The ultimate late-bloomer, Moses Wright emerging as Tech leader

Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright takes great joy in an early-season dunk against Bethune-Cookman.  (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright takes great joy in an early-season dunk against Bethune-Cookman. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Compounding every game, it seems, are the expectations for Georgia Tech’s big man Moses Wright. But nothing that his coach Josh Pastner demands of him this season or next will seem terribly burdensome when compared with the hopes placed on him at birth.

On the day of his son’s delivery, so the story goes, Gerald Wright, resplendent in a dashiki – a colorful top of west African design – and a brimless kufi cap beheld his second boy and dreamt large.

Here, Wright rounds out the story himself: “He held me up once I came out, and he said, ‘Your name’s going to be Moses and you’re going to lead this family to greatness.’”

The specifics on how this Moses might lead his people to somewhere new and promising were a little blurry. No one could have guessed basketball would play any part in the journey. In fact, his mother seemed committed to making sure it wouldn’t. Even as young Moses ventured into puberty, basketball was practically a dirty word.

While retracing Wright’s uncommon path to the Tech gym, it’s important to keep in mind that this is the same guy who currently leads the team in rebounding (7.6 per game) and is second in scoring (13.3 points per game). At his best, the fellow with the Old Testament name and the relatively newly minted game has gone for six double-doubles this season – including against Kentucky and Duke. He has gone for 22 points against North Carolina and 18 against Georgia. Just remember all that as the details of his upbringing unfold.

Growing up in the Raleigh, N.C., area – right there on the main line of Tobacco Road – did not mean that Moses was born to ball. Calla Wright, his mother, is a teacher by trade and uncompromising by nature. She had other ideas for her son.

Her aim was to build the multifaceted child. “I wanted my sons to do some things that were different, not the traditional sports. I sort of guided them to tennis and to swimming. I just thought this would be the direction for Moses,” she said this week.

“I wanted them to be different. I wanted them to be exposed to all things that kids may not have the opportunities to do. In my opinion it makes a child well-rounded, and those were the opportunities I wanted to give my sons. Playing in the orchestra. Going to concerts. Other things like that.”

Moses puts it another, more blunt, way.

“My mom didn’t want me to be the average black guy playing football and basketball,” he said last week.

And after Gerald Wright succumbed to a roster of health issues and died in 2012 at the age of 56, when Moses was in the seventh grade, Calla’s influence over her son was even more concentrated.

This made for one very angry mother later in 2012 on the day that Moses slipped out from swim practice at the YMCA to a basketball tryout. A volunteer coach there liked what he saw.

“I was furious,” Calla Wright remembered. “I did not want him to play basketball at all. I talked to the coach, I went in there and said how dare you have my son try out without parent permission. Another parent was with me and said just let him get it out of his system.”

After calming down, she came to slowly recognize the value of this sport, too. She watched as her son developed a real affection for basketball, even as the game didn’t always requite his feelings (he didn’t crack the varsity team in high school until he was a senior). And then, after seeking a place to catch him up on the finer points of the game, she began to appreciate the male mentorship that came as a side benefit.

“I think it was like divine intervention that they came into my life at a time when I really needed help,” she said.

Not that they were bowled over at first sight at the Garner Road Basketball Club, where Wright went for his private instruction and to eventually play AAU ball.

“When I first met (Moses), he was a ninth-grade, six-foot-1 guard that couldn’t get off the JV bench,” said Dwayne West, Garner Road’s director.

“I was kind of saying to the trainer, why are you stealing that lady’s money?”

But, he added, flashing forward a couple of years, “The next thing we know we look up and he’s 6-foot-8 and still had the mindset of a guard.”

Wright, now 6-9, described his high school progression thusly: “Freshman year I wanted to be good. I was on JV. I didn’t play at all. I was just watching everybody. I thought they were so good. Wow, I want to be like them one day.

“As I got older, I was like I’m better than them, I can do more than they can do. Each year there was somebody different I passed, and that made me realize that you can take this to the next level.”

The late growth spurts and the slow acclimation to the game meant that Moses was near the back of the line in a sport where top recruits are being identified sometimes before their voices change. His senior year at Enloe High School, Tech was the only major program to show real interest.

“We were begging Division II and lower Division I schools to go and take a look at him,” West said. “I’ve had conversations with those guys now and they say, oh, man, could we use a Moses right now.”

“He was a zero-star recruit,” Pastner said. “He came in here and versus North Carolina he played 20 seconds his freshman year. He didn’t block a shot, and I took him right out and I had to yell at him.

“Two-and-a-half years later he’s playing basically the whole game and might be the best player on the floor. The assistant coaches get a tremendous amount of credit, they have done a great job of developing him. And then Moses has done a great job on maturing, on buying in and not making excuses.”

The junior now stands as an example to late bloomers everywhere. Talent will find a way, given just the slightest bit of encouragement. So, hang in there.

Early in Wright’s career at Tech, Pastner found one of the big challenges to be getting this raw player to put down the excuses and accept the responsibility for his own performance. Last weekend Moses was working on his master’s in that discipline. He had struggled in a loss to Virginia, with just seven points and five rebounds. The locker room had cleared, yet he remained, towel over his head, owning that loss like he had the deed to it.

“I was just thinking about how I played and if I had played just decent it would have been a different outcome,” Wright said two days later.

“That accountability is another universe from where he’s been,” Pastner said.

Georgia Tech basketball, at 8-11, 3-6 in the ACC as of this weekend, is short on intrigue. But, knowing how far one late-comer to basketball has progressed and watching how far he may yet advance, Wright qualifies as a bona fide person of interest.

“We might not see the finished product with Moses until he has passed through here,” Pastner said. “We might not get the full benefits of that. His best basketball is in front of him. When he’s 24, he’s not going to be here, that’s when things might take off even more. But we’re obviously going to get the full benefit this year and next season.”

Wright has maintained some of the uncommonness that his mother wanted to instill. He still likes to play tennis – imagine confronting that 6-9 presence at the net. He’ll swim now and then for conditioning. And he has added a simmering interest in cooking – his current dream is to open a restaurant. Seafood is his specialty.

His mother has come to terms with the sport that she once rejected, and those who helped lead her son to it.

“I think they were in my life to help educate me, to help me understand his gifts and that his love for the sport would be a driving factor of his success,” she said. “They were right. I’m glad I listened because I’m normally strong-headed in my personal beliefs.”

As for Wright’s father, the man who staged such a dramatic opening scene in Moses’ life, he’s never too far away. In his wallet, Moses keeps his father’s old driver’s license in an attempt to keep him near.

And, closer to his heart than that, he holds the belief that dad would be pleased with the course he follows now.