The NBA D-League is full of dreamers: guys playing for miniscule pay checks, in small gyms in small towns, in front of empty seats while chasing a childhood fantasy: To play in the NBA.
Westchester Knicks forward Keith Wright, 27, is one of these dreamers.
Except, the 6’8” 240-pounder’s biggest dreams aren’t of dunks and glory on the basketball court.
When hardwood floors creep into his inner-most thoughts, Wright is just as likely to be thinking of the unfinished wood of a mid-town therapist’s office as the polished maple of Madison Square Garden.
“If I wasn’t playing basketball, I’d probably be a couple’s therapist,” Wright says. “That’s always been a dream of mine, since before I started playing basketball. I’ve always enjoyed talking to my friends about their relationships and their problems. That was the route that I was taking.”
Basketball is a cerebral game, so it should come as no surprise that Wright’s psych degree from Harvard has served him well as a player.
“My psychology background definitely helps a lot,” he says. “You have to know how to talk to guys. I know that certain guys respond to things differently. I’ve always been a person that observes first. I love going outside and people watching. It definitely adds value.”
On the court, Wright’s former teammate at Harvard, Kyle Casey, describes him as “crafty” with a deceptive game.
“He plays with a high IQ; that is a luxury and rarity to find in most big guys,” Casey says. “His ability to play inside out makes him a dangerous threat and matchup nightmare.”
Off the court, Casey describes him as having a teddybear-like quality, a trait that reverberates through the gentleness of Wright’s tone of voice.
“He’s someone who is always in an uplifting jovial mood,” Casey says. “We would often walk into the locker room to find Keith singing and dancing, only to greet us with a big bear hug. His spirit resonates throughout all that he does. I think it is one of the most obvious and positive characteristics about him.”
Wright describes himself as A native of “all over” and says he moved around often as a kid because his dad was in the military. It was a pattern that continued after his parents divorced.
“I was very aware of why my parents got divorced,” Wright says. “I saw why they didn’t work as a couple. Seeing that early on may have impacted my desire to become a couple’s therapist.”
In high school, Wright did a year in Fredericksburg, followed by a year at Princess Anne in Virginia Beach, and then two at Norfolk Collegiate in Norfolk, VA.
Wright didn’t start playing organized ball until he was 16, largely because. his mom, Sabrena, made it clear early that academia would always come first.
“She didn’t want athletics to define me, or for me to think basketball was my way out,” Wright remembers. “My freshman year I got a C on a progress report in English – so she told me I couldn’t try out for the team. It was tough because my friends were playing. But it gave me the motivation to get it right in the classroom.”
It was a hard lesson for the 15-year-old, but one that may have shaped Wright’s entire adult life.
The next year, Wright was an A student, made the basketball team and excelled both in the classroom and on the court.
After twice being named All-Conference and All-State, Wright was recruited locally by George Mason University, but when Harvard came into play, the decision was all but made for him.
“Once I got a call from Harvard, it was a no brainer for me,” Wright says. “One of the top academic schools in the world, I never would have thought I would have the opportunity to go to a university like that. It was mind blowing. It was an easy decision. Basketball isn’t always guaranteed, and at that point I didn’t think I’d be playing professionally at all.”
A centerpiece of coach Tommy Amaker’s Crimson, Wright blossomed into the 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year – leading Harvard to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1946. With over 14 points and 8 boards per game, Wright led the team in both scoring and rebounding. During his senior year, Wright became the school’s all-time leading shot blocker.
“Coach Amaker is a great coach – a great defensive mind,” Wright says. “I didn’t realize the value until I left. I started playing professionally; we were doing the same defensive drills that we were doing at Harvard. That helped me out a ton. I’ve always thanked him for helping me get ready for this level.”
After Harvard, Wright spent a season in Sweden, followed by a half-season in Poland and then back to Sweden for the rest of the year. As often happens with an American playing overseas, the experience was up-and-down. His team in Poland – Czarni Slupsk – reneged on paying him.
“It was eye opening,” Wright says. “I grew up a lot – learning how to be a professional from the vets on my team. It was a fun time as well – making a living playing basketball. My second year was kind of tough, being in Poland. The team not paying me – having to leave in the middle of the season.”
Wright jumped from Europe to the D-League’s Austin Spurs in 2014. According to Wright, the exposure of the D-League makes up for the pay – D-League salaries max out at $26,000; a pittance in comparison to many of his classmates from the Harvard class of 2012.
Wright says his plan was always to play in the D-League after making and saving some money in Europe.
After splitting last season between the “Dub Knicks” and Austin Spurs, Wright had planned to head back overseas in hopes of cashing in a larger paycheck. Stability is a rare commodity for most pro-hooper’s. Wright’s career has been no exception, which is why he’s found himself back in Westchester.
“Coming into this season, I wasn’t expecting to come back,” Wright says of the D-League. “I was looking at offers overseas, things were kind of falling thru. Westchester told me that they wanted me to come back and tryout for another season.”
Back in Westchester, Wright is currently averaging 8.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. On Dec. 22, he showed the full upside of his game against the Raptors905, scoring 16 points on an efficient 7-of-10 from the floor, to go along with 9 rebounds.
The D-League lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Wright cites the travel, the low pay and the up-and-down nature of playing-time as the hardest things to navigate. But, after five years, he is still working fulltime as a ball player, not bad for a guy who was recruited for college late and who didn’t think he’d be a pro until he was a senior at Harvard.
“You just have to stay positive. You can never get too high or too low,” Wright says. I don’t know how long I will play, depending on where I am in life – I might be starting a family down the line. I don’t really know, I kind of take things day by day – you know, take care of today and the rest will take care of its self.”
Wright says he doesn’t like to think about his future on the court, that thoughts like that can cause him to loss focus on the game right in front of him.
“If I think too far ahead, it distracts me from the present, and I’m not the best player I can be,” He says.
He is, however, starting to look towards his potential second career life.
“The only thing that I am really thinking about in the future is starting to take some classes to get my masters in marriage counseling,” Wright says. “You can do more than one thing in life.”