There was a time when Maurice Wright wasn't sure he'd ever get a second chance. There was a time when he began to doubt whether he would ever get to play college basketball again.
This was about 18 months ago and Wright was stuck back home in Palmdale, Calif., a sleepy town of 68,842 about an hour north of Los Angeles and just beyond the San Gabriel Mountains. He had walked away from Paine College once already - after playing sparingly in the 1994-95 season - and he wasn't sure what to do next.
He was the prodigal point guard.
So he worked in a supermarket, sacking groceries a short drive south of Edwards Air Force Base. He wasn't the first kid to lose his way and stumble off the college track. He wasn't even the first 6-foot-2 guard to temporarily swap college for a paper-or-plastic gig.
John Starks did the same thing back in the late '80s when he was trying to get back into Oklahoma State and playing for the New York Knicks was the furthest thing from his mind.
The thing was, Starks never let himself settle for a supermarket job. He had dreams.
So did Maurice Wright.
That's why he wrote the letter to Ron Spry, his old coach at Paine. It just might be the most important letter Wright will ever send.
"An excellent letter," Spry says before Wednesday night's win over Morris Brown. "He just wanted me to know he appreciated the things he learned while he was here. He enjoyed being in the athletic program and he said he learned some things he felt he could take and utilize the rest of his life."
Spry liked the letter quite a bit. He even posted it on the bulletin board in his office at Carter Gym. The letter is still there.
The letter worked. Spry called Wright last spring and offered him his old scholarship back. By this time Wright had some junior-college offers in California. Southern Cal was interested, as was Loyola Marymount and St. Mary's, but they all wanted him to hit a juco first.
Wright didn't like that plan. He kept thinking about Spry and his friends at Paine. He kept thinking about hot, crazy nights before the home fans at Carter Gym. He kept thinking he made a big mistake when he joined his cousin, Jermel Monroe, in transferring off the Lions roster.
He returned to Paine last summer.
"I was happy to see Maurice come back," Spry says. "I didn't have any negative feelings about his departure. The first time around he came, I liked him and he made the team, but the next year he decided he wanted to try a bigger school."
None of those plans worked out, though, and Wright got stranded. That could have been it for his college hoop dreams. That could be where the story ends. But Wright, now 20 years old, caught a break. And he made one for himself, by writing that letter to Spry.
"Maurice is very competitive," Spry says. "He doesn't mind buckling down and playing defense. He won't back down from anybody. He handles the ball well. He's able to distribute the ball. And he has the ability to score himself."
But that's basketball. What Spry likes best about his prodigal point guard has nothing to do with sports.
"First off, he's an excellent student," Spry says. "And he's well-rounded, very articulate and a hard worker. He's a good kid."
So far this season, things have worked out pretty well for Wright. The sophomore has carved a solid spot in Spry's 12-man rotation. His quick first step and obvious flair have given opponents fits and helped Paine overcome a 3-5 start to win six of its last eight games.
He even has a nickname, courtesy of Joe Tinsley, the ex-Lions guard who works the P.A. at home games. He's no longer just Maurice Wright, but "Shake and Bake" Wright.
The prodigal point guard hears those words and just smiles.
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