Thirty thousand six hundred ninety-nine dots splay across Kobe Bryant’s career shot chart – making it look more like a work of pointillism displayed at the Musée d’Orsay than an NBA stat-sheet.

A snapshot of each dot tells its own unique story: virtuoso work from the elbows; impossibly long buzzer-beaters; dunks that defied gravity; and every other bucket that made the ‘Black Mamba.’

Splattered between the countless eight-foot turn-arounds and runners is an air ball from Jan. 6, 2012. The shot, long since forgotten by Kobe, is etched into the memory of the man defending him: Chris Wright, then an undrafted, first-year, Golden State Warrior.

The moment lasted exactly four minutes and nine seconds – a lifetime for an undrafted rookie.

“I kind of slowed him up a little bit, but he’s still Kobe,” Wright, says. “You do what you can; you can’t stop him, but you can make it harder for him. He’s still going to do what he do.”

The week before, Wright made his NBA debut in a classic case of mop-up duty. Down 90-66 to the 76ers late in the fourth, the Warriors inserted Wright into the game. He didn’t score, missed two shots and grabbed three rebounds. The next two contests – both decided by less than 15-points – he watched entirely from his spot on the bench.

Five years later, Wright remembers the warm Los Angeles air of early January – stark in contrast to winters in his native Dayton, Ohio. He didn’t expect to see the court that evening – and he certainly didn’t expect to D-up an icon.

“This was one of my first games suiting up, as a rookie. I didn’t think I was going to play right away, Wright says. “When you’re a younger guy they put you in situations where the team is losing and they want to see if you are going to keep fighting, no matter what the time [left] is.”

With a torn ligament in his right wrist, Kobe was vintage Kobe. At the half he had 13. In the third, he torched the Warriors defense for 17 – including a three from 26 feet out with 1.5 seconds left in the quarter.

After the game, Warriors forward David Lee assessed Bryant’s performance: “He was really the only guy that killed us statistically. It’s tough when he has a night like that.”

The Warriors kept pace.

Down nine to start the fourth, Warriors Head Coach Mark Jackson looked down the end of his bench in search of defensive help.

Chris Wright.

The words didn’t register.

Chris Wright. Kobe Bryant is in the game, you got him.

“It was like a movie,” Wright remembers. “He’s like ‘go guard Kobe at the end of the game’. I was excited.”

At the University of Dayton, Wright established himself as a rangy 6’8” forward with the size to defend the post and the athleticism to man the perimeter, setting a school record for blocked shots.

Kobe – as a Great White senses the smallest droplet of blood in the ocean – immediately challenged Wright. His first shot clanged out from 22 feet. On the Lakers next possession, Kobe called for the ball and attacked, drawing a quick foul on Wright – reminding the 18,997 in attendance, if not the 23-year old himself, that he was no longer competing in the Atlantic 10; that they came to see Bryant; and that the bells and whistles of Hollywood belonged to him and him alone.

In college, scouting reports often bemoaned Wright for a lack of awareness. Under these circumstances, a touch of obliviousness was perhaps a good thing. Wright answered back, drawing a shooting foul on Lakers center Andrew Bynum. The free throws dropped, going for the first and second points of his career.

A technical foul on Warriors guard Monta Ellis gave Kobe another free throw – his 10th free basket of the night.

The Lakers inbounded the ball to guard Steve Blake beyond the three-point line. Kobe swung toward Blake, freed from Wright for split-second off a screen from Lakers reserve big-man Troy Murphy – a 6’11”, 260-pound flop-top with pointy elbows. Kobe took the pass at the left elbow, planting his feet like a boxer, before a sharp pivot back beyond the three-point line. For 16 years, the fadeaway mid-range jumper has been Kobe’s deadliest weapon. But, Wright didn’t bite, holding his water and shifting his body to stay in front of Kobe.

Off one dribble Kobe exploded toward the basket. Wright slid his feet three times remaining in front of Kobe. The legend elevated, drifting away from the basket in the direction of the Warriors bench. Wright is younger and longer. He gets just high enough for a finger or two to redirect the ball as Kobe released it.

The ball missed everything as Kobe tumbled to the floor.

Of course, Andrew Bynum was in perfect position to snag the air ball and put it in the basket – a small footnote to the moment.

The games’ statistician didn’t recognize the miss as a block, but Wright tells it differently.

“I remember fouling him – he hit his free throws. But I got a block on him,” Wright says emphatically, with a slight chuckle.

