LARRY WRIGHT, Washington's littlest Bullet at six foot one, stands taller than some of his 241 peers in the National Basketball Association. Two or three of them. Still, one of these nights in Capital Centre Wright is going to Launch his 160 pounds of sinew from the foul line, skip and glide up those yellow brick steps only special little people can find, and slam-dunk the ball, leaving the rim and the crowd quivering.
Ponderous socio-political significance is currently made of the slam-dunk in the life of a young black man (much of it by thinkers who are neither young men nor black).
Cramming the ball through the hoop for the first time is an ascension to manhood, as spiritual as a bar mitzvah, as physical as taking the first scalp. Carried far-out, it is a scream of outrage against the limits of life.
Let's see about that. If the slamdunk is the rite of passage, Larry Wright became a man in the tenth grade, in a playground on the banks of the Ouachita River. If a statement could be read into his stuffing the Capital Centre basket it would be no plaint against Larry's life, which he enjoys to the verge of celebration, but a silent protest of system that limis his life.
Larry Wright is total man but incomplete basketball player, and basketball is his life. Blessed are the substitutes, says Coach Dick Motta in his sermon the morning after defeat, for they shall inherit the starting jobs - eventually. Catechism: it is healthy that a player resent second-banana [WORD ILLEGIBLE] long as the resentment is [WORD ILLEGIBLE] (and preferably illegible: tired of reading about guys who want to start," Coach grumbles).
"I won't bitch about it," says Wright.
"I'm not unhappy coming off the bench," says Mitch Kupchak, the Bullets' other Super Sub. "In fact you can write that I'M VERY HAPPY."
Kupchak and Wright are the biggest and littlest of the Washington Bullets, a team that wins a lot and then loses. Wright is black, from a Louisiana school that was integrating with deliberate speed as he passed through; Kupchak is white, out of a Long Island exurb absorbing a great Hispanic immigration. Both are 23, the sophomore class of the Bullets, and it is temperate oversimplification to say that the future of the franchise is them.
Both are immensely talented and comfortably contracted, for money that is more than fair and less, by contemporary standards of the business of sports, than fabulous. Wright and Kupchak share an uncommon ardor for the game they play, a wondrous propensity for altruistic hustle, seemingly inexhaustible reservoirs of enthusiasm and a withering faith in the Work Ethic, the creed both were taught.
"I am selfish," said Kupchak on the eve of the season opener. "I want to play more. I was taught that if you work hard, you will be rewarded."
"I'd like to be rewarded too," said Wright at mid-November, benched after eleven games as a starter." "I'm not getting credit for working hard."
Ironically their industry, enthusiasm, willingness - their eminently "coachable" qualities - are what earmark Kupchak and Wright for Super-Subbery. Consider the task a man sets for himself when he proposes to coach a modern professional basketball team, to manipulate exorbitantly salaried, sullen-sensitive talent like Rudolf Bing at the old Met.
Dick Motta is white, as were all but four of the NBA's twenty-two coaches as the season began. With two white players on an eleven-man squad (four of twelve the previous two years), the Bullets are exemplary of the league which, like baseball and football, a few years ago had unofficial quotas for balance. (A joke of the trade:
"Coach, how many black players do you use?" "Two at home, three on the road, five if we're behind.")
If Motta calls himself to attention like a posture poster, he is higher than five foot eight. That makes him only half-a-head lower than the least of the Bullets he must direct, by criticism, cajolery and cant, to the true path.
If Motta has bargained more boldly than the average NBA coach, he may make almost one-sixth as much as the highest-paid of the Bullets. Thus vis-a-vis the $250,000-a-year Bob Dandridge, for example, Motta is in a position not unlike a sports reporter trying to argue with the opulent Howard Cosell, who scorns such workaday drudges as "you bread-and-butter guys." Motta may even make more money than two or three of his players, the two or three who hardly ever play.
Wright and Kupchak always play. A fairly agile dialectician could make a case that people in the starting lineup are substitutes for them. In any case, the Super Subs are in no way supernumerary; they are essential.
