‘I’m not just trying to live’ — Prince George’s basketball player competes with MS

Chris Wright is one of countless basketball players from Prince George’s County to make it to the pros, but his journey through basketball, and life, has been different: He continues to compete while battling multiple sclerosis.

Wright grew up in Bowie, Maryland, and is back in D.C. after his season in Poland was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. He was just about to complete his ninth year in professional basketball, the eighth since he was diagnosed in 2012.

He played six games in 2013 for the Dallas Mavericks, becoming the first player in NBA history known to have played with MS.

Wright, a 6-foot, 1-inch guard, grew up a Wizards fan and wanted to be like Rod Strickland. He went to St. John’s College High School in D.C., where he was the first three-time Washington Post All-Met selection since Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley.

He played at Georgetown from 2007 to 2011, and in his senior season, he was among the top 20 Big East players in points per game, free throw percentage, three-point percentage, steals per game, assists per turnover and assists per game.

He went undrafted by the NBA, but he was undeterred. Wright landed a professional contract in Turkey, one of the best basketball leagues in Europe. All was going well on and off the court in Edirne, Turkey, until a routine practice in March 2012.

Wright was working on his shooting before practice when he felt a tingling sensation in his right hand. It quickly spread.

Within 10 minutes, he couldn’t feel anything on the right side of his body, from his shoulder down to his foot. The coach gave Wright the rest of practice off and sent him to a team doctor.

Chris Wright, playing for Georgetown in 2011. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Multiple sclerosis is not easy to diagnose. Wright was first told he might be stressed out and just needed some rest.

But the next morning, Wright woke up, tried to get out of bed and fell straight to the floor.

Suddenly, an elite basketball player didn’t have the motor skills to move his feet or move his hands.

For the next two weeks, he was in a wheelchair. The wife of one of his Turkish teammates took him to doctor’s appointments to translate for him.

Wright was sent to Istanbul, where he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was in a country far from home with a disease he couldn’t define.

Multiple sclerosis is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body.

‘I was confused more than anything else’

“At that time I had no idea what MS was to be honest,” Wright told WTOP.

“Probably the worst thing I did was read about it on the internet.”

He said he was “really amazed” that he could go from “practicing, running, running sprints, playing ball” to losing his motor skills in less than 24 hours.

“Then to be told I have a condition for the rest of my life … I was not frightened. I was confused more than anything else — how it could happen when I never had a symptom before?”

The drive and determination that led Wright to a career in professional basketball would serve him well in competing against his new opponent.

Wright came to terms with the knowledge that he had lesions in his brain and a spine, worked his way out of a wheelchair and returned to the United States with basketball still on his mind.

Most of the doctors said he needed to find a new career: “You are going to have to do all this painful stuff, spinal taps and all these different things, just to try to be normal,” Wright remembered them saying.

“And I was like, ‘Man, I’m trying to play; I’m not just trying to live.”

Wright said Northern Virginia-based neurologist Dr. Heidi Crayton was different: She decided he was young enough that she could be aggressive in her treatment plan, and she prescribed Tysabri, a drug that requires monthly infusions.

It wasn’t just the medications.

“I had to teach myself how to do everything again in terms of walking and running,” said Wright.

“I had to try to be coordinated again to the point where I could function normally again on the basketball court. It wasn’t a long time, but it was a lot of work and a lot of blessings. I am not Superman.”

Maybe not, but in July 2012, four months after Wright went crashing to the floor in Turkey, he was at the San Antonio Spurs’ summer camp.

He played well enough there to get a tryout with the New Orleans Pelicans, a season in the NBA’s G League with the Iowa Energy and the stint with the Mavericks.

Wright’s basketball career has also taken him to Italy, France, Israel and now Poland, where he is coming off his most productive season — even though he stills feels symptoms from tingling in his hands and feet to fatigue.

“If you want to play, you have to understand that there’s going to be some situations that are not going to be comfortable,” Wright said.

“If I don’t move and I am not active I start to feel little aches and pains in my joints.”

That’s going to have to continue when his basketball career does end: “MS is not going to go away,” he said, “it is something you have constantly stay on top of.”

But throughout his career, Wright has demonstrated that he has plenty of the kind of attitude he’ll need.

“I’m not afraid to challenge this.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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