Larry Wright drives around town in a plain late model Mercury Monarch. He is in the process of buying a modestly priced home in Silver Spring and his wardrobe is stylish, but not garnish.

He earns $100,000 a year. Yet on those infrequent days off during the grind of a professional basketball season, it is not at all unusual for him to show up at an inner-city high school game with some of his old friends.

Every once in a while he will go back home to where it all began, Monroe, La., and spend hours on the corner with the friends he left behind.

"I'll never forget where I came from," said Wright, the rookie guard for the Washington Bullets. "But when I go home, it can get kind of depressing some times.

"I see guys I played ball with all my life, a lot of them better than I ever was. But a lot of them never even finished high school. Some of them don't even have jobs.

"The only difference between me and them is I got lucky. I had good people around me, and when I almost went the wrong way, they steered me back on the right path."

It was a path that led him from a primitive hoop attached to a telephone pole and a grass court "where you never knew which way the ball would bounce" to the sparkle and glitter of Capital Centre, where quiche is consumed high in the sky boxes and the athletes dress in a carpeted locker room.

Larry Wright's odyssey is not unlike that of many of his professional peers, and there are thousands of players who began their careers in similar fashion, shooting at improvished baskets on makeshift courts all over America.

And then there are James Brown and Flyod Lewis, who began their basketball lives in much the same way Wright did, hopping around the playgrounds all over this city, spending lunch hours shooting in the schoolyard and eight, ten, 12 hours a day in the summer at courts with exotic names like Candy Cane City, Turkey Thicket and Luzon.

The game has been good to all three. Wright is just beginning to reap the benefits that went along with his selection as the Bullets' No. 1 draft choice.

Brown and Lewis used the game of earn Harvard educations. And even though their dream of playing professionally never materialized, both are leading productive lives and surely must be considered among the future leaders of this city.

They are all, in the truest sense, athletic success stores. All made deep commitments to the game. All had concerned advisers, parents, coaches, teachers. And all of them know where they came from and where they're going.

Wright was one of 41 rookies to make it into the National Basketball Association this year, one of about 25 to actually start an NBA game. How did he beat those odds, the cold numbers that say for every 17,000 high school players, only one will ever make it to the most important play-ground of all?

"I had a lot of help," said Wright.

"He had all the talent in the world," said Hershell West, his original guardian angel.

"And he was very lucky," said Bob Piper, his coach at Western High.

Wright began playing basketball when he was 6 years old. He was one of nine children - seven boys and two girls. He doesn't remember much about his father, only that he wasn't there.

Two older brothers were high school football players who had the skill, but not the scholarships, to play in college. His mother worked as a nurse's aide in a local hospital in Loulsiana.

"She worked all day and a lot nights, too, trying to make ends meet," Wright said. "She never missed a day, sick or not. I think that's one of the things that kept me working at it. She did everything she could for her kids."

Wright began playing organized basketball in the fifth grade. He was a skinny guy then, just as he is now 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds).

His biggest problem then was finding a pair of short pants that wouldn't fall when he ran down court.

As a child, he always played against older competition. In the sixth grade, his team played the seventh and eighth graders of nearby schools. In the backyard, it was one-on-one against an older brother.

He also watched the pro games on the battered black and white television set in the living room. Bill Russell was an early hero, and so, too, were Oscar Robertson and Jerry West."I never even thought about the money," Wright says now. "When I was a kid, all I wanted was to play on TV."

In junior high school, his game and his body began to blossom. He recalls averaging "27 or 28 and we always did pretty well."

And then Hershell West came into his life. West had starred at guard at Grambling, a magnificent shooter with all the moves, or so West thought until Philadelphia let him go on the last cut.

He came back to Monroe to teach and saw Wright play in an eighth-grade tournament. "He was real frail and skinny," West recalled, "but he had a good, quick shot, and you could see he loved to play the game."

Wright entered the ninth grade at Richwood High the same year Hershell West took over coaching the basketball team. For Wright, it was the year his life "turned completely around."