Basically, Motta postulated, the NBA game is an eight-man thing, and no egalitarian thing. Having watched the Miami Dolphins have the St. Louis Cardinals for Thanksgiving dinner the day before, Motta analogized: "Suppose a tackle were to say: 'It's my turn to throw a pass; I'm tired of blocking.'" The absurdity hung there, in the chilly silence of the Bowie State College gym.
"But football," Motta said softly, "is so far ahead of us ..."
The salty little coach is as presumptuous (the Bullets' brochure to the media modifies him with the adjective "arrogant") as a man must be to supervise more than 600 victories, from junior high to the NBA playoffs, in a game he never could play. Those who can't, says an adage as unreliable as most adages, teach; and some of those rage quietly, enviously, at those who can do, without loving what they do.
We have some guys who aren't satisfied to come off the bench," said Coach Motta, his rising voice conveying the fervor of a man who would have been honored to be beckoned off somebody's bench one time.Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after starting positions, for they shall be filled - eventually. "If you can't fill the role, let me know ... Okay, red team on the floor."
The red team, the pro-tem varsity, did not included Kupchak or Wright. They are, from a casual fan's point of view, the most interesting Bullets, and Capital Centre may soon be festooned by bedsheet banners to that effect. But from the pragmatic aspect of an NBA coach they appear as teh two superstars-in-waiting whose skills and zeals will be least diminished by waiting in the wings. Kupchak and Wright would appear especially so to a coach inheriting a team which, like the Redskins, almost always goes to the playoffs and always comes home early.
It may be that nothing can dim the Super Subs' enthusiasms except a surfeit of commentary about how enthusiastic they are. Larry Writht enjoys himself more, say Coach Motta, than any basketball player he has ever seen. To Mitch, says general manager Bob Ferry, "every practice is like a playoff." A rare one, Kupchak, Motta agrees. "He has retained his college enthusiasm."
"Obviously, says Kupchak, using one of his most useful words, "it isn't cool to show enthusiasm." Obviously. It seems de rigueur for most NBA bench-sitters to regard the game's action with the sanguinity of men waiting in the outer office of an IRS auditor. Kupchak roots shamelessly for his team. He is not embarrassed by his bosses' nosegays for his displays of spirit, but he is annoyed that they are assumed to be embarrasing.
"It isn't something I do to be different," Kupchak says. "I'm not even that way naturally. I was taught how to act, coached. But I know how it feels to get a pat ont he back, or hear somebody say, 'Nice hustle.'
"If I can do something that takes just a second to make somebody feel good ... Say a fan on the street wants to talk basketball and you don't feel like it. All it takes if five, ten minutes out of your life. If Mikery had done that for me, fifteen years ago, it would have been something I'd never have forgotten."
Fifteen years ago Mickey Mantle was, one more time, the Most Valuable Player in the American League. Mitch Kupchak was 8, adoring Mickey from Brentwood, Long Island, twenty miles from Yankee Stadium. Mitch wanted to paly third base, but the coaches saw how tall he was and it was Kupchak, 1b, through seven campaigns of Little League, Babe Ruth and all that. Basketball didn't discover Mitch until the eighth grade: "Peer pressure: I made the team only because I was tall." The timing was fortuitous. Kupchak wouldn't make the high school baseball team.
He wouldn't play tight end, either, Stan Kellner, the Brentwood basketball coach, didn't talk him out of it, "but yes, you could say he whispered in my ear. I didn't get any rush out of blocking linebackers all the time, anyway. I saw no future in it."
Beside the bed in the room Kupchak rents from teammate Kevin Grevey in Crofton, Maryland, is a large box, which he "sort of" uses as a telephone table. In the box is an accordion. His mom wanted him to have a varied background, says Kellner, who knew that wouldn't be easy. Big deal, Kellner had thought, when they told him there was a six-foot-four ninth grader; there's one in every junior high.
"But this was a blue-chipper," Kellner discovered quickly. Brentwood won county titles and Kupchak broke old scoring records, but Kellner remembered other things: "Best captain I ever had ... He'd drive the other kids home after practice, two trips in that beat-up Olds ... If a kid was late for practice, Mitch would talk to him: 'That's your last chance.'
