News came out this morning that former Arizona Wildcats star Michael Wright passed away Tuesday night at age 35. Wright played at Arizona from 1998-2001. He was a smooth-yet-rugged lefty from Chicago (and, as a freshman, a prep teammate of Kevin Garnett at Farragut Academy).
Over his three years in Tucson, Wright averaged 15 points and 8 rebounds, despite being a slightly undersized 6’7" power forward. He could step out and shoot but was at his best finishing at the rim, either off a feed or off the bounce.
For me, the 1996-1997 Wildcats are my favorite Arizona iteration, for obvious reasons. But the 2000-2001 squad is probably my "other" favorite Wildcat team. Jason Gardner, Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright, and Loren Woods were the starting five for a team that went on to the NCAA title game, losing to Duke.
Along the way, Arizona went through 1-seed Illinois (led then by Bill Self) in the Elite Eight and 1-seed Michigan State, the defending champs, in the Final Four. On a team of somewhat flashier stars (Arenas and Jefferson in particular), Wright was a steady hand who played in a slightly understated manner, but who had a non-stop motor. He brought toughness to a team (and a program) that often relied more on finesse.
Wright left school early to enter the 2001 NBA Draft. He was always a "tweener" at the pro level, being a little small to be an NBA power forward, and not being quite skilled and nimble enough to play small forward. I always thought that if Wright came back for his senior year, he had a good look at being a 20/10 guy and cementing himself as a Wildcat legend. A big senior year may not have demonstrably helped his NBA prospects, but we’ll never know.
I look at a guy like Paul Millsap with the Atlanta Hawks, a good NBA player, now in his 9th year, and think Wright could’ve carved himself out a similar career based on their size and skills. Wright was drafted by the Knicks in the second round but never played in the NBA. He did go on to play a dozen pro years internationally -- no shame in that -- but his career mostly leaves one wondering what might have been.
I admit, I hadn’t really even thought about Michael Wright in years, but hearing about his sad passing brought a lot of good memories to my mind, both of him as a player, and of those Wildcat teams he played on. As the investigation into his death continues (currently foul play is suspected; Wright was found dead with trash bags on top of him in his parked SUV in a neighborhood in New York City) we are left to wonder what Michael Wright may have gotten himself into, or if he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All in all a very sad story. [UPDATE: On Wednesday the local medical examiner ruled Wright's death a homicide.]
A great (if underrated) Arizona Wildcat is gone too soon.