- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

The messages keep coming, one after the other, some from schools Rashiem Wright has never heard of. St. Augustine’s, Northwest Oklahoma, Texas A&M; Kingsville. Choose wisely and Wright could springboard himself to a career in professional basketball; choose poorly and his hoop dreams could be snuffed like a wet match.

Wright has a little more than two weeks to make a decision. He spends a lot of time on the Internet. His cell phone inbox is stuffed.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “It’s stressful. It’s kicking my butt. A lot of schools are calling, but you don’t know what the right choice is. I don’t want to go to a program where I can’t continue to do what I do. You’re not going to get paid for that. But it’s hard to find one where you can fit in like you fit in here.”

Indeed. A 6-foot-4 senior guard at the University of the District of Columbia, Wright was the third-leading scorer in NCAA Division II men’s basketball last season, averaging 26.9 points a game while helping the Firebirds to the D-II tournament and drawing attention from NBA scouts.

Wright, 23, hoped to build on the team’s success and further his own pro aspirations with a strong campaign this fall. But UDC abruptly canceled its men’s and women’s basketball seasons last week, citing misconduct in recruiting, academic eligibility and financial aid.

As a result, Wright has become something of a small school free agent, garnering interest from more than a dozen schools even though he still is awaiting official clearance to transfer and play for another team next semester.

Wright, who along with three other players was declared ineligible to play in the Firebirds’ opening-round tournament game in March, says he is securing a release and expects to be eligible to play next semester. Citing privacy laws, UDC officials declined to comment on the matter.

A college coach familiar with the situation says Wright’s eligibility remains an open question.

“This kid is so good, I would take him for one semester,” says the coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He’s got great talent, no question. He’s athletic, he plays hard, he can drive to the basket and draw fouls. He’s almost got NBA talent. It just depends on how he develops, and, unfortunately for him, on what kind of year he has.”

Wright won’t have any kind of year at UDC, where an NCAA investigation into athletic department improprieties, including the misuse of financial aid funds, was first reported in The Washington Times last November.

Last year, the NCAA penalized the university for using ineligible players on the men’s soccer team, requiring the Firebirds to forfeit 14 matches. In September, UDC president William Pollard forced men’s basketball coach Michael McLeese to resign as the school’s athletic director; last week, McLeese was placed on paid administrative leave.

Though UDC hired an outside law firm to investigate athletic department misconduct in March, Wright says he and his teammates had no idea things were amiss. Their first clue came at the Firebirds’ team photo shoot, where McLeese refused to pose with his squad.

“I thought it was nothing, like maybe he wasn’t dressed for it,” Wright says. “Coach was a cool guy. You would never know if something was bothering him.”

A day later, the UDC men were set to open their season by playing host to a four-team tournament. Instead, the men’s and women’s teams were summoned to an afternoon press conference, where Pollard broke the bad news.

Wright looked around. A handful of women’s players were sobbing. He dropped his head, disbelieving. Now what?

“Nobody knew what was going on,” Wright says. “We thought maybe the president wanted to congratulate us for making the tournament last year.”

A star defensive back and quarterback at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia, Wright was recruited to play Division I football by Syracuse but failed to earn the necessary SAT score. He ended up playing basketball at Gloucester Community College, a teammate of fellow Philadelphian Tim Rawls.

When Rawls visited UDC on a recruiting trip, Wright tagged along.

“They really wanted Tim,” Wright recalls. “But they ended up liking me.”

In his first game with UDC, Wright scored 26 points and in his second, 40. His success surprised everyone save himself: Before arriving in Washington, Wright held his own in Philadelphia summer league play, competing against Arizona’s Mustafa Shakur, Virginia’s Sean Singletary and Ronald Murray of the Seattle SuperSonics.

The San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz scouted Wright last season. Over the summer, Wright worked out with Stanford’s Rob Little and DerMarr Johnson of the Denver Nuggets as an NBA scout looked on.

“I’m just fortunate to have scouts find me,” Wright says. “But right now, it’s hurting my chances to play [professionally] because I’m not able to expose myself like I should.”

Wright is working toward a degree in health and physical education — a self-admitted “C” student, he took an anatomy midterm Tuesday, dissecting a cat — and someday would like to coach or mentor children. In the meantime, he sees a pro basketball career as the best way to provide for his family.

Wright says his father has been incarcerated “all his life”; his mother, Cynthia Rushing, is a 45-year-old cashier with health problems.

Wright has a 13-year-old sister and a 5-year-old daughter, Abria, who lives in Philadelphia with her mother.

“Honestly, if I couldn’t play basketball, I don’t think I would be in college,” Wright says. “My family can’t afford it.

“I want my daughter to have the schooling I never had, get the best education she can. I want my mom to be able to rest. My sister, she’s talented. She can dance. But maybe I can pay for that extra dance class.”

Maybe. For now, Wright uses a friend’s guest passes to the swanky downtown Sports Club LA, playing pickup basketball with wealthy lawyers, keeping himself in shape. He scans the Web, hours at a time, eyeing coaching staffs and team statistics, looking to make the most of what could be a final, fleeting opportunity.

UDC’s season is over. Wright’s is just getting under way.

“[UDC] went about it the wrong way,” he laments. “They didn’t have to cancel the programs. Just hit the errors where they started. If they started with the coach, then hit the coach. Don’t jeopardize people’s futures.

“I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m looking for life after UDC.”

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