Jonathan Alexander for News Observer
On an evening in April, Moses Wright sat at a table with his mom and brother at the J.D. Lewis community center in southeast Raleigh where his family, friends and coaches had gathered to watch him sign a National Letter of Intent.
One by one the members of his group stepped to a microphone and said how proud they were of Wright. His mother, Calla Wright, thanked everyone for their support and talked about her son’s journey.
Moses Wright had come a long way, from losing his father at age 13 to learning the game of basketball to earning a scholarship to play at Georgia Tech.
For the first 14 years of his life, basketball was not even Moses Wright’s game. He sometimes played against his brother, Robert, and almost always lost, but he never played for a team.
For most college recruits, basketball is a year-round sport and the majority of top college basketball players have competed for most of their lives. They play in recreation leagues or school teams in the winter and AAU basketball in the spring and summer.
Wright’s path was different. Growing up, his sports were swimming and tennis.
That changed in 2012 when Michael Gordon, a Raleigh YMCA basketball coach, asked Wright to try out for his team after noticing the 6-foot eighth-grader as he was leaving swimming practice.
If Wright’s mother had known, she would have told him “no.” Calla Wright thought her son had a future in tennis and wanted him to focus on that sport in hopes that it would land him a college scholarship.
But Wright tried out and made the team.
Still learning the game, Wright sat on Enloe’s junior varsity bench his first two years of high school, then played on a home-school team as a junior.
Rick Lewis, an analyst for Phenom Hoop Report, a web-based scouting service that tracks state basketball recruits, said Wright was “a late bloomer.”
“He was always a very intriguing prospect because he had that length,” said Lewis, whose son Tyler was a guard at N.C. State before transferring to Butler.
Aside from his height, Wright had motivation. It came from his mom, who has raised him alone for the past five years, and from his dad, Gerald.
Wright had learned from his dad, also a tennis player, to never settle for second place and to always strive to be the best.
“I know he would want me to make it big,” Wright said.
A devastating loss
Gerald Wright began having health problems when Moses Wright was in the fourth grade.
He had diabetes and was on dialysis and a kidney transplant list. He also had cardiomyopathy, a chronic heart muscle disease. In 2011, Gerald Wright had surgery to fix a valve in his heart.
“Things didn’t go well at all,” Calla Wright said. “He never did come back from that.”
After surgery, Gerald Wright was in and out of rehab for three months. He developed a staph infection before having a fatal heart attack in January 2012. He was 56. Moses Wright was in the seventh grade.
The death of his father didn’t fully hit him initially, but three months later, while on a field trip, he broke down crying in his hotel room, Moses Wright said.
“I really couldn’t believe it happened,” he said. “I guess I was in a state of shock for a while.”
Calla Wright said her son was frustrated by his father’s death and it affected his academics and social interactions. So she tried to keep him busy and involved in sports.
“For me to keep him moving with sports and to keep him grounded and engaged was really important for me to make sure that I wouldn’t lose him,” she said. “So sports was a factor that brought him around.”
Wright’s biggest fan had always been his dad. Moses’ brother, Robert, compares their dad’s relationship with them to that of Lavar Ball and his sons. The father of Lonzo Ball, a former UCLA basketball star who was picked No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in last week’s NBA Draft, Lavar Ball has become well-known in recent months for being outspoken, some say too outspoken, about his sons.
“The whole city would know who he was,” Robert Wright, 23, said. “Kind of like Lavar Ball, but not as bad.”
Their mom said the same.
“He would certainly be so proud of Moses,” she said. “He would be waiting for the game schedule so he could go to every game, following the team throughout the country so he could go everywhere they go.”
Making a promise
After Gerald Wright’s death, Calla Wright made a commitment to help her son go to college.
She retired early from her job as a music teacher with the Wake County Public School System to focus on Moses.
“(Moses) was my primary focus and I couldn’t let him be a statistic,” she said.
Calla Wright took her ninth-grade son to the Garner Road Basketball Club to find a personal trainer to help him overcome his lack of basketball experience.
“I said ‘Moses, this is such a competitive sport, that if we choose this, I believe in doing this to the best,’” she recalled. “Because there are so many basketball players.”
Gawon Hyman, the primary skill development coach for Garner Road, said Wright was behind in his knowledge of the game and knew it would take a lot of work to help him be competitive.
When asked why he took a chance on Wright, Hyman said: “Part of it was Mrs. Wright being a single mom, and me and Moses kind of linked a little differently, because his dad had recently passed and it was a year removed from my dad passing.”
Hyman worked with Wright for a year. As a sophomore at Enloe, Wright again played on the junior varsity team and continued to train. He also played on Garner Road’s AAU team.
Wright stopped swimming and playing tennis to focus solely on basketball.
Each year his basketball skills improved – his jump shot, his footwork, his flexibility.
“He came every day,” said Dwayne West, director of the J.D. Lewis Center and Garner Road Basketball Club whose brother David plays for the Golden State Warriors. “You can’t deny a kid’s passion if he’s is committed. We was getting on him. He didn’t have a whole lot of stamina, very weak. He just kept doing it.”
Wright was still struggling emotionally and academically after the loss of his father and Calla found a tutor at Garner Road to work with him. She had him play for a home-school team, the Raleigh Hawks, during his junior season.
The Raleigh Hawks, she said, provided her son a nurturing environment. They prayed with him and offered him much-needed playing time.
It was then that Robert Wright, who is 5-9, said his younger brother started to beat him at basketball.
“I couldn’t do anything with him anymore,” he said. “I think that helped his confidence grow. It’s always great when you know you could beat big bro.”
Back at Enloe
Wright went back to Enloe’s basketball team for his senior season a much improved player. His high school coach, Patrick Paye, called Wright’s advancement in basketball from his sophomore year to his senior year “like night and day.”
“His skill level just maximized over that year,” Paye said. “He realized how good he could be and just started working hard. It was unbelievable.”
Growing at least two inches a year from his freshman season to his senior season also helped.
Paye said Wright’s improvement is a tribute to his work ethic and the help Garner Road provided him.
Wright as a senior led Enloe’s team in most statistical categories including points, rebounds, blocked shots and 3-point field goal percentage.
Wright’s family says he got some of his game from his father. A picture of Gerald Wright shooting a jump shot in high school reveals similarities between father and son’s shooting style.
“I feel his connection every time I’m on the court,” Wright said of his father.
Georgia Tech calls
Wright’s hopes of playing college basketball didn’t seem likely until the summer after his 10th grade year, when the coaching staff at Pfeiffer University, a Division II school in Richfield, showed interest in him.
When Wright was playing AAU basketball for Garner Road that summer, the staff saw him play.
“The main goal was to go to college and get a free education,” Wright said. “Basketball was the route.”
Then came UNC-Pembroke, Catawba, UNC-Charlotte, and others.
Georgia Tech assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie reached out to Wright in February.
LaBarrie told Moses the team was interested in him, and he wanted him to come down to Atlanta.
Wright made an unofficial visit to Georgia Tech that same month, and afterward, the coaching staff offered him a scholarship.
Wright made his official visit in April, and met members of the team. He said Georgia Tech felt right, so while he was there, he committed to the Yellow Jackets.
Wright said he wants to major in business, to “get out of college with a college degree.”
His mom is proud of that.
He’s come a long way.