JERSEY CITY, NJ -- Luther Wright wakes up at 5:15 every morning, kisses his peacefully sleeping wife, then looks down at the toes on his right foot -- the three remaining ones -- to help prepare for the battle he must wage that day.
It's his key to staying sober, his key to staying alive.
Wright is the former Seton Hall University basketball giant whose stunning washout from the NBA's Utah Jazz started a destructive spiral that led him through a decade of drug addiction, rehab clinics, a mental institution and eventual homelessness on the streets where he once was so revered.
The two missing toes are like Post-it reminders of the nightmare he lived for several years. They were lopped off -- all rotted and frostbitten -- just before Christmas of 2004 by an emergency-room intern who was trying to save the rest of a badly infected foot. Wright had stumbled without shoes into the local hospital one night, riding high on yet another cocaine/meth/alcohol binge.
He never felt a thing.
"I do remember saying, 'He just cut off my toes. Damn.' Sometimes when I look back, I have to laugh about it now, just to keep from crying. But it's good for me. I've been clean for four years, seven months, and ... what's the date today? (Nov. 17 he is told) ... And 10 days,'' he finished. "I'm real proud of that. I've been to hell, and I don't want to go back.''
"I have to stay busy. I need to have structure now. I don't know what the future holds for me, because I'm not there yet, but I know if I do A, B, C, and D every day, the future will be that much brighter,'' he said. "I'm lucky to be alive. And I'm thankful for that. A lot of people don't make it out alive like I did.''
Afton Almaraz, AOL
Fernando Medina, NBAE/Getty Images
Afton Almaraz, AOL
Afton Almaraz, AOL
Afton Almaraz, AOL
Afton Almaraz, AOL
Afton Almaraz, AOL
Gone are the days when his best friend was a crack pipe, when his only goal was hustling to get high, scoring again and again so he could chase away all the demons in his head that wouldn't leave him alone.
Gone are the days when he wandered the streets of Irvington and Elizabeth, N.J. -- close to where he grew up -- begging for loose change in the parking lot of fast-food restaurants, urinating in alleyways, sleeping in abandoned buildings, bedding down at night with drug dealers and derelicts, stumbling through day after day, week after week, month after month in a chemically induced haze.
"I still remember seeing him about 5-6 years ago, barefoot, no shirt, looking horrible. He was riding a bicycle. He couldn't even talk. I hardly recognized him,'' said Stan Neron, once a teammate at nearby Elizabeth High who is now the Youth Services Director for the city. "He used to be the biggest star we ever had here. To see him at the bottom like that, it was shocking. I was in disbelief. This was a guy who once had it all.''
As a first-round draft pick by the Utah Jazz in 1993, Wright signed a five-year, $5 million contract. At 7-foot-2, 275 pounds, he was a mountain of a man, expected to be the center who eventually could compliment stars Karl Malone and John Stockton and help them win that elusive NBA title.
He bought a mansion there, moved his mother, brother and sister to Salt Lake City. He quickly started living the good life of an NBA player without a clue on what it took to actually be one.
He liked smoking pot too much, drinking whiskey, chasing and catching women, playing music a lot more than he liked the NBA. And all his vices became easier with money. His passion wasn't basketball. It was getting high. He was unstable, unable to focus on his job. The Jazz knew almost immediately that they had made a mistake.
Before one early season game in Houston, he stopped warming up with his teammates so he could play the drum set that was courtside for a band scheduled to play that night. Malone chastised him. Earlier in the day, Wright had gone to a pet store, bought a puppy and smuggled it onto the team bus in hopes of flying it home that night.
With both the stars of the team and the coach riding him hard, he buckled into bouts of depression. The Jazz sent him to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with both an attention-deficit and a bi-polar disorder. They gave him strong medicine that didn't mesh well with the marijuana he was smoking every day. It only made things worse.
A state trooper in Utah found him at 4 AM one morning at an interstate rest area, banging on garbage cans and smashing windshields. He played only 15 games for the Jazz in his one and only season before they released him. He went home to New Jersey a failure, laying the groundwork for a decade of delusion.
"I just felt like I didn't fit in, in Utah and in the NBA. I didn't approach it as a job. I just thought since I was big, I was entitled to be there. And that was my fault. I did myself in,'' he said. "I invited my family to come there, then got mad because they just laid around the house waiting for my money. I let a lot of people down.''
Wright had his NBA contract converted into an annuity that would have paid him $150,000 for the next 25 years, but he botched that, too, giving family members access to his finances. He is receiving only a fraction of that money today. For all his faults, he was likable, funny and always wanting to please those around him. He started making four different child support payments every month, even though later DNA tests revealed two of the children were his.
He couldn't face those who ridiculed him for failure, so he started hiding behind harder drugs and stronger whiskey. The crack cocaine gave him a trip he craved. Friends tried to help, but he never listened. He tried living at his mother's house. He tried living with friends. His family checked him into a mental hospital once to have him institutionalized.
It always ended the same: back on the street running from his past, slipping further and further away from those who cared.
"The first time I saw him living on the street, I didn't believe it was him, except it had to be him because there is no one else his size,'' said Tchaka Shipp, his former teammate at Seton Hall who works for the New York Board of Education. "I had lost touch with him. My last memory of him was when we were playing together in the Meadowlands, and he was busting (North Carolina center Eric) Montross's ass. Just killing him. Luther was so strong. And to see what had become of him, was sad.''
