Bobby Wright sits in a chair near mid-court in the gym at the Central Freshman Academy. His boys basketball team is getting loose before practice, where it will begin preparation for a state semifinals matchup with Spain Park (2:30 p.m. ET Thursday in Birmingham, Ala.).
He doesn’t say much while his players shoot around, only occasionally barking a reminder to players to remain focused on what they are doing. The offending players don’t offer a response, but straighten up and return to their work.
Over his 27 years as Central’s head basketball coach, things have changed for Wright. The players are different, and so are their expectations. He deals with different attitudes and different responses to his style of coaching.
His wife, girls coach Carolyn Wright, says that he’s grown more patient with his players over the years. Greg Johnson, one of his assistant coaches and a member of the only Central team to play in a state championship game, a loss to Grissom in 1999, said the same thing.
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What hasn’t changed is his desire to win. Not for himself, Wright says. He’s in the profession — which he calls a “hobby” — to make an impact on his players more than anything else. Ask him about his personal legacy, and he deflects, saying that he isn’t thinking beyond the semifinals on Thursday and that winning a championship is more about his athletes than anything else.
But that doesn’t fool those closest to him. Wright wants a championship, and if he finds a way to win two games this week in Birmingham, it could be the exclamation point on an already stellar career.
Called to coach
Flash back two years and a few days. Wright is in a hospital bed after suffering what he called a pinched nerve that caused severe stroke-like symptoms. It affected his ability to walk, as well as simple motor skills like picking up a pencil.
His team had just lost a quarterfinal game to Carver-Montgomery on a half-court buzzer-beater, 59-56, in his absence. Having coached the Red Devils for 25 years, earned over 500 wins, five final four and a state championship appearance, Wright had more than earned the opportunity to say, with dignity, that he’d had enough.
He and Carolyn had discussions about it. Once you get to be over 60 years old, the topic of retirement is a common one, and at 61 after a health scare, no one would have blamed Wright for making that decision.
And yet, when the 2014-15 school year rolled around, he was back on staff at the school. In the winter, he was sitting courtside from the beginning to the bitter end of the year, when the Red Devils again lost in the state quarterfinals.
At the beginning of that season, Wright expressed a desire to “finish the drill,” an idea he often espouses to his own players. Carolyn Wright echoed that phrase again this week.
“He’s always said you’ve got to finish the drill,” she said. “He felt like he had not finished the drill. That’s one thing he teaches his athletes — finish the drill.”
And so he was back, and back again this season. Not just to win a state championship, though that was the goal, but to continue to have an impact on the athletes in his care.
There’s nothing I’d rather be called than ‘coach’.
“There’s nothing I’d rather be called than ‘coach,’” Wright explained. “If I’m impacting the lives of kids, I think that’s the greatest thing I can do. It makes you want to stay around. This isn’t a job to me. This is something I enjoy. This is a hobby to me. I’m having fun with these kids.”
The feeling goes the other way, too. As much as Wright demands of his players, they seem to recognize the impact.
“He pushes us to be a better person,” senior Tre Todd said this week. “He teaches us the right thing to do and how to do it.”
Assistant coach Greg Johnson has seen it from both perspectives, as a player for Wright in 1995-99. Johnson admitted freely that Wright was a hard-nosed coach, but that his rough exterior comes from a place of hope for the athlete.
“He wants to get the best out of your,” Johnson said. “First of all, he wants you to be a good man when you leave him. It isn’t just about the game, he wants you to be a good family man. That’s what a lot of people don’t know about him.”
That’s something Johnson thinks people should realize, that there are up and down days for Wright when he might feel better just staying at home, but he comes because of his commitment to his players.
“I’m sure he doesn’t feel like coming to work every day, but when he comes to work, he works,” Johnson said. “That’s how I am now, and that’s where I learned it from.”
“This is his life,” Carolyn added. “This is just a part of him, what he thrives on. This is what he loves doing. It’s not like coming to a job for him. Staying at home, for him, that’s more of a job.”
Chasing a championship
While the players are his first priority, Wright is no different than any other coach. He does want a state championship ring.
“I do,” he said. “I try to push it to the back of my mind. I know as a veteran coach that I have to get past the next ballgame first. I don’t like to lose focus. If we don’t win that one, then there’s no reason to talk about a state championship.
But his wife can discuss it for him.
“That’s every coach’s dream, to win a state championship,” Carolyn said. “He’s no different from any other coach. That’s putting the icing on the cake. He talks about it and dreams of it.”
So can his stepson, Larry Moore, who played point guard for Central from 1997-99.
“He’s always been the type of person who’s worked hard in everything he does,” Moore said. “Family, personal life, church, he puts the effort into everything. Even though he’s not saying it, he’s never done this before so he really wants it. It’s what you set out to do. That’s why you play. That’s why you coach.”
Wright came close with his 1999 squad, which made it all the way to the Class 6A final, before losing to Grissom. Even if that team did win, though, Johnson said it wouldn’t have changed much for Wright. Regardless of what happens in the next three days, Johnson said Wright would be the same person.
“It won’t define his career,” Johnson said. “He’s had a fantastic career no matter what. He’ll be the same guy with or without a state championship. If he would have won 10 state titles, he would have been the same guy as he is right now.”
Right where he wants to be
That statement would seem to indicate that Thursday and, potentially, Saturday’s result will have no impact on Wright’s future as Central’s basketball coach.
27 years as Central’s head basketball coach
579 career wins
185 career losses
6 final four appearances
1 state championship berth
Wright said he does think about retirement.
“It crosses my mind every day,” he said with a laugh.
But when he does, a stronger voice inside of him protests.
“I’ve been doing it for so long that I don’t know what else to do,” he argues with himself. “I don’t fish, I don’t golf or hunt. What am I going to do? Sit by the pool and just watch the pool?”
Carolyn said that the two of them discuss it. Her husband always thinks of her first when he’s making those kinds of decisions, she said, and the desire to work to a certain age so they can share in his full retirement is a big factor in his thinking.
“He’ll tell me, ‘You know, if I work until this age, then you don’t even have to worry about how long you work,’” she said. “But I think his thing is that when he’s done, he wants to be done. When he feels like he can no longer be productive, then he’ll be ready to give it up.”
Moore said he’s discussed it with Wright, as well. He’s excited that he has another opportunity to play in the semifinals and potentially a state championship game.
“We talk about it all the time, when he’s going to retire,” Moore said. “I don’t foresee him coaching too many more years. You know it’s coming to a close sooner or later, so having this opportunity is great. He could go out with a bang.”
Asked whether a state championship would be the perfect bookend to his career, Wright wasn’t biting.
“Right now, I’m doing what I want to do and enjoying it, and we’re having success,” he said. “I’m going to try to do it a little longer. Having said that, that doesn’t mean I want to be here forever. But as long as I’m having fun and making a difference, this is where I want to be.”
Central vs. Spain Park
What: Class 7A basketball state semifinals
When: 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Where: BJCC Arena, Birmingham, Ala.