Herb Wright sensed something was amiss when he arrived at work one day 13 years ago.
Wright, the director at a recreation center in Memphis, Tenn., threw out three men who were disrupting a basketball game.
But they returned and shot Wright in the back.
“I learned later that one of the guys had just gotten out of prison,” Wright said.
Memphis basketball Coach Larry Finch, a lifelong friend, was among the first to arrive at the hospital.
“He was in a coma for five days,” Finch said. “When he came to, I was the first person he saw and he told me he was going to walk.”
The bullet severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him. Wright, who played professional basketball in Finland, has been confined to a wheelchair.
But that hasn’t stopped him.
“I just felt like there was more than one way to make a journey through life, and I’ve got to make the best of it,” Wright said.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m alive, and I’m not going to let this get me down. I’ve got a wife and kids, and I’m going to dedicate my life to helping them and making something positive happen out of this situation.”’
Herb Wright’s determination has rubbed off on his son, Lorenzen, the Clippers’ top pick in Wednesday’s NBA draft.
A 6-foot-11 center from Memphis, Lorenzen Wright was the seventh player drafted.
“I saw him a lot and really admired his work ethic in practice,” said Jeff Weltman, the Clippers’ director of scouting. “Even when they were in drills he pushed himself at maximum speed, which is a difficult thing to do. He seemed to rally the rest of the kids around him. He didn’t slack when he knew you weren’t watching him.”
After living with his mother, Debra Archie, in Oxford, Miss., Lorenzen Wright moved to Memphis to live with his father before his senior year of high school.
They worked out every day, rising to run six miles around a lake. Herb would wheel the one-mile laps in the opposite direction from his son.
“In a wheelchair, you got two wheels,” Herb Wright said. “One is one leg, one is the other. I put the lock on a wheel and say, ‘This is my pivot foot here.’ I can teach him a jump hook. I can position his body where it needs to be.
“Being in a wheelchair is a good way to learn how to shoot a basketball because you don’t use the legs and you’ve got to have correct form.”
The hard work paid off. Lorenzen was named Tennessee prep player of the year by USA Today after averaging 27 points and 18 rebounds at Booker T. Washington High and earned a scholarship to Memphis.
“My dad has been an inspiration to me,” Lorenzen said. “When I was running and couldn’t run any more, I’d say to myself, ‘If my dad could get out here and run, he’d still be running.’ ”
After averaging 14.8 points and 10.1 rebounds as a freshman, Wright averaged 17.4 points and 10.4 rebounds last season.
Nicknamed “the Howl” because he yells after dunks and blocked shots, Wright plays with emotion.
“Whenever I dunk or block a shot I show my intensity by hollering,” Wright said.
The first underclassman to declare for the NBA draft, Wright is the third Memphis player to be drafted in the first round in the last four seasons.
“I had my mind set from the beginning that I wanted to come out and improve my game in the NBA,” Wright said. “I think I was ready to come out of college. I’ve seen guys get hurt and not be able to play again, and I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
After playing in pickup games with Orlando Magic guard Penny Hardaway, a former Memphis star, and Boston Celtic swingman Todd Day, a Memphis native, Wright felt he could play in the NBA.
“Penny and Todd Day come back every summer and we go at it,” Wright said. “We try to improve our skills, and I think that’s helped me out a lot.
“I talked to Penny a couple of times before I decided to come out and he told me if that’s what I want to do, I’ve got to have my mind made up that I’m ready to play in the NBA and take on the challenge, and I think I am.”
And his father will be there.
“My dad would usually sit at the end of the court, and when I was shooting free throws I’d look over to him and when I was on the bench he’d be like, ‘You need six more rebounds,’ ” Lorenzen said.
The women’s basketball coach at Shelby State Community College for the last 12 seasons, Herb Wright has led his team to three appearances in the national tournament.
“The thing most people don’t understand is basketball is basketball,” Wright said. “I teach the ladies the same way I would teach the men.”
However, he may move to Los Angeles to help his son make the transition to the NBA if he can find a part-time high school or junior college coaching job.
“I’ve been there for him before, and I went to be there for him now,” Herb Wright said.
A track star at Melrose High in Memphis, Herb Wright, 45, concentrated on basketball at Shelby State. Although he was only 6-5, he was the nation’s leading junior college rebounder in 1974, averaging 23 per game.
After two seasons at the University of Mississippi, he had a tryout with the New Orleans Jazz in 1976, coached by Elgin Baylor, now the Clipper general manager.
“He was a great player and a great guy,” Baylor said of the elder Wright. “He was a different type of player than his son, but they’re both great players.”
After being cut by the Jazz, he played eight seasons in Finland.
“I learned the finer points of the game in Europe and that’s what I’m trying to pass on to my son,” Wright said.
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Profile Name: Lorenzen Wright Age: 20 Position: C Height: 6-11 Weight: 225 School: Memphis NUMBERS
YR Pts Reb Ast Fr. 14.8 10.1 1.5 Sr. 17.4 10.4 1.2