Michael Wright: he will be missed
Michael Wright was one of the best freshmen to play for former Arizona coach Lute Olson. He gave UA some size, strength and some power near the basket. And he was a quiet type, rarely being quoted because he really didn't like the limelight.
Wright was found dead on Wednesday in Brooklyn after being found in his Lexus SUV. He suffered a head wound, according to the New York Daily News.
"(I) loved Michael," said former teammate and roommate Josh Pastner, now the head coach at Memphis. "(He) played hard. Helped us win so many games … always had the back of the person who was the underdog. Was a good human. He's going to be really missed."
Facebook and Twitter had the news early Wednesday morning. Details of Wright's death were still pending. He was 35 years old. He was drafted by the New York Knicks in the second round in 2001, after leaving UA following his junior year. He later tried out for the Phoenix Suns. He had an extensive career overseas, including a number of years in Turkey. He changed his name to Ali Karadeniz while in Turkey.
Olson said on Wednesday he heard earlier in the day Wright had passed away, saying it was sad news.
"It's so difficult to think of because there wasn't anyone who didn't love Michael," said Olson, who coached Wright from 1999-2001, regardless if they were teammates or coaches or fans. For his life to end that way is beyond belief."
Former teammate A.J. Bramlett said "it's a sad day but he won't be forgotten."
"Michael was never scared or intimated by anyone," said Bramlett. "He went out and out worked you. He was a good guy and teammate who didn't say much but spoke very loudly with the way he competed everyday and during the biggest moments."
He had a hand in Arizona's run to the NCAA title game in 2001, playing alongside Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton, Loren Woods, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Gardner.
While Arizona was winning games en route to the title game, I did a story on Wright and found out the players called Michael - Michael Olson because Lute loved Michael so much because of his work rate and attitude.
At the time, Wright was embarrassed about it, saying "They tease me about it."
Olson said he liked Wright because "he was such a hard worker. In his freshman year, he had trouble with his post moves and he'd come up after practice and ask what he could do to get better. He'd stay after practice and work."
In Arizona's 2001 season - one mixed with a number of high and low emotions (Olson's wife, Bobbi passed away on New Year's Day 2001), Wright was named a third team All-American. He was an all-conference pick as well.
"Coach Olson knows that I want to be a good player," Wright said then. "This is the reason why I came to Arizona. He's a very good teacher. Everything (the coaches) say I need to work on, I do."
"Everyone I have heard from today, everything I have read today, speaks of how nice of a guy he was and that's the absolute truth," said Brett Hansen, who was the team's sports information director at the time. "You just love to see kids like him succeed and that's exactly what happened when he came to Tucson. He was also one of the hardest working players I was ever around and one of the more underrated players to ever wear an Arizona uniform. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and everyone who knew him. It's a very sad day for the Arizona basketball family."
Wright was recruited out of the inner city of Chicago out of Farragut Academy. He often spoke about helping his mom, Rose, out after she worked two jobs to make ends meet. He was part of a group called Life Directions and that helped him change his life
"If I was not playing basketball, I'd probably be on the streets and in jail or killed," he said in a Tucson Citizen story in 2000.
Life Directions' mission was to motivate "at-risk" young adults to stay out of trouble and work toward being somebody. Wright epitomized that. He spoke to young kids about his life and encouraged them to make smart choices. Life Directions helped him to get on the right path.
"You know how it is," Wright told a group of high school kids while at UA. "You don't want to go to sixth or seventh period. Well, I wasn't (about that). "And my coach told me, 'if you don't go to class, you won't play."
He played and eventually became a beloved figure in Arizona basketball. On Wednesday, Sean Miller, who had never met Wright, began his press conference talking about what Wright's death meant to the program.
"It's devastating and it certainly affects our basketball program," Miller said. "I know a lot of his teammates and former players and coaches and when something like that happens at such a young age you don't have all the answers. You feel horrible. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, and to our family as a basketball program, all those who played with him and were teammates. When you lose somebody it's felt across the board."