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D'Alessandro: Strong, clear-eyed Luther Wright now able to share details of harrowing past
Published: Sunday, November 21, 2010, 8:00 AM
Dave D'Alessandro/Star-Ledger Columnist Dave D'Alessandro/Star-Ledger Columnist
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Luther Wright Seton Hall sitting campus tight fileTony Kurdzuk/The Star-LedgerSitting in the main lobby of Seton Hall University Center working on his computer, Luther Wright laughs at a joke made by a student passing by.
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One of the reasons Luther Wright decided to write a book about his life was simple: He was getting a little tired of everyone assuming he was dead.

Of course, he understands why anyone might have reached such a conclusion. It had been a life so dissipated by drugs that newspapers and websites, usually from New Jersey, felt compelled to update it every three or four years, but only with the morbid expectation that these “Where Are They Now?” pieces would soon be rewritten for the obit page.

That is not meant to be a glib summary about a man’s troubled life, but if you read this memoir, entitled “A Perfect Fit,” you realize that it is more a series of still-life, near-death vignettes — often harrowing in detail — which narrate Wright’s journey from Hudson County to the NBA to self-destruction. And this story has been told a dozen times in a dozen places.

What you don’t know is that this life — narrated in Wright’s own voice and organized masterfully by renowned journalist Karen Hunter — was largely shaped and driven by a crucible that will stay with him forever, and stay with the rest of us for as long as we remember his name.

The intention here was to advance the story and reshape the transition of Luther Wright, but as it turns out, he doesn’t need anyone’s help to do that anymore.

At 38 and riding a five-year winning streak against his crack addiction, he is now strong and courageous enough to write about the secret he had kept all his life — that he had been molested and raped by three family members throughout his childhood, from ages 5 to 9.

“But I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t use anything as an excuse anymore,” the giant from Jersey City explained. “Excuses are for incompetent people. If I say to you, ‘I don’t know something’ but don’t go out of my way to figure it out, then I’m incompetent. And that’s not me anymore. I feel competent — enough to tell a story that might do somebody some good.”

HOLDING COURT

The first thing that strikes you is he is happy and peaceful, in a jumbo-sized way. It’s not easy to carry his 425 pounds around the Seton Hall campus, where he has re-enrolled as a junior, but he is clear-eyed and buoyant.

During a 45-minute conversation in the Student Center lounge, no fewer than a dozen students stop by to tap him on the chest — adorned by a T-shirt with the new book’s cover printed on it, to announce its release date Tuesday — or squeeze the oversized couch cushion he calls his right hand.

He loves company, loves to talk about what is important to his life — his wife of three years (Angie), his passion for gospel music (he sits in on guitar with Bishop Joe Clark and Aerofaith), his mentoring role to kids, the church in Linden that nurtured him back to life, and his course load this semester (French, Art of Western World, Astronomy and Writing for the Media), the cost of which is covered by an “angel” he chooses not to name.

This is not the kid who was so withdrawn and almost incapable of having a conversation at Elizabeth High. This is not the young man who was terrified by the burden of potential fame his first time through SHU, during the final years of P.J. Carlesimo’s tenure.

And he is nothing like the guy that was picked 18th by the Utah Jazz in the 1993 draft, one so overwhelmed by the NBA life — and overwhelmed by bipolar disorder, depression and hanging out with “the pimps, gangbangers, hooligans and drug dealers” that only he could find in Salt Lake City — that his career would end after only 15 games.

GRIM TIMES

Indeed, Wright now sounds like a man who is, to borrow a handy phrase, reborn — if not actually alive for the first time, after enduring some other form of existence that until recently had very little going for it.

“The title of the book,” he said, “is meant to ask this: What 7-footer do you know is a perfect fit anywhere? On a bus? In a car? In the classroom? There’s no perfect fit for someone this big.

“But I believe that God put me here knowing I could be a perfect fit somewhere, and I’m finding that place. I may be a tight fit sometimes, but I’m still going to fit my way in — because he don’t make no junk.”

The book, basically a somber and honest narrative of his descent into Palookaville, has some interesting characters. One was a grandmother (the formidable Mama McDonald), a woman from the Booker T. Washington projects in Jersey City who read her Bible and chewed tobacco and carried a .22 pistol that she allegedly fired at her husband and any addict that dared come through her window.

These were the kinds of people who helped raise Wright, who also introduces us to an
intemperate father who beat him regularly, though the son goes to great lengths to rationalize this sadistic behavior.

And then there were the relatives who molested him, after he was left in their care by Wright’s mother, whom he couldn’t bring himself to tell until a few years ago.

Essentially, since he left the Hall in ’93, we’ve asked of Luther Wright, “How can a life fall apart so easily?”

When you read his words, which offers no excuses, it actually becomes very easy to fathom.

“But I don’t dwell on things anymore — the way to get over the molestations was to forgive,” he said. “There is no situation that has no solution. Math people tell me different, but I don’t believe it — I found solutions in AA, NA, counseling, and encouragement from good people — those are solutions.

“So at the end of the day, my hope is this book can save one or two or three people. I know I can touch people’s lives. I’m sure of it.”