"Larry loved to play, but it got to the point where he never came to class," West recalled. "He'd come by the school at lunch hour and play outside, and if he did come to class, as soon as the teacher would turn her head, he'd be out the door heading for the courts."

"Actually," Wright said, "I quit things. I saw how hard my mother school. I was frustrated by a lot of was working, and I thought I might be able to help. Then I got in with the wrong crowd. I always wanted to be around the older guys, and they were hanging out on the corner, and that's where I wanted to be, too.

"I guess you could say I'd still be there if West hadn't straightened me out. He came to see me and he said, 'Larry, basketball can do a lot for you.' The worst thing that could happen is that I'd get a college a degree."

"Yeah," West said, "I chased that boy all around town. I saw too much potential to have him leave like that. He would have had to come to school or leave the city. He decided to come back."

And when he did, Wright also began to get serious about school. "After I came back, I never failed a course," he said proudly. "That next semester, I got all A's and B's. I had to work hard to get those grades. School never really came easy.

"But if I see something is hard for me to learn, I accept that as a challenge.I've never been taught to lose, not on a basketball court and not in school, either."

Wright went on to play for two years at Richwood. His junior year, the team won the state championship. Wright played at one guard and Sammy White, the rookie-of-the-year Minnesota Viking receiver, the other.

Because of Wright's earlier scademic problems, he was not eligible to play at Richwood his senior year. West knew "that if Larry couldn't play ball, he probably would have a tough time staying interested in school."

So West called his friend and former Grambling teammate Bob Piper, who was coaching at Western High School in Washington. "I had seen Larry play in a summer camp at Grambling," Piper said. "West asked me if he thought Larry could play up here.

"I checked all the rules, and legally, Larry could transfer and play the day he got off that plane. I knew people would think something shady was going on, but Larry was legitimate.

"I don't want any hassles, so I listed myself as his uncle on the transfer papers. Larry stayed with me that year, and believe me, we were closer than uncle and nephew. It was his first year away from home. I was single, and I had to be coach, father and friend."

With Wright earning all-metropolitan and All-America honors, Western won the Interhigh championship and the Knights of Columbus tournament. The college scouts came flocking.

During the school year, Wright also had been exposed to many of Piper's friends. Larry Brown was one. Ernie Ladd and Willis Reed both Grambling men, occasionally dropped by.

"They all told him how important it was to stay in school, to go to college, to work hard at basketball but to work hard at school, too, so that if one didn't work out, then he had something else to fall back on," Piper said. "Yes, I thought he could do well at Grambling, but he made the choice, not me.

"Larry had always dreamed of being a pro, but he also knew what it took. And he worked so hard at it.He developed his entire game, not just shooting. He learned how to move without the ball, how to get it to the open man, how to play defense. He learns something every day even now, with the Bullets.

"I'm not sure he had any more guidance than most kids, but Larry Wright listened, and that was the difference." He listened so well that the Bullets named him as their No. 1 choice after only three years at Grambling. He left school as a "hardship case" But he plans to go back, to finish up the work needed for his degree.

He also would like to go back into the D.C. schools and tell the youngsters about his experiences. He would tell them not to pursue basketball at any price. He would tell them to stay in school, to work hard at developing their athletic skills, but not at the expense of their academic work.

"Don't put all your apples in one basket, that's what I'd tell them because that's what people told me," he said. "And they were right. If you get an education, you'll lead a full, happy like.I know what the odds are, I know how lucky I am because there's a lot of guys better than I am not playing in this league.

"My dream came true, but I was one in a thousand, maybe even more than that. The kids better know that, because a lot of them are going to be awfully disappointed if they don't deal with reality."

Five years before Larry Wright brought a championship to Western, Lewis and Brown were dealing with reality in a different sort of way.

They, too, were talented basketball players, All-Met at All-Americas, just like Larry Wright, with the same dreams of one day playing against the best the pros could offer.

No, you will not find their names on the roster of any NBA team, but when Georgetown University's law school graduates the Class of 1977, Floyd Lewis - the 6-foot-7 attorney - surely will stand out.

And when the Xerox Co. looks over its roster of young executives, surely James Brown's name will be at, or near, the top of the list.

