His status as the centerpiece of a great University of Memphis team alongside fellow local products such as Cedric Henderson and Chris Garner; reading the Sports Illustrated story on that team — with its dynamic photo of the starting five — while I was away at college.
His startling 33-26 explosion against the Dallas Mavericks, three games into the Memphis Grizzlies inaugural season.
Seeing him in the locker room after Grizzlies games, both knees packed in ice, willing to talk and candid with a gesture or glance even when he couldn't be with words.
The craftiness that allowed him to survive in the NBA as an undersized post player, and the palpable, smirking pleasure he took in his collection of vet's tricks.
His central role in helping a skinny, soft seven-footer from Spain develop into an NBA star: Getting in Pau Gasol's face when needed, but also watching his back.
His warm, winning personality in those great early television ads for the team, like the one where he was trying to instruct rookie Drew Gooden on the way around town or, even better, this team-up with Mike Miller at Midtown's Barksdale Restaurant:
But the very first thing that came to mind this afternoon, when I was driving home and I heard the news that Wright had been found dead in southeast Memphis, was what former coach Hubie Brown said when introducing Wright at Brown's first Grizzlies public practice. Microphone in hand, addressing fans, Brown introduced all the players, but Wright was the only one about whom he said this: "This guy," I remember Brown telling everyone in the arena, "is living the dream."
What Brown meant was that Wright had been a high school and college star in Memphis, his hometown, and was now suiting up as starting center for an NBA team at home. Something he did for three Memphis playoff teams. How many athletes in any sport have had the experience of being a hometown star at all three levels of competition? Certainly many fewer than have found themselves in all-star games or halls of fame.
Wright's life was charmed: Unprecedented hometown athletic success. Immense respect and affection garnered on and off the court. Seven children. But it was also plagued with troubles: One child tragically lost, as an infant, during his tenure with the Grizzlies. Recently, a divorce and home foreclosures that may or may not be relevant to his death. (As my colleague Frank Murtaugh points out in his remembrance of Wright, there's been a pattern of troubles that has touched too many Memphis basketball greats.)
Answers to that will hopefully come in the days and weeks ahead, as the investigation into Wright's death — likely his murder — will be an enormous story in this city. But for now, let's remember Wright as not only a tragic Memphis story, but before that as a great Memphis story. And as a man who left a considerable mark on the city's cultural life over the past couple of decades.
Finally, to remember better times, Wright's draft night. Embracing his parents and embracing his future, with commentary from his future coach:
The biggest NBA news of the week is the report that New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul is seeking a trade.
However, with those admissions of reality in place, there are plenty of reasons why the Grizzlies could be a good destination for Paul and a good trade partner for the Hornets. And while the chances of something like this happening are probably close to zero, allow me the brief indulgence of laying out the pitch I'd like to see the Grizzlies make.
The General Pitch to Paul: We can pair you with two great young pieces — Rudy Gay (23) and Marc Gasol (25). Gay is an emerging star and one of your closest friends in the league. He'll be the most dynamic wing scorer you've ever played with and also a player who will become much better playing alongside a point guard of your caliber. Paul-to-Gay will become one of the most exciting and effective open-court pairings in the league. Gasol, who just finished second in the Most Improved Player race, is a proven winner and emerging all-star-caliber true center who will be the best two-way big man you've ever played with. We believe that, with the right mix of role players — shooters, rebounders, defenders — a team built around this trio can be a legitimate contender, and one that will allow you to still be the unquestioned team leader. We will commit to putting a winning team in place around you, Gay, and Gasol, including paying luxury tax if needed. And we will give you a three-year max extension under the current CBA, with a player option in the second year, giving you the flexibility of opting out if you don't like the direction the team is heading after three seasons.
The Grizzlies finished their Las Vegas Summer League season Sunday with 3-2 record, losing their final two games to the Minnesota and San Antonio summer squads. What I took away from the games:
O.J. Mayo: After several hints that Mayo would return for one or two more games in Las Vegas, they didn't happen? Did Mayo decide not to play or did the team shut him down? There are hints that it's the latter, with coach Lionel Hollins offering skeptical comments about Mayo's potential transition.
With nothing new to factor in since my previous Summer League post, I'll just reiterate: I remain agnostic on the question of Mayo becoming a point guard. His awkward, mistake-heavy play at the position certainly doesn't help the case, but nor do I find it definitive. The bigger issue is that the team's current roster (where the three best bench players might be wings) and penchant for having match-up problems with bigger guards at both backcourt spots both point toward needing to put Mayo on the ball for stretches. And if the team is giving up on that after two poor Summer League games, then what's the end game going to be?
