by Rus Bradburd
Heading into the ’10-11 NBA season, no city was in need of lift more than Memphis. Among the poorest big cities in America, Memphis suffers from a 26 percent poverty rate, a high school graduation rate of about 33 percent and staggering unemployment. To make matters worse, their Grizzlies hadn’t made the NBA Playoffs since Jerry West left the front office.
Many months later, Memphis still struggles as a city, but on the court there was an astonishing turnaround: This year’s squad was a version that Memphians, rich and poor, could get behind. Their rugged, blue-collar blend of overachievers and castoffs was the surprise of this year’s Playoffs. Knee deep in Mississippi mud from floodwaters—and hardly anyone has flood insurance in Memphis—the team had the best run in franchise history, upsetting top-seeded San Antonio in the first round. It takes a lot to get people there excited, but the second round got Beale Street rocking and rolling again and kept Memphis on the national stage.
The Grizzlies’ post-season run was almost enough to help locals forget their recent troubles, if not the stain from being known as the place where Martin Luther King Jr was murdered over 30 years ago. (It should be noted that there were plenty of towns in America in 1968 where King could have been assassinated. In Chicago, for instance, the Neanderthals tried to kill him the old fashioned way, with rocks and bricks. Also worth noting about Memphis is its National Civil Rights Museum, which has been an inspiring winner since its creation.)
But even in the afterglow of the franchise’s record-setting season, something should still keep Grizzlies fans from hibernating peacefully all summer in the mid-south humidity. After all the backslapping and celebrating, after the bonus checks have been cashed, after the party ends and everyone goes home, who will weep for Lorenzen Wright?
Wright was murdered in July of 2010, and it’s indicative of how perplexing the case remains that nobody knows for certain the exact date or time of his death.
To understand what may have happened to Wright—and why other NBA players should take note—you have to examine his entire life. His upbringing was not atypical for a southern kid, beginning with his childhood exodus north.
Wright was raised as a boy in Mississippi, but he moved north to Memphis for high school and college ball. As a 6-11 senior at the University of Memphis, he played well enough to be the seventh player chosen in the ’96 NBA Draft. After three solid years with the L.A. Clippers, Wright joined Atlanta in ’99 and became a force, starting over 40 games his second season with the team.
In ’01, Dick Versace, then the Grizzlies president, began piecing together Memphis’ first Playoff team in an odd manner: He traded away Shareef Abdur-Rahim, his team’s best player. The move raised eyebrows around the League, especially when Abdur-Rahim made the NBA All-Star team the next season. In retrospect it was the right decision for the Grizzlies: They acquired Wright, along with Brevin Knight and Pau Gasol.
At first, Versace was hesitant to trade for Ren because of a common theory among NBA bosses: having a hometown player on the team invites a peculiar kind of trouble. The constant need for comp tickets, the social pressure and demands, and the entourage of high school homeboys are all enormous distractions. It wasn’t the stats (12.4 ppg and 7.5 rebounds his final year) that finally sold Versace on the move. Rather it was something less tangible but equally as important.
“Lorenzen had a terrific reputation as a consummate pro,” Versace says today. “Everyone loved him.” That includes Hubie Brown, a usually no-nonsense coach who thought so much of Wright that he allowed him to bring his kids to practice, a big no-no for everyone else.
In the midst of his third season on Memphis, in March of ’03, the unthinkable happened to one of Wright’s precious children: Sierra Simone Wright, Lorenzen’s baby daughter, died in her crib before her first birthday. Obviously devastated, Wright’s grace in the face of tragedy was remarkable. The memorial service was at Wright’s home, and he spoke with tremendous power and dignity. “It was the single saddest thing I’ve ever witnessed,” Versace recalls. “Everyone was weeping, but Lorenzen still kept his composure and gave a great eulogy.”
The passing of Sierra seemed to intensify her father’s focus. With six other kids to think about, that very summer he returned to the University of Memphis to complete his degree requirements. Then, within a year of his daughter’s death, the Grizzlies qualified for their first-ever post-season play. Over the next few years, Wright seemed to max out his ability, helping the Grizzlies to two more Playoff appearances.
“Lorenzen was a lunch-pail guy, and he became the face of the team,” says Tony Barone, who was a Grizzlies assistant coach at the time. “He never got enough credit, but he was the key to Pau Gasol’s development because it was Lorenzen who matched up with the physical centers, and that freed Gasol to blossom in his unique way.”
Still, the death of his daughter must have put an incredible strain on Wright’s personal life. He and his wife Sherra began going through divorce proceedings later that year.
In ’06, Wright was traded back to Atlanta, and a decade of NBA wear and tear began to take away from his powerful presence in the middle. His last three years in the League he played just 10 minutes a game. Wright finished up with Cleveland in ’09, averaging less than 2 ppg.
On July 18 of last year, a 911 operator in Memphis took an emergency call from Wright’s cell phone. Was it Wright calling? One of his killers? Nobody knows, but what we do know is that gunshots could be heard in the background.
Ten days later, Wright’s body was discovered in a remote area south of Memphis. According to documents obtained by the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, Wright’s ex-wife told Collierville police that he had left their home the night he disappeared with a box of drugs and lump of cash. Wright was 34 years old.