NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- As a senior at Elizabeth (N.J.) High, Luther
Wright was a McDonald's All-American. As a freshman at Seton Hall, Wright was an All-American at Burger King and Pizza Hut.
You name it, Wright ate it.
"Coming out of high school, I was used to playing all the time, but when I got to college I couldn't do anything but go to class," said Wright, who sat out his freshman year because of Proposition 48. "I was kind of depressed. But that's all in the past."
So are nearly 60 pounds. After his weight ballooned to 330 pounds as a freshman, Wright got down to around 300 last season. But even at 7 feet 2, it was too much for Wright. The biggest player in Seton Hall history was on the verge of becoming one of the biggest busts in Big East history.
"If anything, I was pessimistic last spring," said Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo. "I remember telling him, 'Hey Luther, if things don't get better, I don't think it's going to work out.' "
Carlesimo was away for most of the summer, working for Chuck Daly as a Dream Team assistant coach during the Summer Olympics. By the time he returned to the campus, Wright was down to 270 pounds through a combination of a low-fat diet and exercise.
"It was like night and day," said Carlesimo.
Wright's weight loss has resulted in vastly improved play this season. In what many considered his best game at Seton Hall, BTC Wright had 13 points, 10 rebounds and one blocked shot in the Pirates' 73-64 victory over UCLA on Wednesday night in the semifinals of the Preseason National Invitation Tournament.
It helped put sixth-ranked Seton Hall (3-0) into tonight's final against No. 4 Indiana (3-0) at Madison Square Garden. The Hoosiers defeated Florida State in overtime, 81-78, in the first game.
Asked about Wright's contribution, UCLA coach Jim Harrick said, "If he plays like that, it makes them a different team."
A team that could make it to the Final Four in New Orleans come April. Carlesimo doesn't want to burden Wright with that kind of responsibility.
"I still think the key to this team is Terry [Dehere] and Jerry [Walker]," said Carlesimo. "Luther certainly has the ability to take us to another level, but I think we could have gotten there with or without Luther."
In a league that lost its premier big man, Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown, there is certainly room at the top for Wright. On a team that features one of the country's best shooters in Dehere and a hard-working undersized power forward in Walker, Wright's enormous presence could give the Pirates their most balance since the 1989 Final Four team.
When Wright was reminded about the help he gave Walker inside, the soft-spoken center smiled. The two have a special relationship, sharing the stereotype that comes with being a Prop. 48. Walker's brother, Jasper, a former St. Peter's College player, oversaw Wright's training sessions this summer.
"Jerry's like my brother," said Wright. "A lot of people didn't think I could lose all that weight, but Jerry kept telling me that I could."
Said Walker: "A lot of people put pressure on him coming out of high school. They expected so much of him. Once it clicks, I don't think anyone in the country will be able to stop him."
Carlesimo, who privately has been known to blister his players in practice, has been patient in his prodding of Wright. He knew it was going to take time, both academically and athletically, for Wright's complete adjustment to college.
"If anything, he's too nice a kid," said Carlesimo. "Sometimes, we wish he'd be nastier."
The boos from last year have turned into Luuuuuuuuuus from the Seton Hall fans. The doubts are slowly being erased. And, suddenly, basketball is again fun for this former high school All-American.
"I'm just one player, but I know I can be a big part of this team," said Wright.
We're still talking big, 60 pounds not withstanding.
* The Hoosiers will be without junior forward Pat Graham. After scoring all 14 of his points in the second half Wednesday night, it was announced that Graham had broken a bone in his left foot. He had suffered the same injury last season.