?Sharing the Wealth The simplest explanation for the rise of the posse, however, is money. "The big contracts came," says Hornets coach Paul Silas, "and all the boys came out of the woodwork." Put less cynically, players have never been in a better financial position to look after their families and friends. Not all that long ago it wasn't feasible for a player to subsidize an entourage. Today the average NBA salary exceeds $4 million a year—a fourfold increase over the past decade—and money is seldom an issue.
Payton, for one, has been exceedingly generous with various friends and relatives from Oakland who have joined him in Seattle throughout his career. He has paid the college tuition of two friends and given others seed money to start up their own businesses. One friend, Clarence Johnson, once a regular in Seattle, is now back in Oakland running a franchise of Gary Payton Wireless. Payton flies his associates on private planes, treats them to lavish dinners and fetes them on his 80-foot yacht. In short, he has helped elevate them to a social status they may never have known otherwise. "I can open doors," Payton says. "Once the doors are open, it's up to them to make the most of the opportunity, but I want to put them in a position to get real comfortable."
Lorenzen (Ren) Wright is a solid but unremarkable player for the Memphis Grizzlies. The Wright Stuff, as he bills his crew, includes his business manager, Aric (A-One) Whaley; Wright's best friend and personal trainer, Rewis (Raw Dawg) Williams; his brother Lou Wright; cousin Emanuel (E-Man) Wright; and two security staffers, Tim Green and Dennis McNeil. In addition to paying each of them a salary, Wright provides them with a five-bedroom house and a "company car," a green Ford Expedition. He picks up the tab when he and the guys go bowling, go out to eat or go to the casino in Tunica, Miss. Earlier this year, when each member of the Wright Stuff had his own last name tattooed on his forearm, the player treated. The expenses add up fast, but given that Wright is midway through a seven-year, $42 million contract...well, no harm, no foul. "My guys make me feel comfortable, and they take care of the little things so I can concentrate on basketball," Wright says. "If anything, it's a good investment."
That said, Wright is also making good on a promise. A decade ago he was the star forward for Memphis's Booker T. Washington High School, and Raw Dawg was a quicksilver guard. After games and practices the two best friends would cruise their blighted neighborhood in Wright's dilapidated Volvo. If they had $5 between them, they'd drive to Taco Bell. One night, over a 10-pack of tacos, they made a pact. "If one of us blew up, he'd take care of the other," recalls Raw Dawg. "Of course, to us at the time that meant buying nice shoes."
Raw Dawg stopped growing at 5'9" and went to tiny Tougaloo (Miss.) College. He was supposed to play ball there, but it didn't work out, and he eventually left school. Wright, meanwhile, became a star at Memphis State and, in 1996, a Los Angeles Clippers lottery pick. Since then he has seen to it that Raw Dawg has never wanted for anything. Raw Dawg accompanied Wright to LA, where they befriended Whaley. When Wright was traded to Atlanta, in 1999, Raw Dawg trailed along and lived in Wright's house. "Those were good times," says Raw Dawg, 24. "But when Ren was traded to Memphis, our hometown, last summer, it was too good to be true."
Raw Dawg's typical day is loosely structured. Every morning he drives from the group house to Wright's monstrous house in the swanky Southwind district to wake up his friend at 9:15. (Though Wright lives with his wife, Sherra, and their five kids, they're usually out of the house by the time he likes to arise.) Raw Dawg then makes Wright breakfast or starts him on a workout. Raw Dawg's duties also include helping out Wright's father, Herb, a former rec center director who has been partially paralyzed since 1984, when he was shot by a man he had kicked out of the gym. In the afternoon R-Dawg might put Wright through another workout. Or rebound while Wright shoots jumpers. Or drive him to a stylist, where they both get their braids done. "My day is pretty much up to Ren," says Raw Dawg, who still has athletic eligibility left and might return to college this summer. "The biggest thing is that I be on time."
Game nights are when Raw Dawg truly earns his keep, an estimated $2,000 per month. Seated with the rest of the Wright Stuff a dozen rows behind Memphis's bench, Raw Dawg spends most of his time yelling, his distinct voice echoing through the Pyramid. Using a lexicon intelligible to few others in the premium seating, Raw Dawg constantly encourages Wright with "get in his grill, Ren!" The encouragement clearly reaches Wright's ears. Several times a game, he looks to his crew and smiles.
Among other fringe benefits, each member of Wright's entourage has a key to his mansion. Its crown jewel is the third floor, which is taken up entirely by the mother of all rec rooms, a shrine to arrested development replete with a flat-screen television, a PlayStation, an X-Box, classic video-game consoles, a pool table and a state-of-the-art sound system. Even when Wright is on the road, any member can come and go as he pleases, as long as he doesn't disturb Sherra and the children. The Wright Stuff also uses the third floor to hold competitions against the entourages of other Grizzlies.
Watching Raw Dawg—shod in stylish black Kenneth Cole loafers, by the way—-and the rest of the crew luxuriate on the third floor, Wright swells with pride. "They've been with me all the way, and I feel that we've made it, not that I've made it," he says. "Maybe I'm the one in the NBA, but I know that if the roles were reversed, they would have done the same for me."