Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Wright Way

Story by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

DALLAS—Inside the Dallas Mavericks’ lavish locker room, shooting guard Antoine Wright leans back in a plush leather chair in front of his spacious locker and playfully begins boasting to teammates and assistant coaches.

It’s shortly after 6 p.m. on March 7—roughly 90 minutes prior to tip-off of the Mavs-Wizards game at American Airlines Center. But the bright-eyed, animated Wright is not yet interested in discussing Washington.

There will be time for that later. Now he’s talking Texas A&M. Loudly and proudly.

He’s announcing the Aggies’ victory earlier that afternoon over Missouri, and he is thoroughly enjoying the fact that A&M has not lost since he returned to College Station to see the Texas game on Feb. 16.

“(The Missouri win makes it) six in a row, baby,” Wright says in the direction of eight-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, who smiles and rolls his eyes sarcastically as he passes Wright and heads toward the training room.

“Oh no, here we go again,” says assistant coach Dwane Casey, a former player and graduate of Kentucky. “If Antoine is getting loud, the Aggies must have won today.”

Wright beams and nods smugly. He quickly looks around the “technology toyland” (every locker is equipped with flat screen TVs, DVD players and stereo equipment) for a couple of teammates: LSU graduate Brandon Bass and Arizona alum Jason Terry. Wright is the only former Big 12 player on the Mavericks’ roster, but he owns major bragging rights over Bass and Terry this year because the Aggies beat both LSU and Arizona earlier this season.

To Wright’s chagrin, neither player is at his locker. Wright shakes his head in mock disgust. A smack talk moment has been missed.

“I talk about my school to these guys every day,” Wright says. “These guys know where I’m from. I leave no doubt. The big German (Nowitzki) tries to get under my skin by calling my school Texas Christian. He says, ‘Where’s Texas Christian, Antoine? Isn’t that where you went?’

“I let that slide because he didn’t even go to college, so he doesn’t know any better (laughing). But it is a lot of fun to talk about A&M these days. Going back to the Texas game and seeing the full arena was a lot of fun, too. Knowing where we came from—seeing our own fans in the stands with bags over their heads—and seeing where the program is today is a major source of pride for me. It’s amazing how far we’ve come since my sophomore year.”

Indeed, it is. It’s also amazing to see how far Wright has come since that dreadful 2003-04 season, when the Aggies went 7-21 overall and 0-16 in Big 12 play.

That miserable year ended with a loss to Missouri in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. Ironically, the loss occurred in the same American Airlines Center that Wright now calls home.

Following that setback, a dejected and frustrated Wright sat in another locker in the underbelly of the arena and pondered whether he would even return to A&M for the following season. The coach who had recruited him, Melvin Watkins, had been fired. The program was in shambles, and Wright’s once-bright future seemed to be in serious doubt.

Coming out of Lawrence Academy in Groveton, Mass, Wright was rated as the top shooting guard in the country by ESPN.com. In choosing Texas A&M, he turned down, among others, UCLA, UConn, Arizona, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The 6-foot-7 Wright may have been the highest-profile recruit in A&M basketball history at the time. By the end of his sophomore season, though, he looked like yet another victim of A&M’s dreadful basketball history.

In a 15-year span from 1990-2004, the Aggies produced 13 losing seasons and just one NIT appearance. The lowest of the low points came in 2004, when the Aggies lost at home to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, dropped seven of their last 11 conference games by double-digit totals and became the second school in Big 12 history to complete the conference race without a single win.

Wright, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2002-03, had come to A&M intent on turning the program around. But his scoring average decreased to 13.5 points per game as a sophomore. His three-point shooting percentage, rebound numbers, steals and blocks also declined. And the bright, trademark smile that had been so prominent during his freshman season disappeared by the end of his sophomore year.

After the loss to Missouri in the Big 12 Tournament, Wright and freshman Acie Law both made comments about the possibility of not returning to A&M.

