Coach Bernard Wright's talent trap

The team that jogged onto a Fort Lauderdale basketball court for the regional quarterfinal playoff wearing baggy silver and blue jerseys sure didn't look like a high school squad. Their center was 6'8". Four of their guards were over 6'5". The squad had reserves coming off the bench that were 6'6" or 6'7".

To Rick Medvin, head coach of the opposing Fort Lauderdale Christian High boys' squad — on which the tallest player was a 6'3" center — it must have felt like something from the Twilight Zone: "Attack of the Monsters From Miami." "All I remember is they were big," he says, sounding a bit dazed three years after that game in February 2008.

The intimidating team was from Choice Learning Academy, a two-year-old private school for 130 poor kids in grades 3 through 12. CLA was located in a building leased from a homeless shelter. Head coach Bernard Wright, a short, bulky man wearing a pressed dark suit, paced the sidelines and flailed like a miniature Rick Pitino.

In youth ball, height is everything. If you can dominate the boards, block shots, and bully your way to easy hoops, the game can quickly get ugly. That looming center, Joel Gierbolini, a long and lean senior baller freshly transferred from his native Puerto Rico, scored 18 points, dunked with ease, and sent four blocks flying. CLA demolished Lauderdale Christian by a score of 78-26 and moved on to the regional finals. With a win-loss record of 25-3, the Hoyas were used to being on the right side of beatdowns.

The Miami Herald was in love. The paper, which had named Gierbolini to its all-county team, said the 52-point pummeling "proved why [CLA] is the best Class 1A team in Miami-Dade or Broward counties." It published a fawning profile about Bernard Wright and his "disadvantaged" miracle squad.

But rival coaches weren't wearing blinders. In local high school circles, Wright's name has screamed recruiter — an outlawed occupation — for more than a decade. In 1998, this publication exposed him as the designated talent thief for a powerhouse Miami High squad that was stripped of a state championship. Wright trotted out rosters in consecutive years that were almost entirely composed of very tall seniors. That doesn't happen organically, especially when your high school population is about 50.

"Oh, I knew something was going on," Medvin says. "But you can't go to the FHSAA [Florida High School Athletic Association, the sport's governing body] unless you have something concrete."

Boca Raton's Grandview Prep finally eliminated CLA in the regional finals. The team finished one win from a state title game.

Bernard Wright was apparently emboldened. The next season, after the school had abruptly changed its name to Center of Life Academy, he unveiled a roster filled with giants from around the world. It was unlike anything ever seen in local high school sports.

There were three students from the Ivory Coast: center Jacques "Willy" Kouassi (6'10"), power forward Nonma Baru Adjehi (6'9"), and small forward Bernard Morena (6'7"). Center Ismaila Dauda (6'10") and small forward Paul Sati Gombwer (6'7") were from Nigeria.

There were two talented Bahamian natives — guards Brian Delancy and Edvardo Burrows — and a Dominican-born guard, Kelvyn Valdez.

As if by magic, Wright had also snagged Tony Mitchell, a 6'7" junior phenom freshly transferred from a Texas high school. The explosively fast Mitchell, who was already committed to Kansas State University, was on the shortlist of the best high school players in America.

In all, 11 of the 14 players on CLA's 2008-09 basketball roster exceeded 6'3". Eight of them were born, and lived until the year before, in foreign countries.

How Wright pulled it off is a tale of single-minded determination, even as the school he ran solely to achieve his basketball master plan fell into chaos.

He employed international scouts to lure foreign players with the promise of college scholarships, housed them in an Opa-locka home with little or no adult supervision, and had them fed and driven to and from school.

It was all completely against Florida athletic rules, which state that students cannot be poached from other schools — or countries — cannot live with coaches or boosters, and cannot be provided free services or meals. But FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing says this case goes beyond basketball: "To me, this is human smuggling."

Wright, age 52, is not fond of New Times, which has run exposés that have cost him two assistant coaching jobs. "Don't you ever fucking call this number again," he seethed over the phone after being contacted for this article. "You're a fucking scumbag, and if I ever fucking catch you near me, you're going to regret it. You better lose this fucking number."


The basketball court inside the Miami Rescue Mission's Community Activity Center was unspectacular but well maintained: hardwood floors, cleanly painted free-throw and three-point lines, and intact nets. The single set of bleachers could hold 200 fans squeezed armpit to armpit. Dust danced in the sunlight streaming from the high windows facing NW First Avenue between 20th and 21st streets, where drifters slouched against the wall outside.

Bernard Wright didn't see a gymnasium in a men's homeless shelter. He saw the stage for his own redemption.

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10 comments
zhenglishu
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JJFLOJ
JJFLOJ

HOW DOES MIAMI AND THE FSHSL PUT UP WITH THIS?IT IS A DISGRACE TO FLORIDA AND BASKETBALL!!!!

Ttsturrup
Ttsturrup

fhsaa and everyknows bernard wright got the players for shakey and frank martin since the 90''s.

Beware6876
Beware6876

The Times should do more investigation of President Of Global Academy " Jeffrey L. Wells", thats the crack head in the story

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Ttsturrup
Ttsturrup

bernard wright used to be asst. at carol city high with coach bell.coach bell was my teacher at carol city middle.

Goober
Goober

I must say this is one of the greatest stories I have ever read. What pure insanity

MNT Fan
MNT Fan

This is the Miami New Times I know and love.

Awesome hit piece!

 
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