Just about every fiber in Julian Wright's supple 6-foot-9-inch, 215-pound body is devoted to his life's passion--making the world a better place for those around him.
On the court, the McDonald's All-American is a pass-first, spread-the-wealth forward who occasionally reveals glimpses of a dynamic athleticism. His spectacular, soaring one-hand slam reminiscent of Julius "Dr. J" Erving at the McDonald's game Wednesday night was shown nationally as one of ESPN SportsCenter's top plays.
And yet, of the five dunks he threw down at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind., Wright chose the lob slam as his finest--so he could credit Oklahoma State-bound Byron Eaton's feed.
He worried so much this season about his Homewood-Flossmoor teammates getting enough touches and shots that Vikings coach Roy Condotti had to pull Wright aside and tell him to be a little more selfish.
If statistics were kept for sacrificing ego, sharing glory and all-around compassion, Wright would be a walking triple-double every day of his life.
Wright is being honored as the Tribune's Mr. Basketball of Illinois with an overwhelming percentage of votes statewide from coaches and media elevating him to the summit of high school players.
Yet, all he wants to do is share the award with runner-up Jon Scheyer of Glenbrook North.
"If I'm Mr. Basketball--then Jon is Mr. Basketball Jr.," said Wright, an All-Stater who averaged 16 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks. "It's a great honor and I feel I deserve it--but I didn't expect it. I am a little surprised. Jon had such a great season and led his team (Glenbrook North) to the state title. If Jon had won, I wouldn't have been surprised."
Wright and Scheyer roomed together for two summers while playing in tournaments nationwide for the Illinois Warriors AAU summer team. Just before Labor Day, Wright spent a weekend at Scheyer's home in Northbrook.
"Julian is really down to earth and cares a lot about his teammates," Scheyer said. "He is such an unselfish player who can make an impact on the game without having to score a lot of points.
"I'll always remember his defense because he is the best shot-blocker in the country. At some of the biggest AAU tournaments against some of the best players, Julian was blocking shots from 7-footers. And on offense, he was dunking on everyone."
It seems like Mr. Basketball saves all the Wright moves for the biggest moments. Back in December, his late-game heroics led H-F to an upset of Oak Hill Academy when the Virginia school was ranked No. 1 in the country.
With representatives from every NBA team--including the Miami Heat's Pat Riley, the Memphis Grizzlies' Jerry West and the Indiana Pacers' Larry Bird--Wright and 7-foot, 300-pound Connecticut recruit Andrew Bynum stole the show Tuesday at the McDonald's showcase scrimmage.
A day later Wright scored 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, had two steals, helped force four additional turnovers and emerged among the elite players at the All-American Game.
He put on a dazzling performance at last year's Class AA state finals in leading H-F to second place behind Peoria Central and its NBA lottery pick Shaun Livingston--last year's Mr. Basketball now with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Wright had been enamored of Kansas, but when assistant coach Norm Roberts--Wright's primary Jayhawks recruiter--left the Lawrence campus to take over the St. John's program, nobody bothered to follow up.
"All of a sudden, the phone calls stopped and Julian's feelings were really hurt," said Gina Wright, a single mom and operations manager for a Downtown advertising firm who raised Julian and his older brother, Andre. "Julian kept talking up Kansas, but nobody contacted him. Finally, he took Kansas off his list."
Wright made visits to his other top choices, Illinois and Arizona, and Illini fans were hopeful he would become coach Bruce Weber's signature signee. His mom was worried that Julian would wind up "settling" for Arizona.
When Kansas coach Bill Self tried phoning, Wright wouldn't take the calls.
"I knew Julian really loved Kansas, but his pride was hurt," Gina Wright said. "I had to literally beg him to allow Self to visit our home (on Sept. 9). I pulled out the parent card and asked him to do it for me.
"They sat down man-to-man and coach Self apologized to Julian while admitting he dropped the ball on his recruiting. I think Julian needed to hear that from Self's own mouth. Less than 10 minutes after Self left, Julian told me to call his cell phone and have him come back to the house."
One sudden U-turn later, Self had his No. 1 recruit.
Fellow Kansas signees and All-Americans Mario Chalmers of Anchorage and Micah Downs of Bothell, Wash., got a taste of Wright's selfless play at the McDonald's Game.
Mama Wright believes part of her son's generosity and compassion stems from his surviving a near drowning when Julian was 10 years old.
"He thought he could swim well enough to be in the deep end of our friends' condominium pool in DeKalb," Gina said. "I was inside with Tim and Pam Harris . . . when one of the kids came in shouting that Julian was at the bottom of the pool.
"Their daughter, Ashanti, who was 13 at the time, dove in and brought him up. He was under water for almost three minutes. He was rushed to the hospital and--it was a miracle--there wasn't any brain damage.
"I believe God saved his life, and that basketball is just a platform for whatever purpose he was put here for. Julian realizes what a precious gift he has."
As a child, Wright never hesitated sharing his favorite toys with playmates.
"That's just my nature," Wright said. "With my values, it's only a toy. As important as basketball is to me, it's still just a game. It's my teammates who are the most important.
"I ask them if everything is OK. I tell them to always look for me to get them the ball. Don't worry about me--I'll get my baskets. I want to be one of the greatest teammates a guy could ever play with."
Gina Wright cried for 10 minutes upon learning of her son's award.
"He has sacrificed so much--his free time, having a girlfriend, all the things teenagers love to do," she said. "It's very humbling, and he won this award by being himself. I just hope this will encourage him to keep on being Julian."