Remembering Lorenzen Wright.
Former Memphis Tiger and Grizzly Lorenzen Wright was found dead in Memphis yesterday. The presumption is that he was murdered, but there is no confirmation of this yet.
It is difficult to wrap my mind around the breadth of this. In writing about the recent death of someone who matters to many people it is difficult to be eloquent, to quantify the loss. Although this news is still fresh, I expect that the ramifications of this will ricochet around town for awhile. The death of Lorenzen Wright is something that will, quite literally, bring the city of Memphis to its knees, at least for a little while.
Like so many native Memphians, I was raised in front of the TV from November until March. I am a nanny/babysitter, and often find myself thinking in terms of children’s developmental milestones. Therefore, when I find myself in a situation where I am compelled to explain how much I love this basketball team, the not-super-successful-and-slightly-infamous Tigers of Memphis, I find it simpler to break it down in those terms.
My first memory is of holding my father’s hand and walking into a grocery store to buy a cake for my second birthday; my second is of sitting in front of the television at my aunt and uncle’s house watching Keith Lee shoot an easy layup. I knew the rules of basketball before I could ride a bike. When I was eight, my dad bought me a basketball. Instead of learning how to play the game like normal kids did, I haphazardly dribbled around our circular gravel driveway with my swimming goggles on, playing a game I invented called Be Elliot Perry. I was a short and stout little girl (still am!), better suited to softball, where I reigned supreme. My sports heroes weren’t women, or baseball players. I didn’t even have a favorite baseball team. My heroes were guys who mostly tended to disappear off the radar once they graduated from college. They were all from my city; they all went to the same school my parents had graduated from.
There is a special feeling in that kind of solidarity, something that borders on being familial. As a child it was comforting for me to know that my players all had a four-year (or less) time stamp on them, and that eventually I’d probably end up in line behind them at the grocery store, no matter how famous they became. Now that I live in a big city with four major sports teams, it makes me feel genuinely sorry for people whose sports heroes have no loyalties, who can be traded on a dime, who can turn their backs on a city that gave them endless amounts of love and support for a few million dollars more per year. Memphis’ only LeBron-esque drama involved an outsider coach who wanted to move on to what he felt were bigger and better things. This baffled Memphians. What could be better than this? Memphis deifies its college basketball players and coaches. The paid professionals on the NBA team in town plays second fiddle to the city’s real stars, a roster of kids with uncertain futures lying ahead of them.
In 1995, Lorenzen Wright became a Tiger freshman just as the school made the switch from calling itself Memphis State University to the University Of Memphis. While most Memphians found this change to be unnecessary and annoying, Lorenzen became the player who literally ushered in a new era of Tigers basketball, leading the Tigers to their first Sweet 16 appearance in four years. When people mention the Tiger greats of the late 80’s and early to mid 90’s, three names are at the tip top of everyone’s list: Elliot Perry, Penny Hardaway, and Lorenzen Wright. That’s why it’s extra sad to hear that when the news was announced that Lorenzen Wright’s body had likely been found in a wooded area of Memphis, Perry and Hardaway were two of the scores of people who gathered there.
Lorenzen Wright loved Memphis dearly. Memphians remember his absolute glee at being traded to the Grizzlies upon their arrival to Memphis, and he no doubt gave some of the more skeptical Tigers fans someone to cheer for on the new team in town. He was, by all accounts, a kind, easygoing, and driven man. He was a father of seven children, one of whom died in infancy. I still remember the press conference he and his then-wife held when they announced the death of their daughter. It was a gutting thing to watch. It was, of course, horrible to imagine any parent going through what he was going through. But it also struck some sort of a nerve with me. After experiencing something like that, most people would want to disappear for awhile. Lorenzen felt so connected to his city that he wanted to talk to us about what he was going through. I guess that might sound a little odd to most people, but to me it just feels “really Memphis”, whatever that means. And Lorenzen was really Memphis. He played basketball in Memphis in high school, college, and during much of his professional career. You can’t get much more Memphis than that.
It is often said that despite having a large hand in developing most of the popular music genres that exist today, the one place where Memphis can set matters of race aside for a couple of hours is on the basketball court. I hope this carries over into the aftermath of Lorenzen’s awful, tragic death. I believe that the people of Memphis can refrain from politicizing his death, from making callous statements about it, from using it as an excuse to be horribly racist, and from assuming that Lorenzen somehow brought his death upon himself.
When I found out about Lorenzen Wright’s death yesterday, I was riding the bus home from seeing a movie with a friend. I indulged in some subdued crying for a few minutes, hiding behind gigantic sunglasses and discreetly wiping my nose on the sleeve of the Tigers shirt I had coincidentally decided to wear that day. There are no words for how sad this is. I’ve been trying to write this piece for about three hours, and nothing is coming along quite right.
I lost a good friend in January. In a really nasty coincidence, many of my friends back home also lost someone they loved on the same day. 2010 has been a really trying, depressing year for me and for a lot of people I love. I never met Lorenzen Wright, never even stood in line behind him like I have with so many other Tigers players. Yet despite all the sadness I already had on my plate before yesterday, there’s still plenty of room for this new sadness to rest atop the pile. I am deeply sad for Lorenzen, for his family, and for my very beloved hometown.
I hope the weather is nice on the day of Lorenzen’s funeral. I know there will be countless Memphians lining his funeral route who’ll agree with me.