MEMPHIS -- America didn’t become a safer place after April 4, 1968, when shots bloodied the balcony of the Lorraine Motel here. This city, like most, has had a dangerous fascination with handguns and violence, with Elvis taking it out on his TV set, James Earl Ray taking it out on Martin Luther King, and in separate shootings, thugs taking it out on one of Memphis’ favorite basketball families.
Herb Wright often wonders how different his life might’ve been if guns weren’t obtained as easily as a pack of cigarettes and didn’t so often fall into evil hands. Maybe he could go for a walk, or a swim, or chase his grandkids around the house, or demonstrate the pick-and-roll to the high school basketball team he coaches, simple pleasures that were stolen by a bullet that confined him to a wheelchair.
And maybe his oldest son, Lorenzen, would still be alive to give him a sense of pride, a boy who became a local college star and played 13 respectable years in the NBA before being discovered in a park, another Wright cut down in the same cruel manner.
Two years later, the murder of Lorenzen Wright remains unresolved, just like this country’s stance on automatic weapons that routinely make mothers cry in the gritty city as it did last week at a Connecticut elementary school. In 2011 the local murder rate increased from the previous year and made Memphis the fifth-most violent city in America. Of the 147 murders, 48 percent were committed by suspects under 25 years old, and earlier this year Memphis police director Toney Armstrong explained: “If you target youth violence, you will see a reduction in crime.”
Just because a number of killings are gang related doesn’t dismiss the elephant in the funeral home. The proliferation of guns and the ease in which almost anyone, regardless of age or sanity, can get them is beyond the crisis point. It’s been heightened lately only because the victims in Newtown were first graders and the shocking murder-suicide in Kansas City a week earlier involved a player for the Chiefs. But shooting the innocent in cold blood wasn’t invented in December of 2012. In a sense, gun violence last reached this level of national outrage four decades ago here in Memphis, when a Civil Rights leader’s death caused universal chaos and coincidently, led to urban decay and more violence.
Many are now lending their quivering and angry voices to the cause, pushing for reforms quickly in the name of Newtown. And yet one of the more qualified authorities on gun violence lives half a country away and is more than willing to take a stand, wheelchair be damned. When you’ve had your ability to walk and also see your son taken away, well, you tend to speak from the (broken) heart.
“What do we need assault rifles for?” Herb Wright asked the other day. “What do you need AK-47s for? Why would you even want those kinds of weapons? I don’t get it. These hardcore gun owners, I just wonder if what happened to those kids in Connecticut really matters to them, the way it’s supposed to matter. And the story about guns is going on everywhere. All over the place.
“America kind of blows things out of proportion when it comes to the right to bear arms. I don’t think that meant assault rifles. When I was younger, I played pro ball in Europe, mainly in Finland, and they didn’t have these types of problems. Nonexistent. Crime almost zero. I would love to live in a country like that, as much as I know it’s next to impossible. I hope to see it in my lifetime, but probably won’t.
“I bet if you took all the guns away and left it up to hand-to-hand combat, you know what would happen? A lot of these tough guys doing all the shooting will go run and hide somewhere. And as far as crime, I’ve yet to hear about somebody robbing someone with their fists.”
In his day, when there was conflict, boys simply fought with boys and men with men using their dukes. No one ran to fetch a gun, like 30 years ago during a round of pickup basketball games in the rec center where Herb Wright once worked. One of the last games played that night grew more overheated than usual. After a few minutes of back-and-forth insults between teams turned into pushes and shoves, he asked two troublemakers to leave.
We’ll be back, he remembers the young men saying. He knew what that meant. This was a different day, a different type of kid, a different level of retaliation that he once knew. When he heard them forcing their way into the gym later that night, he ran for help. The first bullet missed. The second one sent him to the ground, his legs paralyzed forever.
He kept coaching, even from the wheelchair, at Shelby State Community College and also teaching Lorenzen the basics that would allow him to become of the best players ever at the University of Memphis and later an NBA lottery pick.
“I was hard on him,” Herb Wright said. “You have to be hard on them so when you’re not around and they’re on their own, you don’t have to worry. I told him if you listen to what I tell you and work your butt off, you’ll make some money someday. And that was his goal. I haven’t had a student like that before or since.”
After spending a few days helping Lorenzen become adjusted in high school, there was something about the atmosphere there that struck the father as odd.
“Kids were walking up and down the hall, using profanity at teachers, and I’m like, ‘Are y’all going to say something to them?’ They didn’t say anything. You look at some of these schools and there’s no discipline. It’s hurting the kids and it’s hurting the country. There’s no doubt that some of the violence we’re seeing comes from a lack of discipline among kids who don’t get it at home, don’t get it at school. I made sure that wouldn’t happen to my kids.”
Lorenzen Wright played for four NBA teams, never a star but always popular among teammates and coaches wherever he went, known for having the even-keel demeanor his father told him to keep. That’s what makes the circumstances and theories about Lorenzen’s death so mystifying and, to his father, so non-believable.
Lorenzen was last seen July 18, 2010, leaving the home of his ex-wife and their six children. When questioned, she told police he left with a box of drugs and money. His 6-foot-11 body was found 10 days later in a wooded area of Southeast Memphis, riddled with multiple gunshot wounds.
His friends and family had their doubts about drugs playing any role in his death, and detectives, while not ruling anything out, seemed skeptical as well. But to this day, nothing is known: no motive, no killers, no weapons, no money or drugs on the scene or word on the street, no solid leads to give investigators any hunch that a resolution is close. They wouldn’t reveal anymore than that.
Herb Wright is obvious sickened by his son’s death and equally as much by the unproven theories, to the point where he refuses to discuss either anymore. “I’m not going to get into it,” he made clear recently. “I have nothing to say about any of it.”
After so many close years together, and countless discussions about life, he knew his son’s character, however, and so he had something to say about that.
“Lorenzen didn’t have an evil bone in his body,” he said, and that was enough.
Years ago in an interview, when asked about what his father went through in the years following the shooting that impaired him, Lorenzen said something that almost seems cryptic today:
“He taught me how to think before you do something. He said if you think, you can never go wrong.”
Herb Wright is still coaching. He worked with Lorenzen Jr. and tried to teach his grandson the same finer basketball and life lessons he taught his son. He’s also an assistant boys’ coach at Oakhaven High School and remains a critic of the lack of discipline he sees throughout the school district.
“If you don’t teach your kids, they’re going to make some crazy mistake along the way, thinking they live in this dream world where there are no consequences for what they do,” he said. “It comes from the breakdown of the family. And a lot of these kids come from families where there’s no traditional head of the household. It’s different when there’s a man in the house, and he’s playing his role. Once a boy gets a certain age and he’s raised only by his mother, there’s not much she can do if he chooses to go a certain route. I see a lot of that.”
He sees, or gets the sense anyway, that some of these kids will soon find their way to a gun and violence and join the saddest annual statistic kept by the city of Memphis.
“I know even if we stopped selling guns, they might somehow find their way into the wrong hands anyway,” he said. “But it would be a start in the right direction. It would make it tougher to do the kind of hurtful things we see too many times today.”
Maybe, if such a Pollyanna America existed, might a father be able to walk over to his son and share a moment right now?
“No doubt.” Herb Wright said. “No doubt.”