Great. Feeling good. Uninhibited. Good to go.
If there’s a synonym for “healthy” out there, Chris Wright knows it. Chances are the Bowie native and former Georgetown basketball standout has used it a hundred or so times over the last year, reassuring NBA scouts, owners and coaches that he’s an asset, not a risk.
It’s a tough sell for Wright, 23. He had multiple sclerosis diagnosed in early 2012 while playing with Turkish team Olin Edirne. He has been adapting to life with the disease ever since, though he’ll tell you the tougher fight has been overcoming teams’ misconceptions about its potential impact on his basketball career.
His uncommon battle began with a move he had made thousands of times: a simple touch-the-baseline-and-turn move in the midst of a conditioning drill. Instead of a quick bend and pivot, Wright’s foot gave out and he slipped, though he thought nothing of it initially.
Then his right foot went numb. By the time he woke up for early shooting practice the next morning, his whole right leg and right arm were succumbing. Wright sought medical attention.
That’s when he received what his agent Doug Neustadt called the “shocking” diagnosis that he had multiple sclerosis.
Neither Wright nor Neustadt knew much about the disease, so Wright researched it thoroughly.
He learned that his condition was a disease of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) in which the protective coating that normally surrounds the nerves breaks down and leaves them vulnerable to damage. As more and more of this coating, myelin sheath, is destroyed, the nerves become more and more damaged. Nerve function deteriorates along with them, though at different rates and to different degrees in each patient.
With an eye on rebounding from the disease and making the NBA, he told only family and close friends about his condition in the hopes of avoiding any stigma from the league’s decision makers.
Then Eurobasket.com ran an article prematurely lamenting the end of his promising career after an MS diagnosis, and Wright’s secret was out.
“Once the article came out, it was like ‘Hey, this kid’s career is over,’ ” Wright said. “People were writing me off.”
“People” included the first three doctors Wright visited after returning to the United States. Then he found D.C. area neurologist Heidi Crayton.
Crayton “said she thought I would be able to play, that I would have no restrictions. Other doctors were saying I don’t think playing is in your best interest,” Wright said. “After she told me [I could play] I said, ‘Well, you’re going to be my doctor.’ ”
“I was actually pretty awestruck that he had been told [to hang it up],” Crayton said. “I said, ‘Of course you’re going to keep playing.’ He was in great shape. He had one minor episode.”
In fact, Wright said he hasn’t had another episode since that perilous pivot in Turkey. Crayton said part of her patient’s success is due to the aggressive approach they’re taking to his treatment, a preemptive strike with a highly potent MS drug called Tysabri.
The drug, which requires monthly infusions that last approximately two hours, fends off those cells in the body mistakenly attacking the myelin sheath, thereby slowing degeneration of the nerves.
Given his physical condition and course of treatment, Crayton believes the chances of another incident are “very, very low” for Wright.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, most people with MS have a normal or near-normal life expectancy.
Often, those who are unfamiliar with the disease confuse it with muscular dystrophy or other degenerative conditions that can devolve much more quickly, so Wright and his agent believe that getting teams the right information is crucial to convincing them he’s a safe investment.
Still, Wright said his condition has scared off some teams.
“I think it had a major impact last summer because I was trying to get in summer league and teams backed off. I had a few deals, and teams backed off at the last minute,” Wright said. “It was a tough situation for me last summer.”
Crayton said teams who have asked her about Wright view him as a risk, a mentality she calls “inappropriate because they’re just judging MS as a whole, not Chris Wright with MS.”
After no team would give him a summer league shot in 2012, Wright played last season with the Iowa Energy in the NBA Development League. Wright was named to a D-League all-star roster and earned a 10-day contract with the Dallas Mavericks, though that contract was not renewed.
Now, after an incident-free season in the D-League, Wright has earned summer league gigs with the Brooklyn Nets in Orlando and the San Antonio Spurs in Las Vegas. The self-proclaimed gym rat works out daily near Bowie, where he lives with his girlfriend and 4-month-old son, Chris Wright Jr. (“Deuce”).
Last weekend, Wright hosted the first annual MS Basketball Jamboree at St. John’s High.
The event featured weight and conditioning training tips for kids, a few words from Crayton about life with MS, a charity game and appearances from NBA players and former Georgetown standouts Jeff Green and Greg Monroe and Hoyas Coach John Thompson III.
Being the first NBA player with MS means a great deal to Wright, who found inspiration in the fact that he received his diagnosis during MS Awareness Week.
“I remember, I asked Dr. Crayton, ‘Do you know any NBA players that have MS?’ ” Wright recalled. “She looked into it and said, ‘No, I don’t.’ I said, ‘Okay, well that’s my goal.”
And while he achieved the goal with that brief stint with the Mavericks, Wright is hungry to stick at the highest level and serve as a role model to others with his condition as he does so.
“I have to get with the right organization for myself, a good fit. And when I get out there, I have to produce; it’s as simple as that,” Wright said. “Sometimes it may not be the perfect situation, but you’ve got to find a way to make it the perfect situation for yourself. Every obstacle has something good and bad out of it.”