“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Larry Wright – the man with two rings
During the 1970s and 1980s, most of the European clubs signed foreigners who were big men, power forwards or centers, most of them American. The FIBA regulations allowed for two non-national players, and since big men were scarce in Europe, the solution was to try to “fish” something from the American market. One of the few exceptions was Banco di Roma, which in the summer of 1982 had signed the best Italian coach at the time, Valerio Bianchini, after he had been successful with Cantu in the previous years. The first thing that Bianchini decided to do was… sign a guard. He went for Larry Wright, born November 23, 1954, in Monroe, Louisiana. He was a player with five years of experience in the NBA, first with the Washington Bullets and then with the Detroit Pistons. Why a guard and why Wright? Bianchini himself explained it to me:
“Before coaching Rome I spent three years in Cantu,” he said. “We won several titles, including a European title in 1981. One of the key pieces in that puzzle was point guard Pierluigi Marzorati. Since I could not sign him, I decided to take the risk and go for an American guard. I had good reports about Larry through Darren Dale, a then very well-known American agent, so we offered Wright a contract. He doubted it a little and I had to travel all the way to Monroe, his hometown, to convince him.”
Time proved Bianchini – and his scouts – right. They had seen great potential in Wright that the NBA could not fully exploit. He previously enjoyed a great career of three years at Grambling State University, with an average 25.4 points, a rookie of the year award of the Southwestern Atlantic Conference. He was the best player in the conference in 1976 and a two-time selection to the NCAA all-small colleges team. He was drafted in 1976 and chosen 14th by the Bullets. Two years later, the Bullets beat the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Finals (4-3) and Wright won his first title. His contribution in those seven games was nothing to write home about. He scored 6 points in the first game, 2 in the second, 5 in the fourth, 10 in the sixth and 2 in the seventh: 25 points total. His season average was 9.2 points and 3.7 assists, enough to let his potential be seen, but not enough to convince his coach, Dick Motta, to give him more minutes. He decided to move to the Pistons, but in the 1980-81 season, his numbers didn’t increase: 7.4 points and 3.4 assists. The following season he hardly played. Behind him, he had played in 343 NBA games, averaging less than 20 minutes per game, 8.2 points, 3.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds. That’s when the Rome offer arrived.
Taking over a title game
In a short span of time, all of Italy saw that Rome had signed a great player. He was a scoring point guard, but he also played shooting guard, something that Bianchini used to perfection combining the roles of Wright (22.2 points) and Enrico Gilardi (15.2). Banco di Roma, the name of the team then, won its first and only Italian League title and the following season it would make its debut in the EuroLeague.
After easily rolling through the two preliminary rounds against weak opponents (Dudelange of Luxemburg and Partizani Tirana of Albania), Banco di Roma qualified for the final group with six teams. The first two would play the title game. FC Barcelona and Rome finished with 7-3 records and they would face each other for the title, on March 29, 1984. In the group stage, Barcelona had beaten Roma at home by 81-74 with 31 points by Juan Antonio San Epifanio, but in Rome, the Italian team won by 74-71 with Wright scoring 18. The tiebreaker would be the final with the title of European champion going to the winner.
Barça started the game way better, and in minute 16 was winning by 13 points, 35-22. At halftime, there was still a double-digit difference, 42-32. What happened in the halftime break and the second half is told by Bianchini himself.
“In the corridor to the locker rooms, Barca’s big man Mike Davis made a mistake. The players from both teams were walking together and David said something to Wright. Something that sounded like: ‘Hey man, there’s no prize for you tonight.’ Wright entered the locker room really angry and started screaming at his teammates telling them to wake up. He raged into the second half and almost won the game by himself.”
Larry Wright put his best weapons to good use: speed and unstoppable one-on-one skills. When he didn’t penetrate, he made outside shots. In minute 31, Banco di Rome jumped ahead for the first time, 57-56, and even though Barcelona would have options until the last seconds, an offensive rebound by Clarence Kea solved the game for Rome, 79-73. Wright finished with 27 points – 2 more than he had scored in the full seven games of the NBA Finals of 1978 – and, of course, was the MVP. Jose Manuel Fernandez, the journalist who covered the game for Spanish newspaper “Mundo Deportivo”, wrote in his recap:
“This small genius, as we had been saying for some time, made the difference between the two teams. His last baskets were his trademark… Wright was the hero of the game and an idol cheered by the Roman ‘tifosi’. At 67-69, Wright left his genius and class indelibly imprinted on us with two otherworldly baskets and gave all hope back to his team at 67-73… Wright put an end to the game playing a reggae groove that was worth a European crown. Barcelona’s champagne bottle remained unopened.”
That was Wright’s stellar moment in Europe. It was his “second ring” and a great personal satisfaction for his two seasons in Rome.
“Larry was an offensive guard, a natural scorer, a fighter,” Bianchini remembered. “He was not a pure point guard, but a mix of point and shooting guard and that only made his potential greater. His fighting character came from his difficult childhood, marked by family poverty. He was a very responsible man and he always cared a lot for his family.”
From Rome to Udine and back
Even though some sources say that Wright also won the Intercontinental Cup with Banco di Roma in September of 1984 in Sao Paulo against, again, FC Barcelona (86-85), it is not true. He wasn’t on the team anymore because the previous season he had to deal with injury problems. He basically only played in the EuroLeague and the club decided not to renew him.
He missed the whole 1984-85 season due to injuries, but he was back for the next one and had his best year in Italy. He was wearing the jersey of Fantoni Udine, where he averaged 31.9 points, 4.4 assists and 3.1 boards. He stayed with Udine for one more season, also with good numbers: 26.8 points, 3.6 assists and 3.3 rebounds. For the 1987-88 season, already at 34 years old, he was back to Rome and delivered 22.7 points, 2.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds. It was his last active year in the elite. He had played 149 games in Italy averaging 25.1 points, 2.9 assists and 3.2 boards in 38.8 minutes. He hardly ever left the court!
Wright retired in 1990. He stayed in the basketball world as a scout for several NBA teams and later worked as coach of the Grambling State Tigers for nine seasons. He was back to Rome on October 6, 2006, for a game between Lottomatica Roma and the Phoenix Suns that the EuroLeague organized with the NBA on the NBA Europe Live Tour. Of course, the older Rome fans who had told their sons about him gave Wright a warm ovation.
The man with two rings.