NBA: Man-child Wright had talent but wasted it

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Never in Utah Jazz history has a player picked so high in the NBA Draft accomplished so little on the court.

Even today, 15 years after the Jazz took Seton Hall center Luther Wright with the 18th pick in the first round, merely mentioning his name elicits a sad and nearly identical response from those who coached him and played alongside him.

They weakly smile.

They look away, either at the ceiling or at the floor.

They shake their heads.

Finally, they talk hesitantly of imposing size, wasted ability, unfulfilled promise and a basketball career that ended nearly as soon as it began.

"He had terrific ability and he's a huge man - just a very big guy," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "You look at him and his athletic ability and say, 'He should play.' But then all the other problems showed up when he got here and it was impossible for him to play - or know how to play."

After the Jazz drafted Wright, assistant coach Phil Johnson spent the summer working with Utah's new man-child, trying to get him ready for an ill-fated rookie season.

Almost immediately, Johnson suspected trouble: "He was a big man, but really he was just a young kid who hadn't had the development necessary to become an adult. He was so immature - like this little kid stuck inside this huge man's body."

Johnson sensed another problem - one beyond a lack of maturity.

"Luther didn't have a very good support group around him," he said. ". . . He just didn't have people around him who were going to help. So he had a couple of strikes against him right off the bat."

When the Jazz's veteran players assembled for training camp, they saw the same thing in their first-round draft pick.

"The first thing you noticed, as a player, was his talent," said former teammate Tyrone Corbin, who is now a Jazz assistant. "He was a very talented kid. He had really good hands and he could run the floor well for his size. But I remember he took a little longer than most guys to pick up the plays, and his attention span was very short. He'd say and do some things that were a little weird. But we, as players, didn't know his background. I don't think anybody did."

Attempts to contact Wright for this story were unsuccessful.

He grew up in New Jersey and, more because of his size than passion, became a basketball star at Elizabeth High School. Scores of colleges recruited him, but Wright stayed close to home and enrolled at Seton Hall.

After taking a year off to become eligible, Wright played two hot-and-cold seasons for coach P.J. Carlesimo. After his sophomore year, he declared for the 1993 NBA Draft.

In Utah, the Jazz owned the No. 18 pick. Because Wright was a projected lottery pick in a weak draft, team officials watched him on tape but did not bring him in for a workout or interview.

On the night of the draft, however, Wright started to slide. When it became apparent he might be available, the Jazz started calling those who knew Wright to inquire about him.

"It was one of those cases when a big man suddenly came down the line and we really didn't know much about him," Johnson said. "So we went by what others told us and we kind of got misled. . . . I will tell you this. My only experience with him before the draft was watching him on tape against North Carolina. And he had played really well."

The Jazz needed Wright, or someone like him.

Coming off a 47-win season - their worst in a 13-year window that began in 1988-89 - they sought a replacement for center Mark Eaton, who had been forced to retire because of a back injury.

But Wright was not the answer.

He never got into shape and, in a long-ago interview, admitted to being a regular marijuana user while in Utah. He ended up playing in small parts of 15 games before hitting rock bottom.

In January at Houston, Wright skipped a portion of pregame warm-ups to do a solo on a set of drums belonging to a band located at courtside. Earlier in the day, Wright had gone to a local pet store and bought a puppy, which he smuggled aboard the team bus for the flight home.

"Man," said Corbin. "When we saw the puppy, everybody just kind of looked at each other. Nobody knew what to do because that had never happened before."

At 4 a.m. the next day, police found Wright at a rest stop along Interstate 80 west of Salt Lake. He was banging on garbage cans and smashing windshields with a 5-foot stick. Wright was taken to a psychiatric hospital where, after a two-month stay, he was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.

Before the 1994-95 season, the Jazz waived Wright and bought out his contract by agreeing to convert the rest of his original five-year, $5 million contract into an annuity that will continue to pay him $158,000 annually for another 10 years.

Until recently, the apparent financial security did not help Wright's situation. He spent years battling substance abuse and bipolar disease while those close to him spent his money. Wright is also supporting four children, according to the Newark-Star Ledger.

In the same story, however, Wright says his membership in the Morning Star Community Christian Center in Linden, N.J., has put him on a productive path. As recently as last month, he spoke to a group of 500 middle schoolers about the perils of substance abuse at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'Man, I heard you was dead,' " Wright told the Star-Ledger.

It's certainly not the life Wright and the Jazz envisioned in 1993.

But at least he is alive.

Luther Wright file

Birthdate: Sept. 22, 1971

Hometown: Jersey City, N.J.

College: Seton Hall

Height: 7-foot-2

Weight: 270

Position: Center

Career highlights: Attended Elizabeth (N.J.) High School. . . . Scored 28 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the state's Tournament of Champions title game. . . . Signed with Seton Hall. . . . Sat out a year to get grades that satisfied NCAA standards. . . . Averaged 4.8 points and 2.8 rebounds as a freshman. . . . Averaged nine points and 7.5 rebounds in 23 minutes a game as a sophomore. . . . Declared for the 1993 NBA Draft. . . . Taken by the Jazz with the 18th pick in the first round. . . . In his only professional season, played 92 minutes in 15 games. . . . Totaled 19 points and 10 rebounds. . . . Waived by the Jazz on Nov. 3, 1994.