The Wright Moves

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"I knew Derrick had a good eye for talent," he said. "He's probably the smartest player I've ever coached. He was always an extension of me out on the basketball court. Without me telling him, he always knew what plays to call."

When Harden finally got a look at Wright, then an 11th-grader at Leuzinger High School, he nearly fell over. Leuzinger — a school not known then for its basketball — lost that night by 40, but Harden couldn't take his eyes off Wright.

"I saw legs. I saw arms. I saw hands. I saw an eager beaver. And I said, 'This could be a player,'" he recalls. "That kid could scratch his ankles walking down the street."

After the game, Harden approached Wright, who was pouting over the loss. "I said, 'I don't care nothing about this game here. I want you. If you want to play with me and if you're serious with me, I'll be serious with you. If you stick with me, I guarantee you, you'll go to the college of your choice. '"

Later that week, Harden called up Dorell's father, Ray Wright, and persuaded him to let Dorell play AAU basketball. Even at just 15 years old, Wright dominated, and Harden started making phone calls to coaches across the nation.

Meanwhile, Clark switched high schools his senior year so he could be on a basketball team with a chance to win the state tournament. He and Marcus Williams (now of the New Jersey Nets) were the guards for Crenshaw High School — an electric combination.

Clark could get to the hoop at will, but what Harden remembers most fondly is that defense, how Clark seemed to relish harassing the other team till it turned the ball over. Darren Collison, who starred for UCLA in last month's NCAA tournament, looked like Little Bo' Peep by comparison, Harden remembers. If only Clark hadn't stopped growing...

Before he could realize his NCAA dreams, Clark would have to play at Indian Hills, an Iowa community college. A groin injury was the first setback, winter homesickness the second. "They put a city boy in the snow," Clark says.

He went back to California, enrolling at L.A. Harbor College, and played basketball for a year. He did well, but injuries derailed the team and shortened its season.

At the same time, Clark's friend from AAU was blowing up. Wright had become an unstoppable scorer and rebounder, people were saying. And he seemed to be focused on playing college ball.

There was a problem, though. Wright — never much concerned with school — needed better grades, and he also wanted to get more exposure. He could get both at South Kent, a prep school in Connecticut. There, he opened and closed the gym every night, determined to improve his game. When the season started, the word of Wright's dominance began to spread.

"He was definitely feared," South Kent Assistant Coach Owen Finberg says. "At any point, he was somebody that could put 30 or 40 points on you."

Versatility was his game. He would hit the jumper and beat people to the basket. He could defend. He could block shots. He was easily South Kent's best player and the focal point of its offense.

"Other teams would have to prepare for him," Finberg said.

Wright was named MVP of the National Prep School Invitational and an All-Time Jordan Brand All-American at the Jordan Classic, an all-star game for the top high school seniors in the country. Coaches and recruiters nationwide noticed, and he visited the University of Southern California, the University of Iowa, Long Beach State, and DePaul University.

But those schools were out of their league — literally. Though Wright would eventually give a verbal commitment to DePaul, he couldn't put his NBA aspirations on hold — especially since scouts seemed convinced that if he took "the jump," he'd make a soft landing in the draft's first round.

Still, these inducements conflicted with the advice of most of the people in Wright's inner circle. His Leuzinger High School coach, Reggie Morris, had played college ball at Howard University, and he didn't want Wright missing out on a similarly rich experience. Wright's mom wanted very much for her son to be the first member of their family to attend college. He told her he would go back later, probably for kinesthesiology.

Clark suggested a compromise: Try college for one year. "Nope," Wright said. "I think I got it." The NBA, that is.

It wasn't that his family needed the money. Wright was raised in a middle-class suburban cul-de-sac six blocks east of Inglewood.

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Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell