Thursday, July 29, 2010
Lorenzen Wright Played With Passion, Brought Honor To Whatever Uniform He Wore
By Ron Higgins
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Originally published 06:30 p.m., July 28, 2010
Updated 11:27 p.m., July 28, 2010
It was one of the greatest days of Memphis native Lorenzen Wright's life and he didn't have to score a basket.
On the last day of June 2001, just two days after the NBA approved the move of the Grizzlies to Memphis from Vancouver, the franchise threw a party at Peabody Place.
When it came time to model the Grizzlies' new uniform, the player chosen was Wright, the newly acquired center and former University of Memphis star.
He couldn't stop smiling.
"When I was handed that jersey, it was like I felt when I was a kid and I got my very first jersey," Wright said that day. "I felt like I was starting over again."
Wright, who according to a law enforcement source was found dead Wednesday afternoon in southeast Memphis after he had been missing since July 19, consistently brought honor to whatever jersey he was wearing.
In his five seasons with the Grizzlies from 2001 to 2006, or at the University of Memphis from 1994 to 1996, or previously at Booker T. Washington High, few played with such passion and fire on a nightly basis as Wright.
"Lorenzen never backed down from any challenge given him, whether it was guarding (Shaquille O'Neal) or anyone else," Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley said by phone from London shortly after learning of Wright's death. "He was a team player, a great locker room guy. There was never an instance that I talked to him when he wasn't positive.
"I am heartbroken. I'm sure there are a lot of people in Memphis who are very, very sad. He was a good man who had his share of tough times, and I've got to believe he's in a better place."
The news stunned Wright's friends far and near. Former Tigers players Penny Hardaway and Elliot Perry went to the scene in southeast Memphis, near Hacks Cross and Winchester.
"When I got the news (Wednesday), I broke down, because Lorenzen was like a little brother to me," Hardaway said. "Lorenzen was one of the guys in this city that everybody cared about.
"When you're a UofM player, the city rallies around you and wherever you play in the NBA they follow your team. Fans loved Lorenzen, because he attacked the game every single night. He knew that's what he had to do."
Wright, 34, was taught to play that way by his father, Herb, a vicious college rebounder who later was left paralyzed by a gunshot wound. Being confined to a wheelchair didn't stop Herb, a former women's coach at Southwest Tennessee Community College, from making his son bigger and tougher than Dad.
"Playing games in a season is nothing compared to training with my dad in the off-season," Wright once said. "I never think that anything is harder than running around a lake or running through sand dunes in the summer. But it's that intensity, that focus that helped me."
Hardaway said he first saw Wright when he was "this skinny, but really aggressive high school kid."
Fred Horton, a close friend of Wright's father, coached Lorenzen for one year when he was a senior at Booker T. Washington.
"Lorenzen played for me one year, but it was like he played four," Horton said. "He was very competitive and was a tough guy on the court. But he wasn't a tough guy off the court. He was friendly to everybody he met."
That's why Wright was very much one of the original faces of the Grizzlies as they made the move from Vancouver.
"When I heard the Grizzlies were coming to Memphis, I was just happy with the fact I'd get to come home to Memphis with the Hawks and play here twice a year," said Wright moments after learning he'd been traded by Atlanta to the Grizzlies. "Now, I get a chance to have my cake and eat it, too."
Wright's engaging smile — which made him approachable by autograph-seeking youngsters and a reason he was in some of the original Grizzlies' TV season-ticket commercials — was replaced with a scowl when he stepped on the court.
"When Lorenzen has that swagger and he's woofin', we have an inside presence," former Griz forward Shane Battier once said.
Wright had plenty of highs and lows as a Grizzly, such as hitting his first game-winning shot in the NBA in 2004 and the trauma of his 11-month-old daughter, Sierra, dying suddenly of natural causes in 2003.
Through it all, Wright's Grizzlies' teammates knew how much he loved his hometown, as did Nashville-based sports agent Brian Parker, Wright's friend for 20 years after they met as AAU summer league teammates.
"Lorenzen was a great ambassador for the city of Memphis, and he touched a lot of lives," Parker said.
Wright, for example, coached and funded a Youth of Memphis Competitors Association AAU team for several summers, even after the Grizzlies didn't re-sign him and he returned to play a second time for the Hawks.
Wright's loss was felt throughout the NBA, especially in cities where he played, such as Atlanta. Wright sandwiched two stints with the Hawks — 1999-2001 and 2006-08 — around his time with the Grizzlies.
"This is like a punch in the stomach," said Arthur Triche, the Hawks' longtime vice president of public relations. "Lorenzen wasn't just a banger on the court, but he was a guy who kept our locker room loose. ... Lorenzen was really great at helping our younger players, like Josh Smith, adjust to the NBA."
Wright last played in the league in 2008-09 with Cleveland.
Several years ago when Wright was asked what he'd be doing if he wasn't in the NBA, he replied, "I'd be coaching, like my Dad. I watched him. I learned from him.
"I really like the idea of coaching kids. It's something I'd want to do after I retire."
— Ron Higgins: 901-529-2525
© 2010 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online
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