Luther Wright lay on an operating table and listened to the sounds of a surgeon cutting two frostbitten toes off his right foot.
It was four days before Christmas 2004. Wright, perhaps the most enigmatic basketball star New Jersey ever produced, was flying on another crack binge, his lower body numb from local anesthesia. But he was lucid enough to hear the ping of his toes dropping from his size-20 foot into a pan the same sound a rock-hard piece of plastic makes when it hits metal.
"Damn, I'm thinking," Wright says, "they just cut off my toes."
He knew something bad was coming as he made the one-mile walk to University Hospital from the crack houses where he'd spent most of the previous three years.
At 7-foot-2 and nearly 400 pounds, footwear was hard to find, even for a guy who once pulled down $1 million a year in the NBA. When he did find shoes, the other addicts would steal them. Sometimes, he just cut the backs off old boots or sneakers and wore them like slippers.
Now, the frigid winter air had turned the second and third toes on his right foot black with rot, and he was high and on his back, listening to that ping.
Twenty-seven months later, the former Seton Hall player leans across a table at a Jersey City diner, points an index finger as big as a bratwurst and pleads: "I've had people coming up to me saying, 'Man, I heard you was dead.'
"I want the state to know, I want the world to know, that Luther Wright is not dead. I've been saved."
The story of Luther Wright is as big as the man himself just as it always has been. It's about what it means to be poor, black and taller than everybody else in the inner city, where the most talented kids become commodities who are discarded if they don't meet everyone's expectations.
Wright's tale offers a slice of the darkest side of basketball. It shows what can happen when a guy who is told for years the only reason he exists is to dunk a basketball discovers he doesn't care about the sport and then realizes nobody cares about him, either.
"I put it to Luther like this," says the Rev. Manuel Donaldson, the assistant pastor at the Morning Star Community Christian Center in Linden, a church that has become the focal point of Wright's life and recovery the past 18 months. "'Luther, you've tried fame, fortune, drugs, women and none of it has made you happy. Why not give God a try?'"
"For 35 years I've been on this earth, and I'm just trying to fit in." Luther Wright
A massive struggle
Luther Wright is the biggest person most people will ever see. He is a walking eclipse who sweats constantly. He doesn't walk so much as he rotates his body. His shoulders take turns leading the rest of him forward.
"If I go to someone's house for a party, and it's in a basement, I'm seeing where I'm going to have to duck," Wright explains. "People don't realize what a struggle it can be being this big."
A third of his teeth are gone, including his two front top ones. He leaves the crunchy croutons of his salad on the side of the plate. He is 35, but looks 50.
His life remains a work in progress. He misses appointments. He doesn't have a regular job, or any plans to get one. His only real income comes from the meager remains from an NBA contract. He has some vague ideas about writing a book or a movie about his life, or becoming a comedian or a singer. But right now, they aren't much more than that.
He volunteers with children in Jersey City and at his church, but otherwise he fills his days listening to the radio, watching movies, reading books or talking with friends at his cousin's barbershop.
He has had manic and depressive episodes since 1994 and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Yet he hasn't taken medication for two years.
"He was treated by some of the best doctors in the country and the diagnosis was clear," says Sal DiFazio, Wright's former agent. "You don't heal what ailed Luther."
"I used to like the game, but then it became like a job." Luther Wright
What if ...
Had Wright been born with a different body, he might never have picked up a basketball.
As a kid, he taught himself to play the drums, the guitar, the bass, whatever musical instruments he could find. He sang in church gospel groups. He spoke softly. He got arrested once for shoplifting. If an adult asked him to do something, he did it.
His family moved five times in Jersey City before he turned 12. Always seeking cheaper rent in housing projects and a little more space.
"Sure it was dangerous," he says. "But that's what it was."
After school he would help his parents sell snacks from the family food truck hot dogs, watermelon, cookies. But the boys in the neighborhood, like his buddy Jerry Walker, who would later star for Seton Hall, wanted him down at the park playing basketball.
Wright reached 6-foot-8 as an eighth-grader and led his grade school team to an undefeated season. His height and success brought him to St. Anthony High School, the basketball powerhouse in Jersey City coached by Bob Hurley. He lasted a year before flunking out.