With 7:51 left in the game, Jackson summoned Wright back to the bench. The Lakers held on for a 97-90 victory. In four minutes and nine seconds, Wright scored 2 points and kept Kobe 0-of-2 from the floor.

It is the seminal moment of his career.

In the half-decade since, Wright has made his living on the margins of professional basketball – the place between 10-day contracts, the D-League and hoops overseas.

Though, as Wright says, the story could have been far different – that every minute he has spent on a basketball court – regardless of where – has been a blessing, especially in the wake of the tragedy he both lived through and avoided.

 

 

Chris Wright doesn’t remember everything about that day. After all, he was only seven.

He’s not sure how it started, maybe faulty wiring somewhere in the house – he thinks it was electrical. He remembers waking up to the smoke and the heat. And then he remembers shaking his older brother awake – and then watching it burn. Everybody got out – but the home was lost, turned to char and ash.

For the next year-and-a-half, Wright, his siblings, and his mom bounced between motels and the homes of family members, sometimes splitting up.

“I remember my church [and] the Red Cross really helping. A lot of people can’t relate – [they think] ‘that could never be me.’ You go back to school, people don’t really understand,” Wright says. “Staying with family members, it was home – but it wasn’t really normal. It was something I had to get used to. Once we got it together, you cherish every moment you have together. Because you never know what could happen.”

Through heartbreak comes wisdom. After Wright grew taller than his classmates, and took to practicing on his own makeshift hoops – made from crates and hangers – one of his older brothers had advice for him: Someday you can have your own home; change the way we live, if you work hard.

The advice stuck.

“I’d go on the Internet and see NBA players talking about coming in early and staying late,” Wright says. “I thought, one-day that could carry over.”

As a freshman at Trotwood-Madison high school, Wright ‘s ability to play well above the rim earned him the nickname ‘Flyght.’ As a sophomore, he solidified his rep as leaper with three dunks on the first three possessions against Springfield South.

“I’ve coached some leapers in my time, but I’ve never seen anything like that,” then Springfield South head coach Larry Ham, said at the time. “Three possessions into the game and I’m thinking, where did this kid come from?’ I had to call a timeout to settle my kids down.”

By his senior year, Wright was the 10th highest rated small forward in the nation by Rivals.com and a Jordan Brand All-American Classic selection.

It almost seems fated that Wright – a native of Dayton, the birthplace of American aviation – with his 43-inch vertical leap would become a University of Dayton Flyer. That, and as Mark Daigneault, Wright’s current head coach with the Oklahoma City Blue of the NBA D-League says “He’s kind of a homebody. I call him the Mayor of Dayton.”

“I wanted to lay a foundation, or a legacy there,” Wright says. “It was 15-minutes from my front door. It was something I wanted to do – playing for my city.”

Wright made an immediate impact at Dayton. His 66 dunks sophomore year set the schools’ single season record. With 133 career throw downs, Wright owned the Dayton lifetime mark before senior year even began. Wright graduated from Dayton with an NIT Championship, an NCAA Tournament appearance, and averages of 13 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.

On draft night in 2011, Wright expected his name to be called. Kyrie Irving went first – no surprise there. The names Derrick Williams, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas and Jan Vesely were announced.

Then Bismack Biyombo;

Then Brandon Knight;

Then Kemba Walker;

Then Jimmer Fredette;

Then Klay Thompson.

Wright wasn’t worried yet. 48 picks remained, and few mock-drafts had him going in the top 10.

“My freshman year I broke my ankle,” Wright says. I was playing pretty well, with [Dayton guard] Brian Roberts – he made the game so much easier for me. I was able to shine a little bit because of that. I was a guy that was actually a high prospect – as far as going to the NBA. I was considered a lottery pick on some of those mock draft boards. I always assumed I’d be drafted. I spent all four years (at Dayton), I don’t know if that affected me as far my stock.”

The first round came and went and still Wright remained undrafted – and then the second.

Someday you can have your own home; change the way we live, if you work hard.

“Going undrafted just made me hungrier than I already was,” Wright says.

Four games – in the lockout shortened 11-12 season – was all it took. Four games, 125 minutes, 68 points, and 43 rebounds later, Wright had gone from the Maine Red Claws of the D-League to the Golden State Warriors.

Three separate times that season the Warriors assigned Wright to the D-League. Three separate times he worked himself back.

Someday you can have your own home; change the way we live, if you work hard.