“After that 0-16 season, I was seriously depressed,” Wright recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, did I ruin my chances for the NBA by coming to Texas A&M?’ I was just fortunate that Billy (Gillispie) came in at the right time. He saved my career. I definitely would not be (in the NBA) without him. I tell him that, but he doesn’t want credit for anything. But there’s no telling where I would be without Coach G.”

Likewise, there’s no telling where A&M would be today without Wright’s decision to immediately buy into Gillispie’s relentless, in-your-face defensive style and his grueling workouts.

Now head coach Mark Turgeon leads a program that has made five consecutive postseason appearances, while recruiting to some of the nation’s finest basketball facilities. In about half a decade, A&M has become a national basketball name with a remarkably bright future.

It could be argued that A&M owes everything it is today—its current national reputation, its recruiting reach and its sparkling new facilities—to one extremely important sales job involving Gillispie and Wright.

“If you want to (trace the evolution of the basketball program) back to one point in time, you probably need to go back to when Coach G got Antoine to buy into the program,” Acie Law once told 12th Man Magazine. “Antoine was probably on board before any of the rest of us.”

According to many of the so-called media experts, Billy Gillispie is not a good fit at Kentucky. According to many other sources—some credible and some volatile Internet message boards—the Kentucky players have not bought into Gillispie’s brutal workouts, blunt honesty and blue-collar work ethic.

Gillispie’s practices—even on game days—are not for the weak minded or self-righteous superstars. He is intent on breaking all of his players down. Gillispie has absolutely no tolerance for laziness, timidity or apathy. In practices, he’s as driven as a drill sergeant, and he belittles and berates players who fail to give maximum effort.

He typically kicks players off the court for missed assignments and stares daggers that seem capable of piercing the soul. His language isn’t typically foul, but his tone is usually unmercifully harsh. “Pitiful” is one of his favorite practice words; “pathetic” is a close second.

He is so unyielding on his players that the rest of his coaching staff spends much of practice building the players’ confidence back up after Gillispie has told them to “leave my court.”

But his practice strategy, along with his fanatical obsession to play suffocating defense, paved the way for miraculous turnarounds at Texas-El Paso and Texas A&M. So, why isn’t it working at Kentucky?

“Honestly,” Wright says, “they’re probably not desperate enough. I don’t know Kentucky’s program, and I haven’t talked to Coach G much this year. So, I can’t talk about why things aren’t working out. But I know why they worked out for me and Texas A&M. He came in and laid it on the table.

“I dug that about Coach G. We had our little rifts early in the season, but once I started to get a little momentum and see what was happening, I was all about playing his style. As time went by, the rest of the guys bought into the system. I was just the first to buy in because I had no other choice. My (dreams) were slipping away.”

Instead of continuing to slip away, Wright became the physical and emotional leader of a team that won the hearts of A&M basketball fans. The 2004-05 Aggies went 21-10 overall and became just the third team in NCAA history to record a .500 finish in conference play (8-8) after going winless the year before. The Aggies tied San Diego for the most improvement (12 more wins than the previous year) in all of Division I-A basketball.

After helping to resurrect the program, Wright entered the NBA Draft. He was taken by New Jersey with the 15th selection in the first round, becoming the highest pick in A&M history. He was also the first Aggie taken in the NBA Draft since Brooks Thompson in 1994.

After playing sparingly as a rookie with the Nets in 2005-06, Wright began to blossom in New Jersey in his second season. Playing alongside Jason Kidd in the backcourt, Wright started 23 games in 2006-07 and earned a prominent role in the Nets’ rotation.

The articulate Wright was also becoming well known in the glare of the New York/New Jersey media spotlight. So, he was not particularly surprised when he was requested to appear on HBO’s “Costas Now” in March of 2007. Wright was told that the show’s host, Bob Costas, wanted to discuss the educational opportunities/difficulties for college basketball players, especially during “March Madness.”

Once the interview was edited and shown on HBO, Wright says he felt blindsided. The interview cast Wright in a controversial light. Here’s a couple of exchanges from the show:

Wright: “Once I got to college, I kind of let my hair down a little bit. I (didn’t) have to write term papers any more—I just had to get a grade and play basketball.”