"He scored 55 in a game as a senior, still diving for loose balls. He was sixnine by then, but he played like five-ten."
Kupchak is six-ten-and-a-half now, still diving for loose balls. "I like a guy," he said in the midst of a midday snack that included two hero sandwiches and four cans of various pop, "who comes into training camp and starts hurting people. Well, not intentionally, but how can you be careful if there's a loose ball? You need guys who aren't afraid to put their heads down and jump into the pile."
(It should be pointed out that there is no NBA rule against big men diving on the floor to capture a free basketball; but when it is done by anyone over six foot eight, he is looked upon askance by other people of that altitude, as if he were crossing a picket line.)
"Hey, everybody wants to start," Kupchak declared. "Or if there's a person who doesn't, I wouldn't want to play with him.
Kupchak and Wright are substitutes in the technical sense that they do not take the floor at the beginning of the game. Frequently they play more minutes, and score more points, than the people who were in a 119-117 game when the score was 3-3.
But they do not start. They do not trot with organ accompaniment to center court and give each other five while their names are intoned by public address announcer Mary Brooks, who can make the name "Phil Chenier" sound like God's pronouncement of grace for the redeemed.
Kupchak understands, intellectually, that the massive West Unseld, 31 years old with knees going on 50, "can't sit for the second. He couldn't get loose. It's tough enough for me. I think they shouldn't count the first three shots when I go in."
Advertising for himself, Kupchak might mention his 572 shooting percentage last year, second to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was the highest ever for an NBA rookie and has been exceeded historically only by Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and one hot-hand season by Jumping Johnny Green (ask your father). Kupchak might even have indulged in the comparison between himself and the singular John Havlicek of the Boston Celtics, first and greatest of the Sixth Men. Super Sub through a half-dozen of the Celtics' championship season, Havlicek is still running people into the floor, or running into the floor with them, at 37. (Purists would argue that Frank Ramsey, Havlicek's Celtic predecessor, was the first Sixth Man, but Kupchak doesn't remember him. Ramsey must be as old as ... Mickey Mantle?)
But Kupchak's argument with himself cleaved strictly to the mea-culpa lien. "If I am not in the mea starting line-up," he said slowly, "it is because I am not one of the five best players. That's what it means to the fans, the other players and to me. It is not the coach's fault; it's mine."
Kupchak conceded that coaches must make marginal, coin-flipping decisions about such matters. "But if I were obviously the best, I'd start." Then he reiterated how happy he was in his role."But if I came off the bench for eight years, I'd come to camp for the ninth year fighting for a starting job." And, unintentionally, hurting people. Nobody doubts that.
Nobody should doubt Mitch will be around for nine years. "I can't see doint anything else," he said, "until I can't paly basketball any more. If I went into business at 28 or 29, knowing I could still be playing ... I couldn't coach: I'd keep saying, 'I can do better than that,' and it wouldn't be fair to the players.
"I don't know what I'd do without basketball," Kupchak said, his little boy face in a frown. "I've established that I can play very well. But I won't reach my peak for a couple of years. I have to achieve what I know I can achieve.
"I'm afraid of not doing that."
And then off to a career in a business he can enjoy, where the psych and political science majors may help. "Well, when I reach my peak as a player, I hope to stay at that level, maybe for two or three years. Then, when I start to slip, that will be it."
In other words, they'll have to cut the uniform off him.Dr. Naismith, nailing up the peach basket in 1891, had no way to know what a grasp his contrived game would take on clean-limbed youth.
Not playing basketball may be the only thing that ever scared Larry Writht. Regularly leaned on by NBA antagonists who outweigh him by twenty'five to fifty pounds, Wright has neither winced nor cried aloud; this stoicism, plus the water-bug quickness to "get away from the beating," have earned him respect and a measure of freedom. Larry was last terrified by his high school coach, Herschel West, when he was 14.
Grambling University (then college) might be forty miles up the road, West counseled his 135-pound hot-shot, but it might as well be on the moon if Wright didn't "get the books." Larry was "not that crazy about school," he recalled, "but the coach got to me."