Although homelessness across American is often hidden and faceless, Wright's size -- he had bloated close to 400 pounds -- and his past stature in the area made him almost a legend on the street as he bounced around, in seedy crack houses on the rough sides of town.
More times than he wants to remember, he was hustling from gun shots and robberies on the street. He saw a man stabbed in a drug deal gone bad. He saw another man beaten to a pulp. He saw other things he won't even admit. He had lost half his teeth to decay and rot.
"Some homeless people can't help it. They are not there by choice, but by circumstances. With me, it was a choice I made,'' he said. "I could have gone back to my mother's house, but I didn't want her to see me like that every day. I wanted to live on the street, to be where the drugs were, where the action was. Nobody forced me to do drugs, to be an addict. I brought it on myself.''
Old friends would often see him and offer clothes, shoes, and food. Any money that he received just went for more drugs. Even the local police in the area knew who he was, and often looked the other way. He was arrested a few times, but never for anything real serious. For all his troubles, he never spent any real time in jail beyond a one-night holding cell. To some, he still was the likeable gentle giant they wanted to remember.
Police were called once to a local McDonald's because he was being belligerent inside, and the responding officers knew him well. They led him away in handcuffs, which barely fit over his beefy wrists, to satisfy the owner, then took him to the police station, where they gave him some sweatpants and bought him a bucket of fried chicken, complete with fries and a soda, before sending him back out into the night.
The man in the next cell asked him if he was some kind of celebrity. Wright smiled sadly, then passed some of his chicken through the bars.
Somehow, he always seemed to get a warning -- through a friend or a cop passing by -- before police raided a crack house that he frequented, or busted up a drug deal in which he might be involved. He would know beforehand not to be at a certain locations at certain times.
It wasn't long after his two toes were amputated that he warmed to the idea of getting help. He was killing himself. He was buying more crack, smoking his brains out again, never taking care of the wounds on his foot when it started bleeding uncontrollably. He went back to the hospital, went into a bathroom and looked in a mirror.
He thought it was someone else.
"You can't get much more hopeless than I was,'' Wright said. "It was like I was in the spin cycle of a wash machine, just going around and around and around. I finally realized, if I kept going, I wasn't getting out alive.''
Becoming an Inspiration
Wright was telling his story earlier this month shortly after Globe Institute had finished a basketball practice. Although it is the same game he once played, it's a world away from playing in the lush, pampered surroundings of the NBA, or even from his glory days at Seton Hall or Elizabeth High.
Practices are in a recreation facility in the midst of a New York City housing project, across town from the third floor of a city high rise in which the school rents its space. The facility is only available from 7 to 9 AM, before classes start.
Wright takes a train into the city each morning. He must duck to keep from hitting his head almost everywhere he goes, on his way into the gym, through some of the narrow subway tunnels, and also into the breakfast café where we stopped to eat.
He drinks five glasses of orange juice before we leave.
He dwarfs almost everyone he passes, cutting a path down busy city sidewalks. As he passes, people turn and look, often quizzically, wondering who he is -- or was. He is the biggest man most everyone will meet.
At practice, he offers tips to the big men on post play. He shows them positioning around the basket. He is easily the biggest man in the gym. Players listen closely when he talks. He talks about drugs, and women, and temptations, to the kids after practice. He shows them his toes.
He has become an inspiration.
"Luther really has been good for us,'' said Mark Morse, the head coach who hired him just few months ago on the advice of both Neron and Shipp. "He talks to the kids, not just about basketball, but about life, and what's out there. I think we help him, but he helps us, too, probably more than he knows.''
Wright spends almost as much on train/bus fare each week as he is paid by the school. His two-week, net take-home check is worth $147.
Wright never was a great basketball player, but he never really needed to be. He was so big, so strong that early success came easily to him. He usually frustrated coaches by his lack of focus and motivation. Yet they craved his potential. He helped Seton Hall to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances before the Jazz made him the 18th selection in the 1993 Draft.
He enrolled back at Seton Hall during the spring semester, but left again because he couldn't afford the books this fall. His free ride was over.
"I think what he's been through in his life really humbled him, as you'd expect,'' said Angela Felton-Wright, his wife of two years whom he met at Morningstar Community Christian Center. "But I don't think it haunts him anymore.''
Wright and his wife, a school teacher, are both in the choir at Morningstar, where she sings with a smile and he plays the guitar with a passion that comes from his heart. She didn't know him -- which is fortunate -- during his years as an addict, but she has heard all the horror stories. At times, she is his angel, seeing only the good side.
It was his friend, Neron, who almost dragged him to church originally, but it was Wright's own perseverance, and his wife's presence, that kept him coming back for more.
He takes no medication now for the mental disorders that he and the doctors once said contributed to his problems. He speaks clearly, and lives cleanly today. His eyes are bright again. His teeth have been fixed. As big as he is, his shuffle has purpose, both on the court coaching, and down the street to his next venture. He likes himself, his new life.
After 90 minutes more of talking about himself in an office adjacent to a classroom at the school, Wright begins to get antsy. He yawns. He takes off his right shoe and wiggles the three toes. He scratches the spot where the other two were supposed to be.
"When my wife and I are driving through an area where I used to get high all the time, I reminisce sometimes. But I'm not Luther Wright the crack head, the pot smoker, the menace anymore. I used to be crazy. Even the doctors wrote me off,'' he said. "Today, I'm Luther Wright, who is doing well, and thankful every single day.''