The summer of 1983 was reaching its twilight, and soon Herb
Wright would be heading back to Finland, where he was to begin
his eighth season playing basketball for a first-division club.
Herb had spent the off-season home in Memphis, as he always did,
with his son Lorenzen, then seven, who lived the rest of the
year in Mississippi with his mother, Deborah Marion. That
summer, Herb was working as a supervisor for the gym at
At around 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 13--the last day of the summer
program, as it happened--two young men, one 19, the other 24,
came in to play some hoops. Herb's 16-year-old sister, Gail, and
one of her high school teammates were also in the gym. The boys
challenged the girls to a game. And the boys lost. Soon there
was an argument, and Herb told the two boys to leave the gym.
They did, only to return later with a sawed-off shotgun and a
Three shots were fired. A bullet lodged in Wright's lower back.
His body shook as if he had just swallowed a jackhammer, and
there was no feeling in his legs. When he woke up in the
hospital, after drifting in and out of consciousness, the first
person he recalls seeing was his best friend, Larry Finch, who
is now the coach at the University of Memphis.
It seemed at first glance to be the senseless end of a
journeyman's career in basketball, but in fact it was the
beginning of a different story. For while Herb could never again
set foot on a basketball court, his son is now a star at
Memphis, playing for his father's old friend.
It would be inaccurate to say that Herb Wright is "confined" to
a wheelchair. "He can take an engine out of a car and rebuild
it," says Lorenzen. "We've built fences, ramps for him, a porch
outside the house, laid pipe in the ground, built a sauna." Herb
is also the head women's basketball coach at Shelby State
"He was still the same person after the shooting," Lorenzen
continues. "He carried on just like before, so I didn't let it
bother me." Only now father and son had more time to spend
together. Soon the son was imitating his father's old training
routine. He would rise at 6 a.m. to run six miles, tracing the
same path his father once ran. He would lift weights, shoot at
the Shelby gym, then play in his summer league. All the while
the father taught the son everything he knew, and he taught him
about hard work. "I don't have an off-season," Lorenzen says. "I
don't like to think that somebody else is playing and I'm not."
Over time, what had started out as a family tragedy began to
have some unexpected dividends. "If he hadn't gotten hurt, he
wouldn't have had all this time to teach me how to play," says
the son, his soft voice growing quiet. "Maybe things happen for
During Memphis's games, Finch, who is like an uncle to Lorenzen,
sits on the bench; Wright's other coach, his father, sits
courtside, below one of the baskets. "Every home game," says
Herb. "Didn't miss a one."
Father and son communicate constantly during a game, sometimes
only mouthing words or making hand signals. "I can read his
lips," says Lorenzen. "He'll watch a shot go up and he'll say,
'Go now,' as in 'Go now for the rebound.'" The day after most
games, Lorenzen heads to his father's house, where they pore
over the game tape. Look, if you got the rebound there, that
would be two points. There's a rebound there. Two more points.
Look at all the points you could have had! Says the father,
"Nobody is down his throat like I am."
The results speak for themselves. "Nobody dreamed Lorenzen would
have the season that he did as a freshman last year," says
Finch. Wright, who averaged 14.8 points and 10.2 rebounds, was
among the Great Midwest Conference leaders in scoring,
rebounding, field goal percentage and blocks. The Tigers won
their first Great Midwest title and made it to the Sweet 16 of
the NCAA tournament.
"Lorenzen holds the key to how good we can be this season," says
Finch, whose team will be competing in the new Conference USA.
"For us to win, he has to step up offensively. Last season he
was like a stock market--up and down. As soon as he puts the
little things together, he'll be so good it ain't gonna be fair."
Herb can be tough on his son in practice, but the two are good
friends, constantly jawing at each other as if they were
teammates having a one-upmanship contest. Herb, now 43, will
remind his son that he "rewrote the record books in Finland."
Lorenzen shoots back: "Those are sorry records. You played
against a bunch of short guys who came to your waist."
There is talk around campus that Wright will go pro after this
season. "Once he signs an NBA contract, he will have outdone
me," says Herb.
So will he go pro this year? "It's like a pie in the oven," Herb
says. "You just got to keep checking on it to know when it's
The NBA will be just deserts for both father and son. "He
didn't get to play in the NBA, but he has shown me the way to
get there," says Lorenzen. "I'm lucky. When guys look at all my
father has done for me, they say, 'I wish I had that.'"
If there is any regret, it is this: "I never did get to see my
father play," says the son. But in a way, he has. Every time the
son goes out on the court, there is the father, in that jump
hook, in that rebound, soaring high above the rim.
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN SPURLOCK Thanks to the instruction he gets from his wheelchair-bound father, Wright has become a premier player in the paint. [Lorenzen Wright]