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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

The Wright Way

Arizona's Junior Forward Has Obscure Mentor to Thank for Going From Troubled Youth to a Standout Player

March 23, 2001|AVANI PATEL | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The details, as often happens with memories, have grown fuzzy. "I met this guy named Skim," Arizona forward Michael Wright said. He doesn't say where Skim is now. What is important is that back then, as a youngster growing up in the housing projects of Chicago, Wright met a man named Skim, a mentor at the local YMCA, and quite possibly, Wright's salvation.

"'I was getting into a lot of trouble and things like that, and my mom got me to the YMCA," Wright said. There, Skim took Wright under his wing. "He's the first one that ever introduced basketball to me. And I found that I was real good at it, and I just kept on getting better at it."

These days, Wright travels the basketball arenas across the country and traverses the Tucson campus of the University of Arizona with equal ease. The kid who could have gone so badly awry has grown into perhaps the most stable force on a Wildcat men's basketball team that may be one of the best in the country going into tonight's Midwest Regional semifinal against Mississippi at San Antonio.

Combining the blunt power of a bowling ball with the grace of a ballet dancer, Wright has, in his career, not only fought his way to 8.5 rebounds per game, but also averaged 15.1 points.

And he has done it with breathtaking economy, connecting on better than 57% of his shots. In the Wildcats' 79-76 victory over the Illini--the Wildcats' opponent in Sunday's regional final if both win today--at the Maui Invitational in late November, Wright added 16 points to a team-high nine rebounds. Less than a month later, in Arizona's 81-73 loss to the Illini at the United Center, Wright led the Wildcats with 21 points and seven rebounds.

He has started all but four games early in his freshman year in his three seasons at Arizona. Center Loren Woods, guard Gilbert Arenas and fellow forward Richard Jefferson often overshadow the 6-foot-7, 238 pound Wright. But none of them underestimate Wright's importance.

"On the inside, he does pretty much everything. He can catch the ball in traffic, he can rebound in traffic, he scores in traffic," Woods said. "You always like to have a guy like that on your team because you know you can count on him. And that's what he's been for us all year. We've been counting on Michael the whole year."

That was especially true early in the season, when, with Woods out because of a six-game suspension, Wright had to become the leader of what had been a two-man tandem in the frontcourt.

"When you have somebody like Loren in there, you don't have to work as hard as you can. But when I knew I was missing him, you've just got to take every possession like it's your last. I just value every possession I take," Wright said.

Wright knows that graduating from Chicago's Farragut Academy, maintaining not just his basketball but his academic skills, and leaving the city, if only temporarily, is the best thing he could have done for himself.

'You can easily get suckered into being in drugs and gangs and things like that, but I'm a real disciplined person," he said. "My mom always told me that if you work hard, it's going to pay off. I just kept working hard, and I kept thinking I have to get out of this place."

He had inspiration close at hand his freshman year of high school, when he shared the hardwood with senior teammate Kevin Garnett, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who jumped directly from Farragut to the NBA.

"I talk to him often," Wright said. "He as an extraordinary basketball player, just to see how hard he worked, and how he was dedicated to the game, dedicated to his schoolwork. It seemed like it just set the tone for me in high school, that I can go somewhere."

But Wright began honing his basketball skills much earlier, at the YMCA, thanks to a man named Skim.

Older brother Bobby remembers, "I used to be bigger than him, blocked his shots. Next thing I knew, he was dunking on me."

The last time Bobby beat his kid brother at a game of one-on-one? "He has to let someone beat him, because he's so great. He's just got the game down pat."

On Michael Wright's right shoulder is a tattoo of a hooded figure, holding out a basketball, with the words "2 Infinity" inscribed underneath.

"It's the grim reaper with a ball," Wright said. The game that he credits with saving his life will be something he will cherish until he dies.

'You know, I just love the ball to death," Wright said. "I'm always going to play, even in the afterlife if they have a team."

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