Wednesday July 28th, 2010

If my math is right, Vince Chase, Turtle and E were likely still in Queens. And Johnny Drama was on Viking Quest.

It was 2002 and I attempted to put together a piece for Sports Illustrated on NBA players and their entourages. Or, to use the racially tinged term of art, their possés. I visited with Gary Payton's crew in Seattle. And Jerry Stackhouse's "Stack Pack" in Detroit. And Ricky Davis' various wingmen in Cleveland.

In the course of the reporting, I heard one story again and again: Lorenzen Wright, then of the Memphis Grizzlies, was the Jordan of possés. Hell, he employed one "bobo" who drew a check just for waking him up every morning.

Like a lot of rumors floating around the sportscape, it contained vestiges of truth, but ultimately it was a lot more complicated. Wright not only kept a sizable entourage, but it also even had a name, "the Wright Stuff." And, yes, Rewis "Raw Dawg" Williams was tasked with getting Wright out of bed each morning at 9:15, a job made even odder by the fact that Wright was married at the time.

Along with Raw Dawg, there was "A-One," "E Man" and two security staffers, Tim and Dennis. They shared "a company car," a green Ford Expedition that Wright, naturally, purchased. They each earned a salary, as much as $2,000 a month. When they went out for barbecue or gambled at the casino in Tunica, Miss., Wright paid. When they each had "The Wright Stuff" tattooed on their arms, Wright picked up the tab on that, too. Stop the story there and it sounds like a trite cautionary tale: groupies, sponges and still another athlete hell-bent on blowing his millions.

But then Wright explained the situation to me. In the early '90s he was the star forward on a Memphis high school team. Raw Dawg was the point guard. They drove around their corpse of a neighborhood in Wright's beat-up car and if they had a few bucks they went to Taco Bell. But they dreamed big. Raw Dawg explained that one night, over a 10-pack of tacos, he and "Ren" made a deal. "If one of us blew up, he'd take care of the other," Raw Dawg recalled. "Of course, to us at the time that meant buying nice shoes."

Raw Dawg stopped growing at 5-foot-9 and went to tiny Tougaloo (Miss.) College. He was supposed to play ball there, but it didn't work out, and he eventually left school. Wright, meanwhile, became a star at Memphis State. In 1996, the Los Angeles Clippers made him a lottery pick. And he remembered the pledge he made Raw Dawg.

It wasn't a debt he was paying, a bet he had lost or blind loyalty. "I wanted him to share in some of my success," Wright said. "Why wouldn't you want your friends with you in the good times?"

For his part, Raw Dawg took his duties seriously. He learned to cook and became Wright's personal chef of sorts. He read up on fitness and physiology and became a personal trainer for Wright. And, yes, there were the wake-up calls, too. "My day is pretty much up to Ren," Raw Dawg said. "The biggest thing is that I be on time."

And the other Wright Stuff members had similar stories. One was a cousin of Wright's who was going through some hard times. "He could use some help," shrugged Wright, then in the middle of a $42 million contract. Another was a longtime friend who had hoped to major in business in college but had dropped out when the bills piled up. Wright wanted to help him, too.

Apart from the odd jobs and the errands, the Wright Stuff served another purpose. Lorenzen Wright's father, Herb, was a well-regarded coach and rec center director in Memphis. When Lorenzen was in grade school, Herb kicked a man out of the gym. The man returned with a gun, opened fire and paralyzed Herb. Now, the Wright Stuff was taking care of Herb, whether it was wheeling him to his courtside seat at a Grizzlies game or shuttling him to his doctors appointments.

So Wright was using his success to help out family members and prop up the careers of quasi-siblings down on their luck. He was happy to let fortunate friends share some scraps of his success. He let a boyhood friend serve as a business manager. Funny, no one wanted to make a half-hour HBO series about this arrangement.

On Wednesday, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that law enforcement officials found Wright's body in a wooded area in Memphis. Wright, who played his final NBA game in 2009, was last seen at a Memphis barbershop on July 19.

For whatever sordid details might or might not emerge in the coming days, it bears remembering that this was a guy saddled with pressures beyond basketball who went to great lengths looking after his family and friends.

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