Over the squeak of size-21 sneakers, basketball evangelist Sandy
Pyonin preaches to a one-man congregation. "Come on, Luther, move
like you mean it." 'Tis the day before Christmas, and on the
court of the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association
gymnasium in Union, N.J., the object of Pyonin's fire and
brimstone, a 7'2", 340-pound behemoth, nods sheepishly. Then
Luther Wright, glistening with sweat, returns to his position and
works through Pyonin's low-post drill one more time. "Much
better, Lu," says Pyonin, Wright's tutor. "Way to use that butt
for positioning. Remember that when you get back to the NBA."
Luther Wright describes what happened on Jan. 24, 1994, as an
out-of-body experience. Then a 22-year-old rookie center for the
Utah Jazz, Wright, as he puts it, "wigged out" and spent seven
bizarre hours brandishing a gun, smashing a car windshield and
eventually, at a rest stop outside of Salt Lake City, banging on
garbage cans. When he was finally arrested for disorderly
conduct, he was taken not to prison but to the Western Institute
of Neuropsychiatry in Salt Lake City for observation.
Wright's fit was particularly perplexing given his normal
demeanor. A lovable loafer, Wright rarely played with intensity
and had shortly before taken up residence in coach Jerry Sloan's
doghouse for smuggling a puppy aboard a team flight. "Talk about
gentle giants," says retired Jazz president Frank Layden. "Luther
wouldn't hurt a flea." Having never had an episode like this
before, Wright was frightened. "I just kept thinking, What's
wrong with me?"
The initial explanation was that Wright had overdosed on Ritalin,
which he had been taking for less than a year to combat attention
deficit disorder (ADD). Within a few days the diagnosis changed:
Doctors at the psychiatric institute asserted that Wright was
suffering not from ADD but from bipolar disorder, a condition
that involves episodes of mania and depression and can trigger
As his doctors tinkered with Wright's medication, his feelings of
depression intensified. He was released after two months but, he
says, hit rock bottom during the summer of 1994, when he tried to
overdose on pills. Luther's mother, May, rushed her eldest child
to a hospital, where his stomach was pumped. In November of that
year the Jazz waived Luther. His NBA statistics: 92 minutes, 19
points, 10 rebounds, 21 fouls. He hasn't played in an organized
Wright is now 28, and when pressed, he'll concede that music, not
basketball, is his first love. Even when Wright was a millionaire
NBA rookie, he moonlighted as a disc jockey at the Red Lion Hotel
in downtown Salt Lake City. These days he's a vocalist, drummer
and guitarist for the Samaritan Singers, a gospel group that
performs at New Jersey churches. Trouble is, when you measure 28
inches at birth and surpass 7 feet as a high school
underclassman, your calling in life seems obvious. "It's not like
I hated it, but I feel a little like I was forced to play
basketball," he says.
Wright never hid his indifference to the game that would occupy
the majority of his waking hours. Says Bob Hurley, who coached
Wright for one season at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey
City, "The passion for basketball was never there."
In spite of his lack of effort, Wright became one of the best
high school players in the country. As a senior he led Elizabeth
High to the state title and was named a McDonald's All-America.
One of the top recruits in the country, he chose to attend nearby
Seton Hall, but he was ineligible as a freshman under Prop 48 and
had two unspectacular seasons playing for P.J. Carlesimo. Wright
was maddeningly erratic, dominating some games and disappearing
in others. As his interest in academics waned and his mother's
health deteriorated, he succumbed to the siren song of the NBA
after his junior year despite averaging just 7.1 points and 5.3
rebounds in college.
The Jazz's first round pick and the second center selected in the
1993 draft, Wright fell in love with Utah. After signing a
five-year, $5 million contract, he moved his mother and two
younger siblings to Salt Lake and bought a mansion. He took long
drives through the Wasatch Range. While he rarely got off Utah's
bench, he has fond recollections of his brief tenure with the
Jazz. "Karl Malone would put peanuts in my mouth while I slept on
road trips," he says, giggling at the memory.
At the time, Wright hadn't even heard of bipolar disorder. Today
he is something of an expert. He knows that at least two million
Americans suffer from it. He's aware that it most commonly
manifests itself in men when they're in their early 20s. Most
important, he learned that it can be effectively treated with
medication and psychotherapy.
Yet, despite a prescribed regimen of 1,500 milligrams of lithium
every day, since moving back to New Jersey in 1995 Wright has
been hospitalized six times for a chemical imbalance. In '96 he
spent a month at Essex County Hospital Center, a public
psychiatric facility in New Jersey. Sleeping on two mattresses
pushed together to accommodate his frame, Wright was often placed
in restraints for fear that he could do harm to the staff or to
himself. Wright's predicament has been compounded by financial
hardships, including a lack of health insurance. The Jazz
guaranteed Wright $153,000 annually for 25 years as part of his
severance, but thanks to bad investments, back taxes and
child-support payments--friends say that Wright has four children;
he contends that he has two--the annuity has been all but wiped
out. When Wright sold his Salt Lake mansion, the proceeds went to
creditors. Today he and his mother and his brother and sister
live in a two-story brick house in Irvington. "We're doing O.K.
now," says Wright, who hasn't worked since his diagnosis, "but
it's not like when I was in the NBA."
During a stay in Essex County Hospital last year, Wright realized
he missed basketball. "It wasn't the money, and it wasn't the
lifestyle," he says. "I just missed the game itself." He phoned
Pyonin, who had coached him in New Jersey AAU ball more than a
decade before, and told him that he was desperate to give the NBA
one more shot. More than a year later Wright's comeback is still
incubating. While Wright runs sprints or shoots turnaround
jumpers at the Y, he is oblivious to the puzzled onlookers,
dozens of Jewish boys, their heads covered with yarmulkes,
wondering why a former NBA player is sweating in their gym. At a
glacial pace, Wright's body is becoming less convex, his touch is
reappearing, and it takes longer and longer for his huffing and
puffing to kick in.
It's nearly unfathomable, the distance between playing in the NBA
and laying your 400-pound body on an institutional-style bed in a
psychiatric hospital. Yet for all Wright's baggage, he's
surprisingly agile, he can shoot--and he remains 86 inches tall.
"It's one of those 'you can't teach height' things," says Layden.
"This league is always looking for centers."
Wright is unmoved by the optimistic speculation. "Maybe I make it
and maybe I don't," he says with a shrug. "It would be great to
be in the NBA, showing that people with bipolar disorder can be
productive. But just being out here, I feel like I've made a big
COLOR PHOTO: NORM PERDUE
"It's not like I hated it," says Wright, "but I feel like I was
forced to play basketball."
For all Wright's baggage, he's agile, he can shoot--and he remains
86 inches tall.