SALT LAKE CITY — Midnight had passed when Luther Wright shuffled in. Even at 7-foot-2, 300 pounds, he looked forlorn and a little scared.
Lou Bee was in trouble again.
He had missed the Jazz's flight to Minneapolis, that December night in 1993. Hours later I saw him in the lobby of the Marriott Minneapolis City Center, shoulders slumped, disconsolately staring at his size 22 shoes.
With plush-soft hands, a large body and a surprisingly fluid shooting touch, he was a potentially dominating presence. But 21 games into his first and only season in the NBA, Wright was already slipping. Lou Bee, as friends called him, claimed to have been caught in traffic on the way to the Salt Lake airport, then unable to find a parking space. But the Jazz weren't buying it. Earlier in the month he had been suspended for what the team said was several missed weightlifting sessions.
Traffic was the least of his problems.
In his new book, "A Perfect Fit," written with journalist Karen Hunter, he describes being lonely, disoriented, suffering from bipolar disorder, haunted by an abusive past and distracted by drug use at the time the Jazz drafted him. He didn't get along with Jerry Sloan and didn't like being so far removed from his Jersey City, N.J., home.
That was all before the big problems began.
The fine for missing the weightlifting sessions was nearly $8,000; the second was $470 for the air fare and $30 for the cab ride to the hotel. He could afford it, considering the Jazz had signed him to a $5 million contract.
Still, six weeks into his career, it was obvious Wright couldn't get it right.
I originally dismissed him as an irresponsible 22-year-old, and he was that. He had been ordered to leave the Delta Center for standing in the performers' area during a summer circus and, according to two sources, "being obnoxious."
"Seems like I'm always in the doghouse," he said.
During the regular season, he once asked me how he could get on the Deseret News "Quote of the Day" promotion that ran during timeouts. I wondered how Sloan would feel about his young center watching the JumboTron during breaks.
Lou Bee told me his real dream was to be a nightclub deejay, spinning records, or perhaps a rapper.
Mostly I thought he was an immature man-child whose world view didn't extend beyond his hardscrabble Jersey City neighborhood. His story didn't seem different than that of hundreds of NBA players. Still, that night in the lobby, there was something vaguely sad about him.
"I need help," he murmured, before going upstairs to his room. "I need Jesus to help me."
More than I could have imagined.
I've wanted to know the complete story on Wright ever since he ruined a life event for me.
A few weeks after he missed the plane to Minnesota, the Jazz were playing at Houston. That was the night his bipolar side convinced him to play drums in the Rockets' band during warmups.
My wife was expecting a baby about that time, and went into labor the day after the loss to the Rockets. We were up all night and she delivered in the early morning.
I ran out to do errands later that day and in the afternoon swung home to check my messages. I had eight. An assortment of people at the newspaper had called to say Wright had been arrested at a rest stop in Tooele County after screaming, banging on a dumpster and frightening motorists. His agent said it was a Ritalin overdose that caused the episode; later reports claimed he was also high on marijuana. Wright's book account doesn't specify, except to note he was trying to get druggie friends to drive him to Houston and when they refused, he became angry.
When I called the office, I got an editor on City Desk, who told me he wanted me to contact Wright immediately. When I said my wife had delivered a baby the previous night and I hoped get back to the hospital, he said, "Yeah, well, this is a bad business for having babies."
So much for paternity leave.
I tried to reach Wright by phone but there was either a busy signal or someone would answer and hang up. The next morning Deseret News writer Jay Evensen and I drove to Wright's massive house in South Jordan. His mother answered. When we identified ourselves, she shouted us off the doorstep.
Lou Bee wasn't home anyway; he was in a mental health facility by then. In the book, he says the media "had a field day" by "making up stories" and "nobody wanted to hear the truth."
Most particularly him.
In reality, neither the team, medical personnel, his family nor his agent would allow Wright to be contacted. Calls were routinely routed to then-Jazz president Scott Layden, who cited medical privacy laws. Wright's agent, Sal DiFazio, provided a few remarks about bipolar disorder, but little more. The book doesn't include a lot of details of that night, either, probably because he doesn't remember much.
The team kept him under wraps the rest of the season and through the summer, though stories of his wild night continued for weeks. One Deseret News article said Wright called 911 five times from the Western Institute of Neuropsychiatry, telling operators he needed to get out. His book says upon his release, he once had his stomach pumped after taking every pill he could find.
By the next fall, he had returned for training camp but struggled with conditioning. He missed a preseason game, ostensibly due to the flu. I noticed on the final day of practice, Wright arrived 18 minutes late. He again pleaded a case of the flu.
He was cut by the team that day.
His book fills in some gaps in the story. He disliked playing for Sloan, calling it a prison-type situation, though he admits to chafing under most authority figures. His childhood was a common but still tragic urban tale: turbulent home life, sexual abuse by both male and female babysitters, physical abuse that included being hit on the head with a hose so hard it left welts.
He left Seton Hall early for the pros to aid his mother, who was ill, and a girlfriend who bore his child. Though family members joined him in Utah, he spent much of his time buying guns, looking for "girlies" and smoking weed with an assortment of shadowy friends. He met what he describes as a "Mexican gang" on his first day in Salt Lake, which provided him with a steady supply of marijuana and guns.
Women, he writes, were always easy to find. When you're Luther Wright, first-round NBA Draft pick, things come your way, including a slew of eventual paternity claims.
After the Jazz cut him, he returned to New Jersey, where he quickly hit the streets, advancing to daily crack cocaine use. Through his agent, he negotiated a buyout with the Jazz that paid him $15,000 a month for 20 years — a nice sum considering he played just 92 minutes in his career.
He now says his mother got power of attorney when he was in recovery, eventually paring his income to $1,000 a month. Maybe she was trying to save Lou Bee by limiting his money. He only says in the book that the wealth somehow disappeared.
A few years after washing out of the league, he was sleeping in abandoned cars and houses in Irvington, N.J., stealing for his habit and begging outside a McDonald's for cash. An infection cost him his front teeth. He writes that he seldom washed, and when he did it was in the sink of a fast food bathroom. The turning point, he says, was in winter 2004 when his feet froze while sleeping outdoors and he had two toes amputated. The sound of them pinging into a stainless steel surgical pan made him realize it was time to change. But the real decision came shortly after, as he sat in a crack house, his feet bleeding through his socks.
"Right in that moment at the height of my being lost, God spoke to me," he says in the book.
Since then, Wright has regained his life. He went to Narcotics Anonymous and began attending Morning Star Community Christian Center, where he met his current wife. He devotes much of his time to church, singing with the choir and mentoring youth. He has been clean for nearly six years, lending credence to a nickname given him by Jazz teammate Tom Chambers: Lou B. Free.
Most importantly, he says, he has religion and his wife. From his plaintive plea in a hotel lobby 17 years ago, has come salvation.
"But even with my doubts and my anger," he writes, "I never really walked away from God. He was always in my ear, telling me what I should do. I didn't always listen — most of the time I didn't listen. But when I had no place else to turn, I turned back to God."
Jesus, it seems, had been there all along.