has evolved in such a short amount of time where he’s a solidified starter for the rest of his career.”

Mikal Bridges’ Phoenix-to-Philly transition

It’s been quite a journey for the No. 10 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. When he was originally picked, it was by his hometown Sixers — the team his mother worked for at the time. Not long after the pick was announced, it was reported that he had been traded to Phoenix, on the other side of the country.

The moment served as an emotional roller coaster for Rivers and the rest of Bridges’ family, who had been able to watch him play throughout high school and in college. Though Bridges was raised in the suburbs, his mother grew up in the city, and there was an extra layer to the prospect of being able to watch her son play for the NBA team that she and her father grew up watching games of together.

“One, there’s just an immense amount of me just being proud of Mikal just for being able to be there,” Rivers recalled. “And then to hear that he’s the overall No. 10 pick of the draft, it was just even hard to articulate and put into words how proud and excited I was at the same time. And then another layer, and that is like, ‘Oh, my goodness, when I just walk outside of my building, he’s gonna be right here practicing! And playing in my hometown, where I grew up!'”

It wasn’t meant to be. Bridges was traded to a Suns team that had won 21 games the season before. Teaming up with Booker and No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton served as a promising future for basketball in the Valley, but it would take some time to come to fruition.

Rivers said her son has never been a complainer, but the transition was still hard for them both.

“It was extremely challenging,” she said. “Underlined, bold, it was very hard, because I’m used to seeing him all the time and went to every last single one of Villanova’s home games, and went to a lot of the road games as well. So not being able to physically see him play basketball in person, and then having to not just spend as much time as I did with my son, that was just hard. I’m not gonna lie.”

Compounding the issue was Rivers’ fear of flying at the time. That problem has since alleviated, but it made routine FaceTime calls essential as Bridges adjusted to living in a new city.

“You just forget, like I went to college and I was close to home, and I got a lot of friends that went to college and they were used to it because they probably went somewhere far,” Bridges said. “But I just wasn’t used to it in the beginning, for sure. It was tough, but my mom always coming to visit and stuff like that kind of made it easier.”

On top of the simple adjustment of living in a new place, Bridges also had to adjust on the court — not just to the speed, physicality and talent of the NBA, but to going from winning to losing.

During his four years at Villanova, Bridges won two NCAA championships and his team posted a combined 126-16 record. The Wildcats never lost more than five games in a season.

During his rookie year in Phoenix, the Suns lost five games within their first six contests. They hit 16 losses at the 20-game mark, and they went on to win just 19 games total.

“When we talk now, I know it was such a hard transition for him, because, one, he had that mindset of winning,” Rivers explained. “He won a lot of games when he was in high school, and then he went to Villanova and they won two national championships and they were used to winning. I remember that first season, I think they just won a couple games, so it was definitely a shift and it was hard.”

The rise through the grind

As difficult as the transition was both on and off the court, things started to fall into place in his second season. The Suns entered the NBA bubble 15 games under .500, but they went 8-0 in Orlando, narrowly missing the play-in game.

Ever since then, Phoenix has been an absolute powerhouse, with Bridges serving as a staple in the starting lineup. The Suns fell short of their ultimate goal in the Finals last year, but much like that first year, Rivers believes in dealing with adversity the right way.

“He’s definitely endured some tough times, but like I tell Mikal, it’s that grit that makes you stronger, and it’s what makes Mikal now on the list of being a Defensive Player of the Year,” she said. “It’s that scrappiness and that mental toughness that he had to develop that has shaped him to be the player that he is today.”

When someone like Tyneeha Rivers says that, you’d be wise to listen. As a single mother who was pregnant with Mikal at a young age, she has plenty of experience in taking life’s curveballs and zinging them right back.

For 10 years, Rivers juggled her job, raising her son and taking one night class at a time to earn her degree. In addition to the challenges of climbing the corporate ladder as a Black woman, her nights consisted of coming home from work, helping Bridges with his homework, cleaning the house and putting her son to bed.

She normally didn’t start her own homework until all that was done around 11 p.m., which mean she’d be up until 3 in the morning. By 7 a.m., it was time to get back up and do it all over again.

“At the end of the day, I had to grow up really fast,” she said. “For me to be pregnant at 19 — I was a really good student, I got that drive, and I would say the fuel to kind of use towards pushing myself towards success was I did not want to fail. I did not want to fail as a person because I had my own goals to accomplish, and I wanted to be successful in my own right. I wanted to be great at what I did personally and accomplish my own personal goals.