Young has already proven he can score against pros. In Vegas he need to expand his game beyond the ball-stopping, one-on-one, slashing play that marked his rookie season, and I think he did that. Young scored plenty on isolation plays, but it seemed to be a much better mix than during his rookie season: More catch-and-shoot jumpers, more transition scores, some quick post scores.
The Grizzlies two biggest acquisitions this summer — Tony Allen and Xavier Henry — both play the same positions as Young, but on a team so devoid of quality depth, the Grizzlies can't let Young languish. He's a legit NBA contributor.
O.J. MAYO: While I think O.J. Mayo's two-game (so far) point guard audition has been slightly better than his box scores indicate, there's no doubt that it has not gone well so far. Through two games, Mayo has 6 assists to 15 turnovers and hasn't looked comfortable in the role.
There's a more valid outside factor in the low assist numbers: Though the Grizzlies have more roster players on the court in summer league than any other NBA team, there's not really much offensive talent out there. So Mayo's spent a lot of time passing to perimeter players — like DeMarre Carroll — who can't hit open shots and frontcourt players — hello, Hasheem Thabeet — who struggle to finish in the paint.
That said, Mayo has still been pretty bad at the point. His ball handling is the biggest problem. He simply has to get better at handling the ball against pressure if he's going to see regular-season minutes at the one. As far as his bad-pass turnovers, I think a lot of that has to do with Mayo pressing — trying too hard in what he must feel is a do-or-die opportunity to expand if not change his role. Along the way, this particular point guard audition hasn't showcased Mayo as the type of point guard he'll need to be, and I thought Grizzlies assistant coach Dave Joerger had a very perceptive — if awkwardly worded — comment about this in the Commercial Appeal's Game 1 story:
“When he is O.J. at the one he’s better off than just trying to be a one. Don’t try to be a point guard. Be O.J., who is playing point guard. When he did that, he loosened up.”
If Mayo's going to make it at the point, whether full-time or just part-time, it's not going to be as a flashy, penetrating, pass-first point guard in the Steve Nash/Chris Paul/Deron Williams mold. He's going to have to be more of a Chauncey Billups-style lead guard: Run the offense; make the simple, effective pass; use his shooting and scoring ability; use his size and physicality on both ends.
Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley has been vocal about his expectations of a playoff appearance for the Grizzlies this season, but without improvement from the bench such a leap wasn't likely, not even in a Western Conference that has lost more stars this summer than it's gained. The team could have hoped that internal improvement among young returnees or the performance of rookies Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez would give the needed boost. And those hopes might have been realized. But past history suggests that relying strictly on unproven youth is not a wise bet.
In a free agent market in which promising role players such as Wesley Matthews (5 years, $33 million) and Travis Outlaw (5 years, $35 million) have gotten very generous deals and with the Grizzlies seemingly unwilling to come within sniffing distance of the luxury-tax line, the team was likely being priced out of the Ronnie Brewer market even if they'd maintained their matching rights to him. And given that reality, Allen seems like a decent back-up option.
The NBA's salary cap and luxury tax threshold was set Wednesday afternoon, with both numbers coming in higher than anticipated. The salary cap for the 2010-2011 season will be $58.044 million. The luxury tax line will be $70.307 million. That second number, in particular, should have a significant impact on how the Grizzlies conduct themselves the rest of this offseason. The team had declined to extend a qualifying offer to free agent Ronnie Brewer ostensibly because of fears of Brewer's $3.7 million QO combining with Rudy Gay's new contract (estimated $13.3 million in year one) to push the team perilously close to a luxury-tax threshold that was thought to potentially be as low as $66 million.
But, with the tax line coming in more the $4 million more than that, the Grizzlies now have a decent amount of wiggle room to add more pieces to the roster, including, possibly, Brewer, whom CNNSI's Chris Mannix reported Wednesday night the team was still interested in signing. Where exactly do the Grizzlies stand in relation to the cap and tax lines heading into the rest of the offseason? As a rule, teams do not disclose salary information, so this is an approximation based on the best available information, but the currently the team's player payroll for the 2010-2011 season looks something like this:
Midway into the first day that free agents were allowed to negotiate with teams, multiple reports indicated — and Michael Heisley essentially confirmed to NBA Fanhouse's Chris Tomasson — that the Grizzlies and Gay had reached a verbal agreement on a deal that would pay Gay roughly $82 million over five years. The contact can't be signed until July 8th, but there's no reason to believe that this deal won't be consummated then.
What to make of this somewhat unexpected news?
Multiple outlets are reporting this afternoon that the Grizzlies have reached a verbal agreement with Rudy Gay to retain him for five-year, roughly $82 million contract, a deal that apparently heads off the threat of another team offering Gay a frontloaded contract that Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley may have been reluctant to match. The contract can be signed on July 8th.
More on this later today.