Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wright Remembered

Geoff Calkins for the Commercial Appeal:
Wright with son circa 1998
They walked across the plaza and into FedExForum, past the ticket windows, past the security guards with their wands, past the team store, past the concession stands. The fans walked into the building just as they always walked into the building, only the mood was heavy this time. The upper deck was draped with black curtains. The basketball floor was covered with rows of folding chairs. The rows led to a silver casket, which was inscribed with the name Lorenzen Wright.

"It is fitting that in the room where he thrilled so many, inspired so many and enjoyed the love of so many of his people, that we honor and remember Lorenzen Wright," said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton during an emotional three-hour ceremony. Wharton -- always finding the right words -- talked about how Wright had become a symbol to so many in this town. "In him, we saw the best of ourselves," said Wharton. "In him, we saw the best of our fair city."

And then, in his death, we saw the worst of the city.

Yes, it was a quintessentially Memphis afternoon. It was the celebration of a life that ended in homicide. It was a farewell to a favorite son who was taken too soon. Ruby Wilson sang about heaven. FedEx made sure the programs arrived on time. Willie Herenton and Steve Cohen both told stories about Wright jerseys. The several thousand in attendance prayed and wept and laughed and burst into spontaneous applause. Fred Horton talked about how many of his players at Booker T. Washington High School have been shot or made serious mistakes in judgment.

For every memory of Wright, there was an exhortation to stop the violence. For every reference to his smile, there was a reminder about why we'll never see it again. "Violent crime has taken away our best," said Rev. Bill Adkins. "Homicide has taken away too many of our young men."

It is true, of course, that the police haven't yet settled on the details of this particular homicide. But that doesn't change the central fact that too many young men die in Memphis, and that all of Wright's riches, successes and opportunities couldn't insulate him. So Grizzlies owner Mike Heisley suggested we "do a little bit in Ren's honor to see that things like this don't happen again."

Johnny Williams, representing a YMCA team that Wright sponsored, urged the crowd to "take back" their neighborhoods. "We need to form an umbrella of protection," said Horton. "Talk to our young athletes. Show them the way."

It all sounded wonderful. And futile, you know? How long have we been taking back our neighborhoods? How long have Horton and others been showing kids the way? Why do we bother to even pretend any longer? Why even try?

Mardi Gras King 2002
And then Gayle Rose stood to talk about Wright. You might remember Rose as a member of the pursuit team that helped bring the NBA to town. She talked about how important Wright was to launching the Grizzlies in Memphis. She talked about how he always played bigger than he was. She told a hilarious story about the time she was invited to be queen of the Memphis Mardi Gras. "I was going to say 'no' until I learned Wright would be my king," she said.

Wright wore a [gawdy], ridiculous crown; together, they had a ball. Wright [then] went on to help teach Rose's boys how to play basketball. One of them, Max, grew to 6-foot-7. Max was killed in a car accident last year, so Rose knows something about pain. She also knows, in the midst of it, you have to draw on love. "Lorenzen was loved by this community and he returned that love," she said. "If we're going to carry on Lorenzen's legacy, we have to do the same."

So, yes, it might feel futile. But what else are Memphians to do?

"Good night, sweet prince, my king," Rose said. "We will follow your lead and play bigger than we are."