“But what really pushed me was that little guy, when I get to see bringing a life into this world. I wanted to show my son that, even though I had him at a young age, anything is possible. Because of course I had a lot of naysayers, I was a teenage mom. So I didn’t want to just be another statistic of people thinking that my life was over, and that I was not capable. So I wanted to kind of use that as my fuel, to say, ‘Well, not only am I going to be successful, but my son is going to be successful. He’s going to be able to accomplish his goals as well.’ So I think Mikal was able to see, ‘Oh, wow, my mom has that grit. My mom is pretty scrappy.'”

Mikal Bridges is the household name thanks to his NBA status, but Rivers has made an incredible career for herself in human resources, striving to implement diversity initiatives wherever she’s gone. Currently serving as the Chief People and Culture Officer for Curio Wellness, Rivers recalled how she used to get turned down for job interviews because her name “sounded too ethnic.” She has since made it a point of emphasis to hire more people of color, more women, more people from the LGTBQ+ community and more people over the age of 40.

“I would say to you that being a woman of color, and starting off my career at those Fortune 500 companies, I didn’t see a lot of people like me in high positions,” she said. “I didn’t see a lot of people like me in the organization at all. So it was super important to me that, as a C-Suite seasoned executive, and me having the opportunity to really help drive diversity and inclusion in my organizations, that I was gonna be very passionate about ensuring that there was more diversity and inclusion in organizations.”

Bridges has often cited his mother as the source and inspiration for his work ethic, and once he got to Villanova and coach Jay Wright challenged him to be frugal with his monthly allowance, his mother’s hard work fully sunk in.

“I think I always knew, but when I got to college, I really understood it,” he said.

A coach’s influence

Of course, it wasn’t just his mother’s influence that provided Bridges with an example to look up to. Rivers called it a blessing for her son to go from a respected college coach like Jay Wright to a leader of men like Monty Williams, who arrived in Phoenix for Bridges’ second NBA season.

“I have an incredible amount of respect for Jay Wright, who is one of the great coaches that anyone can ever have,” she said. “So to go from having such a great coach like Jay Wright, to now have another amazing coach in his life, it’s a bonus! You don’t always get that in your career, to have an opportunity to be coached by amazing coaches.”

For his part, Wright knew Bridges was special from his redshirt season. In an interview with PHNX’s Greg Esposito, he recalled how a 175-pound kid would go toe-to-toe with teammate Josh Hart. Wright said no one could really guard Hart in practice…with the exception of Mikal Bridges. Whenever he’d get a block or a steal on the Villanova star, Hart would clobber him with a hard foul that would’ve gotten him thrown out if it were a game.

But Wright says Bridges would simply get back up, dust himself off and keep playing. So it was no surprise when he went on to become one of the winningest players the program had ever seen.

“You can look at all the great players we’ve had here, but you look at the winning percentage since he played, and he played with great players, but I don’t know if there’s anyone that did more for winning and probably got less credit,” Wright said. “But he doesn’t care. He just loves to win.”

As for Williams, both Rivers and her son have credited him with being an important part of Bridges’ life, both on and off the court. Having a leader like that has made the transition a lot easier to handle.

“As a mother, I step back and I’m just incredibly blessed, and my son is incredibly blessed to be able to have such a great coach and to be developed by Monty,” Rivers said. “And not just him being an excellent coach in terms of X’s and O’s and winning games, but he’s a good person. And that is what I think sets him apart, for me, as being amazing, because I care about the person just as much as how great he is at winning games. He is someone to look up to, and I’m just elated that he’s part of Mikal’s journey.”

Williams, who worked for the Sixers back in 2018 and remembers that fateful draft-night trade well, said those comments were humbling for him, since he and everyone in the organization knew about Bridges’ mother and her incredible work ethic.

“I had heard a lot about her and how she parented Mikal, and I think as the league has gotten younger, it’s part of the job, I think, to try to be there for the guys,” Williams said. “Not preach to ’em or parent them in a way that they’ve been parented, that’s not my job, but if I can be of assistance in any way, I think our guys know I’m there for ’em. And Mikal’s easy. I text coach Wright a lot about Mikal, just because he and I have had a relationship, but for what we’ve done with him, a big part of that is his mother. I mean, she’s no nonsense, you can tell that Mikal came from some good stuff. She’s a lot like my mom.”

Enjoying success

Of course, winning and having a sense of humor help make any transition easier. The Suns are currently a league-best 44-10, with the NBA’s second-best point differential. They’re also the only team to rank in the top five for both offensive and defensive rating.