Wright "got the books," got to Grambling, got All-America and got drafted in the first round by the Bullets. First he got to Western High School, in Georgetown, for his senior year. Though he was not yet 18, there was an eligibility question under Louisiana law, so coach West called coach Bob Piper at Western. They had been teammates at Grambling and at Eula D. Britton High School in Rayville, Louisiana, four years ahead of Elvin Hayes. Larry had never been as far as Baton Rouge, but his mother, a nurse's aide raising nine children by herself, agreed to put him in Bob Piper's care.
They lived on the sixth floor. On the third were James Harris, the quarter-back, and Ernie Ladd, the 315-pound tacke-turned-wrestler. Harris, cut by the Buffalo Bills and waiting for the phone to ring, noted that a magazine had tabbed Wright as a pre-season All-America. "He said a lot of people would want to test me," Larry said. He had average 28 to 30 ponts as Richwood High won the Louisiana AAA championship, but there was a difference. "There were three or four real good teams in our district," Wright said. "At Western we met a real good team every Tuesday and Friday."
Mr. Piper, about to leave coaching for the insurance business, sure would like that city championship, Ernie Ladd advised Larry as Western kept beating real good teams like McKinley and Spingarn. Western was denied that city title by what Bob Piper still calls "the presence" of Adrian Dantley at DeMatha, but the whole apartment building was in the H. D. Woodson High gym the night Western routed Bell Vocational for the 1973 Interhigh championship.
Larry scored only 18 of Western's 86 points, but the game was "just right," he recalls blissfully. "I had six or seven steals, nine or ten assists. Like I wrote the script."
Larry average 24.6 points at Western, Bob Piper remembers precisely. "But he was like a loaded cannon: if you needed 40, he could get them for you." In Indianapolis last October 28 the Bullets needed 40 (more, actually: that Dantley "presence" again) and Wright got them 43 in forty-one minutes, making eighteen of twenty shots from the floor. "It was," Coach Motta said, "one of the best all-around performances by a guard I've ever seen. I don't know how he could have played any better." For the first two weeks of the season Wright was near the top of the league in things like shooting percentage, steals and playing time.
Phil Chenier's back had stopped aching and the $400,000 guard (a Pure Shooter, in the sense that Sonny Jurgensen became known as a Pure Passer), was ready to play. "I can't take Larry out of there," Motta said. "Right now he's my best guard." Sixteen days later Wright had an unproductive game, followed by another, and he was out of there. Last January Wright became a starter for eight games and the Bullets won them all. Then he got the flu, and the Bullets got the clever, seasoned Tom Henderson, and Larry sat down a lot.
"Definitely not a confidence-builder," Wright said when he was seated again. "But you won't see any difference in the way I play." None has been perceptible.
"Last year I worried about mistakes," Wright says. "This year, the hell with it: I'm not a rookie any more." The attitude showed in a game with the Denver Nuggets. With the Bullets down by seven, Wright stole the ball and flitted down the left side of the court. Keeping pace down the right, with a Nugget retreating in the middle of a classic two-on-one fast break, was the wealthy Phil Chenier.
At the key, Wright feinted a bounce pass and went up for the layin (layup, if you're over 30) alone. Last year, it was suggested, he might have deferred to his senior colleague.
"I probably would have," Larry said. "Not because of how much money he makes, but because I wouldn't have wanted to look like a selfish player. This year? You don't pass the ball if you don't have to: I was taught that a long time ago. That play may have looked selfish to some people, but I don't care. It was the safe play. The right play."
It is the gospel of the safe play, the right play, according to Larry Wright's composite role model, Herscehl West and Bob Piper and Fred D. Hobdy, the man at Grambling, that inhibits his tendency toward the slam-dunk, basketball's entrechat. Silly, of course, to attribute Freudian significance to such a caper. Still, what - if not sexual jealousy - motivated middle-aged rule-writers to try to stop college kids from dunking?
Larry Wright will dunk because he feels like it, as he did when he was five foot ten."You jump and touch, jump and touch, until you can do it. And when you get a chance, you dunk.
"One of these nights I might get a chance ... And I might dunk one ... I'm pretty sure I will."