Over the squeak of size-21 sneakers, basketball evangelist Sandy Pyonin preaches to a one-man congregation. "Come on, Luther, move like you mean it." 'Tis the day before Christmas, and on the court of the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association gymnasium in Union, N.J., the object of Pyonin's fire and brimstone, a 7'2", 340-pound behemoth, nods sheepishly. Then Luther Wright, glistening with sweat, returns to his position and works through Pyonin's low-post drill one more time. "Much better, Lu," says Pyonin, Wright's tutor. "Way to use that butt for positioning. Remember that when you get back to the NBA."
Luther Wright describes what happened on Jan. 24, 1994, as an out-of-body experience. Then a 22-year-old rookie center for the Utah Jazz, Wright, as he puts it, "wigged out" and spent seven bizarre hours brandishing a gun, smashing a car windshield and eventually, at a rest stop outside of Salt Lake City, banging on garbage cans. When he was finally arrested for disorderly conduct, he was taken not to prison but to the Western Institute of Neuropsychiatry in Salt Lake City for observation.
Wright's fit was particularly perplexing given his normal demeanor. A lovable loafer, Wright rarely played with intensity and had shortly before taken up residence in coach Jerry Sloan's doghouse for smuggling a puppy aboard a team flight. "Talk about gentle giants," says retired Jazz president Frank Layden. "Luther wouldn't hurt a flea." Having never had an episode like this before, Wright was frightened. "I just kept thinking, What's wrong with me?"
The initial explanation was that Wright had overdosed on Ritalin, which he had been taking for less than a year to combat attention deficit disorder (ADD). Within a few days the diagnosis changed: Doctors at the psychiatric institute asserted that Wright was suffering not from ADD but from bipolar disorder, a condition that involves episodes of mania and depression and can trigger erratic behavior.
As his doctors tinkered with Wright's medication, his feelings of depression intensified. He was released after two months but, he says, hit rock bottom during the summer of 1994, when he tried to overdose on pills. Luther's mother, May, rushed her eldest child to a hospital, where his stomach was pumped. In November of that year the Jazz waived Luther. His NBA statistics: 92 minutes, 19 points, 10 rebounds, 21 fouls. He hasn't played in an organized game since.
Wright is now 28, and when pressed, he'll concede that music, not basketball, is his first love. Even when Wright was a millionaire NBA rookie, he moonlighted as a disc jockey at the Red Lion Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. These days he's a vocalist, drummer and guitarist for the Samaritan Singers, a gospel group that performs at New Jersey churches. Trouble is, when you measure 28 inches at birth and surpass 7 feet as a high school underclass-man, your calling in life seems obvious. "It's not like I hated it, but I feel a little like I was forced to play basketball," he says.
Wright never hid his indifference to the game that would occupy the majority of his waking hours. Says Bob Hurley, who coached Wright for one season at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City, "The passion for basketball was never there."
In spite of his lack of effort, Wright became one of the best high school players in the country. As a senior he led Elizabeth High to the state title and was named a McDonald's All-America. One of the top recruits in the country, he chose to attend nearby Seton Hall, but he was ineligible as a freshman under Prop 48 and had two unspectacular seasons playing for P.J. Carlesimo. Wright was maddeningly erratic, dominating some games and disappearing in others. As his interest in academics waned and his mother's health deteriorated, he succumbed to the siren song of the NBA after his junior year despite averaging just 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in college.
The Jazz's first round pick and the second center selected in the 1993 draft, Wright fell in love with Utah. After signing a five-year, $5 million contract, he moved his mother and two younger siblings to Salt Lake and bought a mansion, He took long drives through the Wasatch Range. While he rarely got off Utah's bench, he has fond recollections of his brief tenure with the Jazz. " Karl Malone would put peanuts in my mouth while I slept on road trips," he says, giggling at the memory.
At the time, Wright hadn't even heard of bipolar disorder. Today he is something of an expert. He knows that at least two million Americans suffer from it. He's aware that it most commonly manifests I itself in men when they're in their early 20s. Most important, he learned that it can be effectively treated with medication and psychotherapy.