Coming off a Finals loss, this team is deadly serious about returning to basketball’s biggest stage and getting over the hump this time, but at the same time, they’re a group of fun-loving guys who enjoy goofing around with each other. Often at the center of that is the team jokester, Mikal Bridges.

Rivers recounted how often her son makes her laugh through their text exchanges. With the Suns in Washington D.C. last Saturday, his mother arrived late to the game. Bridges had been looking for her in the stands before he eventually found her. When Bridges told his grandmother that mom had shown up late, she called Rivers and gave her grief about needing to do a better job of showing up on time for her grandson’s games.

Rivers sent Mikal a picture of a giant rat for ratting her out to grandmom, which Bridges responded with: “Aaaahh??”

“He’s always been a jokester, Mikal is just so funny,” she said.” But I think that’s part of his personality too is that Mikal’s just a good person, and he’s also funny. I think people just get a kick of being around him. I know there’s other players too that are very much like him on the team, the way they joke and it just adds to the layer of his personality, who he is, and just being able to laugh, even through some tough times.”

In addition to her sense of humor, Bridges also got his long arms from his mother, which Mikal says she used to beat him up in tennis all the time when he was younger. Rivers laments those arms as the reason she’s probably still single, but she can only be too upset about it.

“I don’t complain, because look where it’s gotten me, I was able to transfer those arms to Mikal, but I do get teased because I have such long arms!” she said. “Jay Wright had talked about it before, and then that’s where I think the cat got out of the bag where, ‘Oh my goodness, Tyneeha has these super long arms.’ But look, it helps Mikal every night out there on the court. Doesn’t really do much for me, besides I can’t buy fine coats and long-sleeve shirts to fit my arms, but at least I was able to pass it down and it went a long way for my son!”

Mikal Bridges’ odyssey comes full-circle

Those long arms are certainly translating to success on the court. Bridges is not only a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a lock for an All-Defensive team selection, but his burgeoning offensive game has him flirting with “legitimate third option” territory.

Over the last seven games, Bridges has scored 20+ in four of them, averaging 20.7 points per game on 60.9 percent shooting. He used to return home to Philly as an NBA youngster who missed home and wasn’t playing big minutes for a losing team. Now, his odyssey has come full circle, showcasing him as an essential two-way piece on a certified title contender.

As time has gone on and Bridges has gotten more comfortable in Phoenix, his family has adjusted their traditions accordingly. For Christmas, Rivers and some family came out to Arizona since the Suns were playing on Christmas Day for the first time since 2009.

“I feel like now most of our traditions are starting to be made in Phoenix, as opposed to here,” Rivers said. “It’s just so funny because he’s just so busy. And it’s just uncommon, even when he’s here, he’s training. So sometimes in the summer, it’s more realistic when he can actually come here and help. We spent some time at Villanova, and we may do something when he comes back, like go to dinner, but those moments are starting to be few and far between because Mikal has been so hyper-focused on just training outside of the season.”

As difficult as that may be at times, it’s gotten a lot easier now that her son is thriving on and off the court in Phoenix. The emotional upheaval of watching her son get traded from the hometown team she worked for has given way to an appreciation for the path Mikal Bridges has taken in the pros.

“When I look at it now in hindsight of looking ahead four years, like, this is his fourth season, it was the best thing that could have happened for him,” she said. “He went to the Finals last year! And being coached by such an amazing coach, coach Monty is amazing, and he’s just been such — in terms of his overall coaching skills, and the Suns developing Mikal, it was the best thing that could have happened for Mikal.

“Sometimes you can’t see blessings right away, because you kind of just are so hyper-focused on the things that you want. Just seeing all that he’s accomplished, and you see he’s playing better each game — like, all of that would not have happened if he wasn’t under coach Monty and his coaching staff and all that they’ve done for Mikal. So I’m happy that he’s there and proud of many more years to come in Phoenix.”

Author

Gerald Bourguet serves as PHNX's reporter, writing savant and podcast co-host for all things Phoenix Suns. He's been a basketball fan since the day he could say "Michael Jordan," graduated from the Walter Cronkite School at ASU in 2013 with a BA and MA in sports journalism and has been covering the NBA ever since. As a credentialed media member since 2015, Gerald dealt with his Suns-related depression through his writing...until the Bubble Suns changed everything. Now, the Artist Formerly Known as Zewio is just as excited to cover winning basketball as Suns fans are to enjoy watching it.

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