“He’s made his career on his competitiveness,” Daigneault says. “He’s turned competitiveness and motor into a skill. His NBA skill is his competitiveness and his motor. He takes whatever hand he’s dealt and he plays it.”

Wright appeared in 23 games with the Warriors – scoring just under three points and grabbing just under two rebounds per game. It was a disappointing season for the Warriors – winning only 23 games, with Steph Curry Missing most of the season to injury.

“He [Curry] is an extremely hard worker,” Wright says. “A lot of people doubted him because he kept getting hurt. He believed that his time was going to come – he didn’t know when. But, he stuck with it. The way he’s been playing the last 2-3 years, he knew what he was capable of. He didn’t care what anybody said about him. He was like a big brother to me. Anything I needed, he looked out for me. “

The next season it was NBA Summer League and then back to the Maine Red Claws. The season after that it was NBA Summer League and then back to the Maine Red Claws.

Someday you can have your own home; change the way we live, if you work hard.

In March of 2014, a 10-day contract from the Milwaukee Bucks came. It was short lived – Wright was once again shipped back to Maine. A month later, the Bucks brought Wright back on another 10-day contract.

After a 36-month carousel of limited playing time, minor league basketball and the seemingly unforgiving nature of professional athletics, Chris Wright was given 16 minutes and 35 seconds on an NBA court to showcase exactly what he did at the University of Dayton.

On April 11, 2014, in a home game against the Cavs, Wright took nine shots, hitting seven of them. The first time he touched the ball, he ran the length of the court, weaving between all five Cavs defenders, converting an off-balance scoop shot under the basket.

Has he been impressive in the short period of time he’s been here in the moments he’s played? Bucks commentator Jon McGlocklin asked.

The next three times Wright touched the ball on offense, he elevated off of the ground – as if he hadn’t properly jumped in years – dunking like he was still at Trotwood-Madison and it was Springfield South he was putting it on.

Still, it wasn’t enough

The next season he was in Poland. The season after that Israel.

“Of course it’s frustrating because I worked every day, but I look at everything as a learning experience,” Wright says. “Whatever your path is to get to the highest level, or whatever level it is, you have to find purpose. I love basketball – that’s one of my favorite things to do in the world. I started to look at it like, ‘if basketball is the only thing you have, then you’ve failed in life. Because basketball can replace you the next day; the next hour; the next minute. You have to be in the moment, learn from it and cherish it, because tomorrow’s not promised. It doesn’t matter where I’m playing, I work hard every single day to be the best at where I’m at in that moment.”

Chris Wright goes up for a dunk in a game this season with the Oklahoma City Blue. Photo Credit Getty Images

Now, at 28, citing the difficulties of being so far from home, Wright decided once again to return to the D-League.

Playing with the Oklahoma City Blue, Wright spent the season less than a half-mile from the Blue’s NBA Affiliate, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“The older a player gets, the potential window closes,” Daigneault says. “It’s less about what they are capable of doing in the future and more about what they can do this moment. I think Chris’s NBA chances at this point are tied more closely to what he would bring to an NBA team right now, versus a younger guy that a team might take to develop into their 20s.

To me, there’s way more NBA players then there are NBA uniforms. There are a lot of guys out there that are more than capable of filling a role in the NBA, but they don’t have the opportunity at this point or sometimes even ever in their career. With a guy like Chris, I think he has an NBA skill, because he is a high motor player that can guard multiple positions – in the grind of an 82-game season, he is going to bring it every night.”

Injuries and illness limited Wright to 20 games this season. He mostly came off the bench – and on restricted minutes his numbers dipped to 10 points and 4 rebounds a game, down from his career averages of 17 and 8.

Still, Daigneault says Wright has been an important component for a Blue team that advanced to the D-Leagues’ Western Conference Finals – coming up a game short of the league championship series.

“I’ve told him many times, there’s no place I’d rather him go through a season like this then here. He’s had a great impact on the environment we’ve tried to have here. We had a younger team, he’s been a catalyst in our locker room.”

“This is one of the best organizations around – as far as the Thunder and the D-League, Wright says. “We’re really a close-knit group – the coaches work with you. I’ve been able to get through those injuries because of the coaches and the people around me. I haven’t had the greatest year as far as being healthy – but I’m still the same person because of the people I’m around.”

Someday you can have your own home; change the way we live, if you work hard.

Wright isn’t sure where he’ll be next season, though, as sure as the Sun will rise, he will be sharpening his game in the offseason – preparing for the NBA.


Cover Illustration by Daniel Rowell @danieljrowell