"If he was 6-foot-5, I doubt he would have ever played basketball," Hurley says. "He wasn't mentally tough, and he didn't push himself the way the other players would."
Using a cousin's address, Wright's family enrolled him at Elizabeth High School, another powerhouse, where he led his team to victory in the state's Tournament of Champions. He scored 28 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
"The bigger the player, the more you have to prove you can't play." Bob Hurley
Disc jockey dreams
For Wright, college basketball was a lot like the playgrounds of Jersey City he played because others wanted him to. The game, after all, was going to pull his family out of poverty.
Recruited by dozens of top colleges, Wright chose Seton Hall in 1990. Walker, his closest friend from childhood, was there, and so were a handful of other players he knew. P.J. Carlesimo had led the Pirates to the NCAA Final in 1989, and Wright was going to help build a dynasty.
He spent his freshman year getting grades that would meet NCAA standards, then played two up-and-down seasons, tantalizing fans and scouts with his potential, and infuriating them with his lack of drive. He would grab 14 rebounds against a national power like North Carolina, then virtually disappear against Western Kentucky.
For him, college wasn't about basketball. It was about being the disc jockey at the parties he and Walker threw in their dorm. Wright says he rarely resisted chances to smoke a little weed or drink with friends.
Years later, over lunch, Walker, who now runs an after-school program for at-risk kids in Jersey City, asks Wright what he would have done if left to his own devices.
"DJing, doing my music," Wright shoots back without hesitation.
And still, after Wright announced he would forgo his senior season for the NBA, Utah drafted him in the first round of the 1993 draft with the 18th pick and signed him to a five-year, $5 million contract.
No one, it seemed, wanted to consider the 7-foot-2 kid wanted to be a disc jockey instead of a basketball player.
"Everyone always wanted me to become a star, then as soon as I went pro and got the contract it was like they all had their tongues out and couldn't wait to get their piece," he says.
Wright bought a 27-room mansion and moved his mother, sister and brother to Utah, but soon grew agitated that everyone would hang around the house all day while he went to practice and earned the money. He says he continued to get high and did little to stay in shape. On the court, he played sparingly and was a disappointment from the start. He averaged 1.3 points and 0.7 rebounds during his only season with the Jazz.
In January 1994, he had his first manic episode. Police found him at a highway rest area banging garbage cans and punching in a car window with a 5-foot stick.
After the season, he entered a mental institution. Six months later, he was out of basketball and driving cross-country to Walker's home in Jersey City. Wright's brother remained behind to sell the house in Utah. His mother moved back to Irvington.
In New Jersey, the same people who once viewed Wright as a hero, told him he was a failure.
"I started running hard from my past," he said, "and using the drugs and the alcohol to ease the pain. It didn't work."
Friends tried to get him help. Former Gov. Richard Codey, a basketball junkie and Seton Hall booster, helped Wright get in to the Essex County Hospital Center and other facilities.
"You had people talking about him getting back in shape to play basketball," Codey says. "I was focused on whether he had health insurance."
When he emerged, the hangers-on dreamed of a possible comeback.
Instead, by 1996, Wright had developed a different routine. He would bounce around from place to place. He spent some nights at home with his mother and some on the streets of Irvington and Newark and in the drug dens.
Walker remembers coming home to Jersey City from Europe, where he was playing pro basketball, and hearing friends tell him Luther was "up the hill" the neighborhood expression for people who went over to Essex County to hang out in the drug-filled underworld.
By 2000, Luther Wright, basketball millionaire, became an urban legend.
Codey remembers seeing Wright on Springfield Avenue wearing an overcoat in the middle of the summer.
Sandy Pyonin, Wright's former summer league coach, once saw him walking barefoot in the middle of winter.
Done with drugs
Wright, minus two toes, left University Hospital nine days after he arrived. Doctors told him if he had come a day later, he probably would have lost his whole foot. The doctors' orders were clear stay home, stay off your foot.
Wright lasted three days in his mother's apartment. On the fourth, he hobbled on his crutches and caught a bus to Irvington. He says he made his way to a crack house and bought five hits. He sat down and smoked the first. Then he felt the moisture in his right foot. He pulled off his sock and saw the bandage soaked in blood.