In the spring of 1969, Lewis, a senior at Western, and his best friend, Brown of De Matha, were besieged by Hundreds of schools. For Brown, the recruiting pressure became so intense that he collapsed from exhaustion during a basketball game.

Both decided to attend Harvard. Sen. Ted Kennedy helped persuade them. So did Clifford Alexander, now Secretary of the Army.

It was a decision neither man regrets, even though Lewis felt depressed "for weeks" when the Cleveland Cavaliers cut him three years ago and Brown "cried like a baby" the day Cotton Fitzsimmons told him the Atlanta Hawks could do nicely without him.

Lewis took it a little better than Brown.

"When I was cut, basketball meant so much to me, and it really hurt me," Lewis recalled. "But then life is also a learning experience. Up until then, everything I had ever wanted came easily to me.

"I made the varsity on a city championship team as a sophomore. My parents and my coaches always emphasized doing well in school, so I did. I made All-Met and All-America in high school and I was able to get into the best college in the ountry.

"But when I got out, I was at a point where I had to make some decisions in my life. That next year, I had a chance to try out for several other teams. But I analyzed the situation and said to myself I'd be just like all those other free agents. I had no chance and I knew it.

"I remember the date for registering at law school was Aug. 29, Even up to that day, I was still thinking about giving it another shot. But I registered for class and that was the first step in a whole new aspect of my life."

Brown needed a little more time to get the game out of his system. He also found it difficult to come back to town and face his friends.

"I literally sneaked back home when I was cut," he recalled. "I didn't want to see anybody. It was really tough to come back and face all the questions. It made the transition that much tougher.

"When I left, it was James Brown, the All-America. But people don't realize that there are a lot of other people out there with the same reputations. They think if you don't make it, you're a failure.

"Anyway, I came back home and moped for about two weeks. I didn't go out. I watched a lot of television. It was a very difficult time in my life."

Then Brown went to work for the Department of Human Resources as a program analyst. He flirted with the nation of law school, then decided he wanted to give business a whirl. So he signed up with Zerox.

During that NBA season, Brown went out to see Atlanta play, and Fitzsimmons asked him if he'd be interested in coming back to the Hawks camp.

"It was all I needed," Brown said. "I started working out, getting in shape, getting my game together. But cotton never called back, so I stopped training.

"Then I got a call from Red Auerbach, and he invited me to come to the Celtics. The people at Xerox gave me some leave to try again. I'd been playing in the Chevy Chase League, but I really was in no kind of shape to make that team, the way they run.

"I did get through all the way to the final cut, and then they let me loose. Red wanted to send me overseas to play in Europe and work on my game. I appreciated that, but getting cut let me know right then. It's over partner.

"I looked at it this way. Even if you do make it, the longevity is so short. And if you're the 12th man on the team, you're going to make the rock-bottom salary.

"Was it really worth it to sacrifice two or three years of a career you'll be working at the rest of your life for a 1,000-to-one shot at making it big? No, I didn't think so."

Even now, though, when James Brown walks down the street, people will honk their horns and wave. They stop and talk about the wonderful years at DeMatha, the great team of 1969. And many of them ask him if he still thinks about playing professionally.

But these days, Brown and Lewis are far more interested in advancing their careers. Brown may go back to Harvard and study for his MBA. Lewis most likely will join a prestigious law firm here.

The will both play in the Urban Coalition league this summer, and occasionally they still find the lure of the playground too much to resist on warm weekend afternoons.

"I don't really have any regards," brown says now. "When I was in high school, Morgan (Wootten, the De Matha coach) always talked about preparing yourself, having options to exercise. My parents did, too. My mother didn't give a damn about basketball. She wanted me to do well in school.

"Ball would be fine if. But if not, then what. Even now, I run into guys on the playgrounds still dreaming. They'll come up and ask me if I know anybody in the Eastern League they can call. They all tell you, "If they see me play, I know they'll take me."

"There's just too many guys out there going into the class room with a basketball under their arm. I always prided myself on not being that way.

"And when it was over, I knew that, too. It was time to go somewhere else. Time to start working on life."