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Coach Wright of Jefferson Wages a Private Battle

March 28, 1993|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was another cool, rainy afternoon in Los Angeles, but in the confines of Jefferson High School gym the heat was on.

"Come on, let's go!"

To the encouraging bellows of assistant Coach Demorrio Wright, the boys' basketball team was gearing up for the next day's playoff game. The gym echoed with the squeaking of rubber soles as players paired off for one-on-ones, hustled through shooting drills and sprinted from one end of the court to the other, all under Wright's scrutiny.

The scene of a home-grown coach encouraging his young charges was inspiring. But this coach is battling a foe far more sinister than anything he has ever faced on the court: leukemia.

The team gathered around Wright for a parting huddle, exhausted but more polished by the intensive practice. Their sweat-streaked faces cautiously anticipated praise, knowing that it doesn't come fast or easily from Wright.

"You guys are looking real good," said Wright, his affable demeanor momentarily sober. "Real good. We're gonna do it."

He went on to give final pointers and criticisms of certain plays, but the boys sensed his approval of their performance. Clearly revved up, they dispersed amid war whoops and a flurry of hand slaps.

"This coaching is what keeps me going," said Wright as he rested in the bleachers after the practice session. "If it wasn't for this, I don't know what I'd do."

Watching Wright laugh and joke with teachers and players, it is difficult to imagine that he is seriously ill. Yet it has been 1 1/2 years since Wright, who went to his doctor complaining of muscle spasms, received the diagnosis of chronic myelogenic leukemia. Now, when his white blood cell count goes up--which it can do without warning--he has bouts of excruciating pain that can sideline him for weeks at a time.

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"I had never been sick a day in my life," said Wright, 30, shaking his head as though still disbelieving. "Just a year ago I was in training for a tryout with the L.A. Raiders."

Since his diagnosis, Wright has been hospitalized four times and is on intermittent chemotherapy. Those who work closely with him say that although he tires more quickly now, his spirits are much the same as before his illness.

"He really gives it all to you," basketball Coach Andy Fujitsubo said of Wright's style. "He's a beautiful guy. Anything we've accomplished here is due to him. Through good times and bad, he's always here."

Players say Wright's condition has not dulled his competitive edge. In fact, many of them attribute their Eastern League title--Jefferson's first foray into the playoffs since 1986--to Wright. The Democrats ended the season at 13-10.

"He pumps us up, makes us feel like somebody," junior John Johnson said. "I don't see his sickness. He's still living his life. He practiced every day except weekends."

Jason Weaver, also a junior, said Wright imparted mental toughness on the court and off, getting on players about maintaining academics at least as much as he did about basketball. "He actually helped out a lot more this year, coaching varsity," Weaver said. "I never think about him leaving us."

Neither does Wright.

A Jefferson High alumnus and all-around athlete, he has always coached youth, first through the city parks and recreation system and the last five years with the school.

"I always try and help the young cats," Wright said. "I appreciate what my coaches did for me. I'd like to give some of what I learned back."

Adding to the stress of his illness, Wright was first told that his insurance would not cover the $10,000 search for a bone-marrow donor, a procedure that must begin as soon as possible for leukemia patients. Wright's friends at Jefferson raised about $4,000 through candy sales, benefit dances and personal donations. But last month Wright got something of a reprieve: His insurance company agreed to cover the cost, and he has been enrolled in a national donor program through Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

While he waits, Wright says he is determined that life will go on. There are always the boys to coach, and his wife of three years is about to give birth to another child any day now. The important thing, he says, is not to linger on his condition.

"I've never said, 'Why me?' I'm a fighter. I'll fight till the last second," he said. "But seeing the kids trying is always a thrill. It makes me realize all the hard work is worth it."

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