A Wright Wronged
Are there lessons to be learned from Lorenzen Wright’s mysterious passing?
Versace was correct in being cautious about bringing a local star home to Memphis. Wright did have his own entourage. But in Lorenzen’s case, his crew may have actually kept him focused, at least during his playing days. Wright’s posse did not come out of the woodwork—he had never lost touch with his closest pals from high school. The entourage even had a name: The Wright Stuff. Guys called Raw Dog, A-1, E Man, and a host of others drew salaries from Wright and performed assorted duties.
As a first order of business, the Wright Stuff helped take care of Ren’s father, Herb Wright. Herb had been a helluva player in his day, and even played overseas for a few years. A respected coach locally, one day Herb asked a rowdy gangbanger to leave his rec center gym. The man did. Then he came back and shot Herb Wright, who has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. He was still a regular courtside when his son was with the Grizzlies, a living symbol of both the Wrights’ endurance and generosity—and the vicious violence Memphis locals live with.
The Wright Stuff also tooled around in an SUV that their boss had purchased for them. But they picked up skills besides driving, too. Raw Dog, for example, became Wright’s chef, personal trainer and occasional human wake-up call. Wright never considered his crew to be a drag, financially or otherwise. “I wanted him [Raw Dog] to share in some of my success,” Wright told Sports Illustrated. “Why wouldn’t you want your friends with you in the good times?”
The high percentage of athletes with an entourage is unique to the NBA. “This kind situation is unintelligible to your average American, whether they’re NBA fans or not,” one former NBA head coach says. “A typical player in our League might grow up with friends who were with him from childhood, lock step. The desire to take care of each other is common. And devotion to your friends is admirable. The problem is that a pro player makes the League because of a skill set and physical attributes, but the friends don’t have either of those. And these guys can drain a player. An NBA player is typically extremely loyal to the people he grew up with, but the trouble is that their friends don’t know how to run what is, in essence, a multi-million dollar business.”
Did the pressure of losing his salary after retirement ratchet up the pressure Wright felt to take care of his boys? Or his children? Nobody who was close to Lorenzen on a personal level is talking.
“But how does any NBA star say no?” asks Tom Penn, who was the assistant GM in Memphis when Wright was at his peak. “How does he say no to parents, family, friends? And if you’re from a fractured family then your friends are just as close, they’re like family.”
It’s also worth noting that while Wright was making about $6 million a year in Memphis, he was closer to $1 million annually by the last couple years of his career. The financial pressure may have already been creeping up on him. Just before Ren went missing, his custom-built, 12,000 square-foot home was foreclosed and repossessed by BankTennessee. Wright had defaulted on their loan.
“Luxury, once experienced, becomes a necessity,” Penn adds.
The NBA Players Association claimed recently that 60 percent of retired players go broke within five years after their careers end. And while an entourage may be a financial liability, there are other landmines.
Divorce—experts recently estimated that over 70 percent of retired players, a stat that included Wright, are divorced—is a drain on bank accounts. Unscrupulous agents or bad business deals can hurt. But players also have the propensity to blow their paycheck on silly things. Sometimes it’s wild spending decisions. Other times it’s poor financial advice or divorce that leads a player to bankruptcy. In many instances, it’s some combination of all of the above.
Penn, who was recently the VP of basketball operations in Portland and now works as a TV analyst, is disturbed by the frequency that NBA players lose everything—although Wright’s case, ending in a mysterious murder, was extreme. “These guys have to pay taxes, give their agent a cut, and still employ their friends? That adds up, but the faucet is going to turn off when a career ends.” Penn points out the similarities of young NBA millionaires and Wall Street hotshots. “It’s a function of maturity,” he says, “more than their inner-city background. A big percentage of guys in, say, the derivatives market, blow their money, too, but that doesn’t make headlines.” Yet, there’s a crucial difference as well, he says: “Wall Street guys can earn their way back later, play it smarter the second time around. But an NBA player will be too old.”
Versace thinks that’s a useful analogy, but he likes this one better: “Many NBA players are actually more like lottery winners than young businessmen. They aren’t trained in how to take care of their own finances. And if they’re making $5 million a year, they spend $5 million a year, instead of planning for the next 50 years when they won’t have that kind of income.”
Was Lorenzen Wright’s killing the culmination of bad money management? Pressure to take care of his entourage and family? Bad luck? Who can say? In any case, Wright’s murder should hang over the franchise like…well, like the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was killed, hangs over Memphis. And while the Grizzlies have taken huge steps forward in the last decade, nobody in Memphis, or around the League, should soon forget Lorenzen Wright.