Al Miller recalls in vivid detail the February day in 1990 when he reluctantly surrendered the man who would become the Spirit's franchise player.
Miller, the general manager of the Cleveland Crunch, traded Paul Wright for Zoran Karic. Wright was only 20 at the time, a pro indoor soccer newcomer, and Karic was an established star with the San Diego Sockers.
"One of the great trades in indoor soccer," Miller said. "We both won."
The two players will clash tonight when Wright's undefeated Spirit (8-0) and Karic's Crunch (6-2) meet at the Baltimore Arena in a battle of the top two teams in the National Professional Soccer League's American Division. Karic leads the league in points with 62 and Wright is No. 5 with 37.
The year before the Wright-Karic trade, Miller had selected Wright for the Crunch from the Sockers' list of unprotected players in a Major Soccer League expansion draft. The Sockers, allowed to protect eight players, were so loaded that they were forced to leave three or four all-stars off the protected list. The Sockers figured that Wright, who had just completed his rookie season, would pass untapped through the draft.
"I took Wright," Miller said, "to San Diego's surprise and chagrin. The Sockers called and said they were devastated, having figured Wright would slide through. They asked, 'How can we get him back?' "
Miller didn't answer that question right away. Wright gave the Crunch37 productive games in 1989-90, scoring 27 points.
"You could see eventually he would wreak havoc," Miller said. "This was a big-time player."
The Sockers called Miller every week, pursuing Wright back. Late in the season, Miller, reasoning that the expansion Crunch could get more use out of an established star than a youngster who had yet to fulfill his potential, made a proposal.
"Wright for Karic," Miller told the Sockers. "Even up."
Wright went back to San Diego and helped the Sockers win a string of MSL titles. When the league folded, he wound up last season with the NPSL's Milwaukee Wave, then became a free agent and signed with the Spirit in August.
Karic? He has been a scoring leader for Cleveland for four years.
"At the time, as an expansion team, we needed a player who could take us to the next level," Miller said. "Paul wasn't ready to do that. Now he is.
"He steps up the speed of any team he plays with. Because of that, he can create situations so that he can score goals by himself, giving a defense nightmares. He's coming into his own as a superstar."
That was what the Spirit and coach Kenny Cooper had in mind when they signed him.
"He's a franchise player," Cooper said.
Wright demonstrated what a lightning first step can do for a scorer in last week's 17-3 win over the Buffalo Blizzard. He scored four goals and accumulated eight points, two shy of the club record.
Wright, 24, snorts at the suggestion that tonight's game will be Wright vs. Karic.
"It's more of a challenge, facing Cleveland, because they've got the best record in the league other than us," Wright said. "But I have no interest in trying to out-do Karic."
Since he was a teen-ager, Wright has worn an earring "as a fashion statement." He shaves his head regularly for the same reason.
Born in London, Wright moved with his family to Modesto, Calif., when he was 10. Eight years later, he made his debut with the Sockers.
Wherever he has played, his trademark has been speed and scoring ability.
With Milwaukee last season, he scored 104 points in 25 games.
This past summer, playing for the Los Angeles Salsa in the outdoor American Professional Soccer League, Wright finished as the league's No. 2 scorer with 33 points.
"Whatever league I've been in, I've been among the top scorers," Wright said. "But this isn't about goals. It's about winning."