'Pop' Wright still dominant in gym -- only with words

Ex-Lake Clifton star hopes kids learn from his mistakes

  • Former Lake Clifton standout Pop Wright poses for a photo with students at Sacred Heart School in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Former Lake Clifton standout Pop Wright poses for a photo with… (Photo courtesy of Earl Hulst )
April 11, 2010|By Mike Klingaman | mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

At 51, Rodney "Pop" Wright is as buoyant as ever as he bursts into a high school gym amid cheers from the crowd. But where the one-time Lake Clifton basketball star once wowed them with jump shots, his game now is all talk - though just as electric.

Wright's message is a slam-dunk. Steer clear of drugs and booze, he tells the Iowa teens who pack the room. For almost an hour, Wright, 6 feet 3, 240 pounds, shares the tale of a promising young athlete from East Baltimore whose addiction to heroin, cocaine and alcohol cost him his basketball career, his freedom and, very nearly, his life.

His talk is brutally candid. Kids are quick to spot a phony.

"Wow," one youngster says afterward. "You really blew it."

Wright nods. His feelings aren't important.

"Whatever they say is OK as long as they learn something from this," he says of his audience. "I'm thinking, 'I might have lost a lot, yeah, but can you gain as much from my story?' "

That's the scene, as Wright describes it, that happens at least once a week - and a story that Wright, who now lives in Des Moines, has told time and again for nearly 20 years, to more than 500,000 students in the Midwest from fourth grade on up. No matter that his saga begins nearly 40 years ago and half a continent away. When Wright speaks, voice booming off the gym walls, the squirmy crowd goes spellbound.

He talks of a basketball phenom who grew up in Baltimore during the 1970s - a brash, skinny guard with a high-arcing jumper who helped lead Lake Clifton to a 43-2 record and Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference championships in 1975 and 1976.

"Pop was one of the best guards ever to come from the city," said former teammate Arnold "Clyde" Gaines, now student services coordinator at Wisconsin-Madison. "He tested the clouds with every shot, and he was full of antics. He'd drive for a layup, stop and then bring the ball back out to shoot that jumper. And he'd usually make it.

"He drove us all crazy."

Once, in a game at Mervo, Wright made a game-winning basket from the corner at the buzzer. He was halfway to the locker room, laughing, when the ball grazed the net.

Today, sharing that story, he can see jaws drop.

"At one point, I was considered the best 15-year-old player in Maryland," Wright tells the crowd. "I scored 44 in one game. I thought I would play in the NBA. I had it made."

Or so he thought. At the same time, Wright was leading another, more dangerous life. At 12, he had gotten involved with drugs, holding packages of cocaine and heroin for dealers in his neighborhood around 25th Street and Harford Road.

"I'd shoot baskets for hours in the back alley while hiding their stash under rocks until they came for them," he said. For that, he earned $20 a day.

That was good money in those days, he tells the house.

"I had it made," he says again.

Soon, however, Wright began using the cocaine and heroin, both at Lake Clifton and at Drake in Des Moines. There, he starred for three years (1978 through 1981) and averaged 15.5 points a game. He is Drake's 10th-leading scorer all time.

But when he was passed over by the NBA, Wright fell back to drugs and booze. On Dec. 22, 1985, while dealing cocaine near Clifton Park, he was shot twice in the back.

Recovered, he returned to Des Moines, where in 1986 he was arrested for forging checks to pay for his $1,000-a-day habit.

"I was a dope fiend, and I'd hit bottom," Wright said. "I spent three days in the Polk County jail, on my knees, praying to Jesus Christ to help me change my life."

Three years in drug treatment centers persuaded Wright to take his story on the road. His nonprofit Positive Outreach Program (POP), established in 1993 and sponsored by Iowa businesses, takes him to nearly 75 schools a year. When funding is down, Wright sells cars for a living.

He has been alcohol- and drug-free for 23 years, Wright said. And he is repaying nearly $400,000 to the Internal Revenue Service after pleading guilty to tax evasion for his program in 2004.

"I was a one-man band for many years," he said of that incident. "Now, I have a treasurer."

To date, he has lectured at more than 300 schools, many of which invite him back.

"When Pop talks, he has you in the palm of his hand," said Frank Vito, principal of Sacred Heart School in West Des Moines, where Wright spoke in January to middle-schoolers for the third time. "Sure, he's trying to make a living at this, but he genuinely cares about these kids and wants to help them avoid the pitfalls he has made in his life."

Wright's words resonate, the principal said.

"Two days after he left, our kids were still talking about Pop," Vito said.

Across town at Crossroads Park Elementary, where Wright spoke in November, the response of students was heartfelt, Principal Britt Cameron said.

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