Big-Bucks Benchwarmer

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

Now there's 1:30 left. Wright and Antoine Walker are laughing hysterically. At the end of the third, the score is 73-67.

In the fourth, Wright watches his team barely hold on to win. Without him. He claps often and even stands in support every now and then. As he leaves the floor, a bit of the spring has gone out of his step.

Riley recently declared Wright, along with Wade, the future of the team, but judging by the dearth of number-one jerseys in American Airlines Arena (Wright appears to be the only one wearing one), the fans aren't so sure.

The Heat seems to want to promote Wright. He's the current feature of a four-part Sun TV series that gives a cursory look into Wright's life, emphasizing his fun, glossing over his frustration.

Walking around Miami Beach with Heat sportscaster Jason Jackson in the videos, Wright comes off as confident, happy-go-lucky, and a little goofy. When they encounter a passing parade, Wright playfully joins it, marching in step. He's got a way of keeping things light, suggesting some idyllic California childhood, which is exactly what he had.

Wright started playing hoops at Jesse Owens Park in a gang-infested section of South Central Los Angeles when he was just four years old. He practically swam in his jersey, but he was already a fierce competitor. In his first rec game, before the referee could toss the ball for the jump, Wright stole it away and attempted to score. His friends still tease him about it.

During the summers of his youth, Wright tagged along with older friends to the park. Wright; his oldest friend, Jonathan Green; Green's brother; and another friend would wake up at sunrise and head to the park, skipping and singing, "This is the song that never ends." They'd get louder and louder, aiming to wake and provoke the neighbors. At the park, they'd shoot hoops, then swim, then shoot more hoops.

Jonathan Green remembers how Wright was the youngest in the group by two years but how, seemingly overnight, the kid learned to dribble between his legs and move with a lean agility that reminded him of a young Penny Hardaway. His body seemed to have an inborn understanding of the game.

Not everybody recognized Wright's gifts. He sat on the bench his freshman year at Washington High School and saw only two games in tenth grade. There's no telling where Wright would be now if Derrick Clark hadn't taken him under his wing at Leuzinger, then introduced Wright to his AAU coach.

Erik Harden had been Clark's Amateur Athletic Union coach for two years and had come to appreciate his player's opinion. So in late 2001, when Clark said, "Coach, there's a kid you gotta see," Harden took it seriously.

"I knew Derrick had a good eye for talent," he said. "He's probably the smartest player I've ever coached. He was always an extension of me out on the basketball court. Without me telling him, he always knew what plays to call."

When Harden finally got a look at Wright, then an eleventh-grader at Leuzinger High School, he nearly fell over. Leuzinger — a school not known then for its basketball — lost that night by 40, but Harden couldn't take his eyes off Wright.

"I saw legs. I saw arms. I saw hands. I saw an eager beaver. And I said, 'This could be a player,'" he recalls. "That kid could scratch his ankles walking down the street."

After the game, Harden approached Wright, who was pouting over the loss. "I said, 'I don't care nothing about this game here. I want you. If you want to play with me and if you're serious with me, I'll be serious with you. If you stick with me, I guarantee you, you'll go to the college of your choice. '"

Later that week, Harden called up Dorell's father, Ray Wright, and persuaded him to let Dorell play AAU basketball. Even at just fifteen years old, Wright dominated, and Harden started making phone calls to coaches across the nation.

Meanwhile, Clark switched high schools his senior year so he could be on a basketball team with a chance to win the state tournament. He and Marcus Williams (now of the New Jersey Nets) were the guards for Crenshaw High School — an electric combination.

Clark could get to the hoop at will, but what Harden remembers most fondly is that defense, how Clark seemed to relish harassing the other team till it turned the ball over. Darren Collison, who starred for UCLA in last month's NCAA tournament, looked like Little Bo Peep in comparison, Harden remembers. If only Clark hadn't stopped growing....

Before he could realize his NCAA dreams, Clark would have to play at Indian Hills, an Iowa community college. A groin injury was the first setback, winter homesickness the second. "They put a city boy in the snow," Clark says.

He went back to California, enrolling at L.A. Harbor College, and played basketball for a year. He did well, but injuries derailed the team and shortened its season.

At the same time, Clark's friend from AAU was blowing up. Wright had become an unstoppable scorer and rebounder, people were saying. And he seemed to be focused on playing college ball.

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