He looked around at the junkies, took a deep breath and "said to myself, 'I'm done,"' he says.
He gave away the rest of his drugs and called an ambulance. Doctors at University Hospital stitched up his wound. Again they told him to stay off his foot.
This time, he checked into Bayonne Medical Center, where he stayed for two weeks. Doctors steered him to Flynn House, a halfway house in Jersey City for substance abusers. Holding all his belongings in two plastic shopping bags, Wright arrived in late January.
For the first time in a decade, he lived without alcohol or marijuana, or cocaine or crack. He did little but attend meetings and tell his story.
The story was just about all he had.
When the Jazz cut him in 1994, DiFazio, converted his five-year, $5 million contract into an annuity that would pay Wright $158,000 for the next 25 years. But Wright's mother, Mae, had gained control over the annuity when Wright was mentally unstable, he says. She used it as collateral for a large loan. Payments on that loan ate up much of the money.
Wright won't say how she spent the money. He refuses to allow access to his mother, whose health, he says, is deteriorating.
Most of the rest of the money went to child support payments to four children Wright supposedly fathered with four different women, leaving just a small piece he won't say how much for Wright himself.
"I just like people to be comfortable around me." Luther Wright
A home at Morning Star
It's a quarter past eight on a recent Tuesday night, and Wright is in a groove. He's cradling his white Fender Stratocaster and has just picked up the riff of the song the Morning Star Community Christian Center band is rehearsing. It's so loud the rehearsal could be an arena show.
"God is the strength of my heart,
Am I pushed? Forever."
Wright showed up 14 months ago. He had moved to a Flynn House facility in Elizabeth and went to City Hall in search of help a job, financial assistance, anything. He ended up at the desk of social worker Stan Neron.
Neron was two years behind Wright at Elizabeth High School and listened as Wright told him his story.
"I said to myself, 'This can't be true,"' Neron says. "Lu wasn't crazy. He just needed the love to grow and to be in the right environment."
Every other week, Morning Star plays host to a dozen or so homeless people as part of an outreach effort by area churches. They say a prayer, eat dinner, watch movies, play cards, and then sleep on cots in the church basement.
Therman Evans, a former physician turned head pastor, likes to say his church meets people where they are.
On Super Bowl Sunday 2006, Neron brought Wright to Morning Star.
"We were the first people who saw him and said, 'Hey, look, there's Luther, he's a man who wants to improve his life,"' Evans says.
Luther Wright never left the church that night. But just like that, he was homeless again. Wright hadn't cleared the night with the management at Flynn House, and he got kicked out.
This time though, he had friends who wanted to help him. Neron got him a room for a week at the Motor Lodge on Morris Avenue, then helped him land a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Elizabeth.
Wright was 34 years old when he moved in. As Neron handed him the keys, Wright says it was the first time he'd held keys to his own house.
He had also found a home at Morning Star.
Donaldson let him help the youth ministry. Wright asked to sing and play the guitar in the band. The band director, Terry Fuller, told him to hear the music and put his own feeling into it.
He joined the homeless ministry and began working on Sunday nights instead of being a guest.
"I want them to see me as something besides a basketball player," he says.
"I know in my heart I'm a good person who made several bad mistakes, and maybe I should have died. That person I was died, but this new person wants to live." Luther Wright
A new direction
Angie Felton is a shy, hospital secretary who doesn't care about basketball.
She sits and has a cup of coffee with Wright at a Jersey City diner and warns him of the dangers of going public with his story. Fame and publicity never helped him, she says. Whatever progress he has made the past year, he has made it humbly, without fanfare.
Felton, who met Wright last August, has big, almond-shaped eyes and a bright, toothy smile. She is 2 feet shorter than her fiance. Wright moved in with her in February. They plan to marry in August. Wright says he barely fits inside their home, and declines to be photographed there.
Gone are the coaches and hangers-on who pushed him to the basketball court. He says recent DNA tests prove two of the four children are not his, and he is trying to end his child support obligations and his connections to their mothers.
Wright's goal now is to make his life as simple as possible and keep it that way.
"Every day I have to decide whether I want to live or die," he says. "If I want to die, I can go back to drugs. If I want to live, I can keep coming to Morning Star.
© 2007. The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.