Costas: “Tell me what it was like in these agriculture classes (at A&M).”

Wright: “In certain classes you’d see a quarterback, me, a running back and then a farmer. So, it definitely was a little bizarre. But, we’re all in poultry science for a reason. We’re in this class because we need to get this grade. We’re not really trying to learn about chickens.”

Wright doesn’t deny saying any of those things. Be he says that he actually elaborated much more. His intent was never to demean Texas A&M or the agricultural classes he took. He was simply explaining that some colleges within the university worked more with student-athletes and their schedule demands than others. And not just at A&M.

“It was really just me addressing my opinion on college sports,” Wright said. “I never wanted to take a shot at my school. I love my school, and I owe so much to all the people at A&M—from the academic advisors to the professors and so forth—who did so much for me. I would never want to take a shot at them. I really didn’t get a chance to rebut that whole deal, and I regret doing that interview.

“But if you look back on that interview, many of the things I said are true across the board in all colleges. At many colleges across the country, the athletes are in the same majors. That’s just a fact. But when I saw the interview, I was really upset because of the sound bites they took and spliced together. I was like, ‘I didn’t say it that way. I didn’t mean it that way.’ Anybody can take a sound bite and twist it the way they want. It’s something I learned from, and I want to apologize to anyone at A&M who took that the wrong way. I would never take a shot at my own school.”

When Wright was traded from New Jersey to Dallas on Feb. 19, 2008 in the Jason Kidd-for-Devin Harris deal, part of his initial concern was that A&M fans in Texas might still be upset with him about that interview. He was also initially disappointed about the trade because he was playing exceptionally well in New Jersey.

“I talked to (Gillispie) after I got traded,” Wright said. “He said, ‘You’re a tough kid. It will work out.’ I was down because I felt like I had momentum in New Jersey. They were the team that drafted me; I was getting to know the area really well; and I was playing a lot. There was some bitterness when they decided to add me in the trade, and then when I got here, it was even worse. I was just a practice guy. I didn’t initially fit into what the Mavericks were doing.

“The best thing about coming here at that time was being close to so many Aggies. They embraced me immediately. I felt appreciated by the A&M fans. There are not many Aggies that come to New Jersey Nets home games. I would occasionally run into Aggies when we were on the road, but coming back down here was great. I remember the first few times I got on the court as a Maverick, I could feel the A&M love in the stands. It was awesome.”

Being in Dallas (he lives in a high-rise apartment near American Airlines Center), also afforded Wright the opportunity to attend a couple of A&M games during the NBA All-Star break. He went to the Baylor game on Feb. 14 in Waco, which proved to be the last loss of the regular season for A&M. He spoke to the team after that loss, and he was introduced to the home crowd at Reed Arena two days later—where he received a loud ovation—during the Aggies’ 81-66 win over Texas.

“I wish I could go back to Reed Arena every night,” Wright joked. “It’s good for my ego. The fans are great. It’s a different type of rivalry now, too. Now, we are beating them regularly at home. That is so awesome to see.

“I am actually starting to become friends with some of the current players. I’ve been talking to B.J. Holmes and instant messaging with (Holmes) and Dash Harris. I’ve just been encouraging them to show that fight and that fire. I went to the Baylor game, and I thought they had it. I just encouraged them to stick together and to keep fighting through those difficult times. Now look what they have done. I’m proud of those guys.”

That is obvious by how much he talks about Texas A&M with his current teammates.

“I’ve never been to A&M, but I’ve heard it’s great,” says back-up point guard Jose Juan Barea. “Of course, most of what I’ve heard is from (Wright).”

Wright is, indeed, a spokesman for the Aggies.


Unknown said...

Great work Rusty! Really got to know what Wright is really about. Now if we can only get him to the games at Read when we have a big time recruit visiting.

Doug Fu said...

Awesome work Rusty! That was an outstanding article.

Chris said...

Great article. Thanks for bringing this to us.

Anonymous said...

It is a great article, Wright is right that Coach G put the basketball program back in the national spot light. As Aggies, we need to remember that and continue to support our school.