Big-Bucks Benchwarmer

A straight-from-high-school phenom stays intimate with the Heat bench

Wright was not interviewed for this article, largely because Miami Heat owner Mickey Arison is holding a grudge against Village Voice Media — Miami New Times called Arison a "greedy corporate pig" in two headlines in 1996. So New Times pays face value for Heat tickets, and the press box is at row 21, section 324 of American Airlines Arena, where it takes binoculars to find number one — the "Wrighteous One," as his teammates call him — sitting on a bench in the April 3 game against the Toronto Raptors.

Jason Kapono — the most efficient three-point shooter in the league — has recovered from an ankle sprain, and since he plays small forward like Wright, Wright sits. Even without Kapono, Wright had played only 87 seconds in the previous two games. With home-court advantage in the playoffs at stake, it seemed clear that Wright hadn't yet earned the trust of head coach Pat Riley.

This is the downside to landing on a team of accomplished veterans who make championship-title runs. It's meant Wright hasn't had the opportunity he might have had if, say, Shaq, James Posey, Antoine Walker, and Gary Payton hadn't come to the Heat soon after he was drafted. It's also meant he gets to learn from them — in practice, if not in games.

Dorell Wright can learn a lot from his good friend Dwyane Wade
Dorell Wright can learn a lot from his good friend Dwyane Wade
Wright might become a top player in the NBA - if he could get into the game
Wright might become a top player in the NBA - if he could get into the game

In his first season with the Heat, Wright played in only three games, scoring just seven points. He fared slightly better in the second season, playing in twenty games for an average of six minutes each. During this season, Wright's third, a few teammates got injured and Wright got his chance.

For nineteen games, Wright was in the starting lineup and showed promise: several double-doubles and a few snazzy dunks, and he hustled like crazy. But his jump shot was erratic, and as teammates stepped up, Wright fell behind; in early January, he lost his starting spot. Since then, his playing time has been spotty. Some games, he'll be on the court for 30 minutes. Others, he'll get no time.

NBA rulemakers recognized the plight of the unfulfilled prep star. Last year they required that draftees must be a year out of high school and at least nineteen years old. The new rule is meant to protect promising players from being drafted before they're ready, then falling flat, losing confidence, and ruining what might have been extensive NBA careers.

Coaches and scouts say they'd be surprised if there wasn't a place for Wright's unreal athleticism, pterodactyl wingspan, and diversified skill set somewhere in the league. It took Jermaine O'Neal a couple of seasons on the bench, then being traded, before he became a Pacers standout. It takes an emotionally resilient player to do this, but the consensus is that Wright is in the NBA to stay.

To see Wright warm up, words like springy and childlike come to mind. Throughout the Raptors pregame, he blows giant pink bubbles, hangs on the rim, challenges more stern-looking players to shoot over him, and affectionately cups the backs of people's heads. By the end of the night, he will have cupped almost every one of his teammates' heads.

When the game starts, Wright takes his place in the penultimate seat of the bench.

With 10:31 remaining in the first quarter, he blows a bubble.

At 9:55, another bubble. He has a bovine way of chewing, and from the upper deck, even with binoculars, it's hard to tell whether it bothers Gary Payton or Alonzo Mourning, between whom he is sandwiched. He looks really small, sitting there with his elbows resting on his knees.

At 7:45 he takes his gum out of his mouth and quickly puts it behind him.

At 6:30 he's chewing again, but there are no bubbles — a sign of discontent?

No, when the buzzer for the quarter sounds, Wright jumps up and gives all the players five. If he's getting worried about how many minutes he'll see tonight, he's not showing it, at least yet. He appears outwardly thrilled that Jason Kapono came off the bench and hit three jumpers in a row. The Heat leads 30-25.

With 11:23 left in the second quarter, Wright puts the black cutoff shirt he's wearing over his jersey in his mouth. Then he lets it fall.

At 9:37 he requests a new piece of gum, and a Heat trainer gets it for him. He tosses the wrapper behind him.

At 5:39 Wade cups Wright's head. Then Wright cups Jason Williams's head.

For a good portion of the second quarter, Wright chats with Jason Williams, and it looks like Williams may be giving him pointers. The Heat steadily builds a lead, which might up Wright's chances of getting in the game.

Now 3:31. If there's a time he'll get in, it's now. Wright sits back in his chair and crosses his arms.

The minutes wind down, and at the end of the half, still on the bench, Wright blows a giant bubble. The team exits the floor, leading 56-45, and Wright cups the back of fellow benchwarmer Michael Doleac's head.

For most of the third quarter, more bubbles are blown, and not much else is happening.

With 2:14 left Wright blows a really big one. This one pops a little on his face, and he tongues it off his cheek.

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