Sometimes it's the road

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

It's not just about the knuckleheads. Some nights, pro sports should be about the good guys, too.

Guys who don't pile up wins or attention, but who wouldn't dream of clowning their way onto SportsCenter, either. Guys who report to work with bodies aching or hearts still broken and honor the game with their effort. For the last few nights, that guy has been Lorenzen Wright.

He finished with nine points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes Tuesday in Minneapolis as Memphis lost 96-80 to the Timberwolves. The seventh pick overall in 1996, he was projected to be a dominating pro. Almost seven seasons later, he's rounded into a solid one, a journeyman in the best sense of the word.

Since landing with his hometown team after stops in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Wright has averaged nearly a double-double all season for the improving Grizzlies. But numbers mattered little to him before, and right now they matter even less. Just going from town to town is hard enough. Two weeks ago, Wright and his wife, Sherra, lost their 11-month-old daughter, Sierra, apparently to sudden infant death syndrome.

He missed seven games tending to his family -- the Wrights have four children between ages 7 and 3 -- and returned to the court Sunday at The Pyramid, where locals remember him as the son of a coach who became a high school hero and college star. He entered the game late in the first quarter to a standing ovation and departed with two minutes left in the fourth to a warm one.

Now, sitting in front of his locker before tip-off in Minnesota, Wright sounded grateful to find another part of his world intact -- even though returning to work meant returning to the road.

''It gets me out of the house, it's something I've been doing forever, and I don't think about anything else. It can feel like this never even happened,'' Wright said, ''for a while.''

Ricky Davis has something he'd like to forget, too, but the only other thing he and Wright have in common is a livelihood.

Davis, a mouthy sort, plays for Cleveland, and the same night Wright stashed his emotions inside a locker just so he could play, Davis let his loose at the end of a rare Cavaliers win over Utah. In a ''look-at-ME!'' moment even knuckleheads eventually regret, Davis tried to finish off his first career triple-double by shooting at the wrong basket, missing and getting the rebound.

Before it could happen, Utah's DeShawn Stevenson wrapped his arms around Davis and was whistled for a foul. Davis made two free throws while the Jazz bench and coach Jerry Sloan, a decidedly old school guy, looked on and fumed.

The move turned out to be not just stupid, but costly. The league pointed out a rule barring players attempting to score an opponent's basket. Then Davis' own team slapped him with a fine. Based on what Sloan said Sunday night, there might still be a price to pay.

''Let him try to get it when the game means something,'' Sloan said. ''I was proud of DeShawn and I would have knocked him down harder. They can put me in jail for saying that.''

That lecture -- respect the game -- was a familiar one in the Wright household.

Herb Wright always told people his kid would make the NBA, but a few things distinguished their player-coach relationship from most. For one, Herb almost always coached women's teams, so Lorenzen played sparingly for his dad; for another, Herb did his coaching from a wheelchair.

The old man played at Ole Miss decades ago, and soon after, as a fledgling pro in Finland who came home to supervise an inner-city gym for the Memphis parks commission during the summers. One afternoon in 1983, Wright kicked a couple of wiseguys out. They promised to return. One of them did and put a bullet in Herb's spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.

Lorenzen was 10 at the time, 27 now, and he can't remember the wheelchair slowing his dad down, ever. Herb took teams from Shelby State (since renamed Southwest Tennessee Community College) to the national women's junior-college tournament in two of his first three seasons there. He also found time to coach his sister, his daughter and his younger son.

But he schooled Lorenzen most of all.

''He told me he was going to dedicate himself to teaching me basketball, to making me the best player I could be,'' the son recalled. ''I knew then there wasn't anything I couldn't handle.''

Up early every morning, Herb made sure the kid put in the time lifting and running. They watched films some nights. Most days, they'd set off around a small lake in opposite directions, Lorenzen running one way and Herb wheeling furiously in the other to see where they'd meet. The coach knew his lectures had taken hold on that rainy morning when the gawky kid turned up at his door first.

''It was still drizzling and he'd been working hard, so I said, 'Let's take a day off.' He said, 'Go ahead, get some sleep. I'll get around by myself.'

''Of course, it didn't hurt,'' Herb added, chuckling, ''that he turned out to be 6-foot-11.''

The father leaves you feeling he would have done anything to spare his son pain. But he knew better. Instead, Herb Wright showed his son the real measure of a man is what happens after it steals one of his dreams.

''I told him, 'You'll remember this always; the only thing that will change is how you deal with it. When things get tough, especially on the court, remember Sierra and dedicate your effort to her.'

''He'll keep going,'' Herb paused one final time, ''because I raised him to know that sometimes that bump in the road is not a bump -- it's the road.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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