Native son Sterling Wright — Home, history, basketball
- Published: June 27, 2019
Sterling Wright is a native son of Yellow Springs. He traces his roots back to the Conway Colony, African Americans who came here as freed slaves in 1862.
“If you don’t know your history, you don’t understand the present. And you damn sure can’t make it to the future,” he reflected in a recent interview.
Small wonder that Wright, who has lived and traveled all over the world, makes a point to come home every Fourth of July.
“God willing, until I die, I’ll be here every July,” he said.
Wright, 67, has spent much of his adult life away from his hometown. A professional basketball player who played briefly for the former ABA and the NBA, he was enticed away from the U.S. in 1975 to play the sport professionally in France. His career there as a player and coach blossomed, and he stayed abroad for more than 30 years. With France as a home base, Wright lived and worked in 84 countries on four continents during that time as a coach and technical advisor for the International Basketball Federation, known by its French acronym FIBA, and the International Olympic Committee, or IOC.
“Living in third-world countries humbled me. It gave me so much understanding of what humanity is about,” he said.
After three decades overseas, Wright moved back to Yellow Springs in 2007, to help care for his ailing mother, Ruth Wright. She died in 2013, and Wright stayed on in the old family house on Lincoln Court. Both his daughters, Melodie and Shanice, graduated from Yellow Springs High School, Melodie in 2009, Shanice in 2015. Wright now spends his weekends taking care of the first member of the next generation — his one-year-old grandson Jeremiah.
“He’s a good little dude,” Wright said.
Growing up in Yellow Springs
Family history is important to Wright. As a child, he and his cousins were often looked after by his great-grandmother, Bertha Baber, who was born in 1874 and grew up in a cabin on Grinnell Road. She told many stories of her childhood, including how she sometimes crossed paths with the Native peoples who still lived in the area.
“All of us were blessed to stay with her,” he said.
Baber had two sons and four daughters, including Ida, Wright’s grandmother. And Ida was the mother of Ruth, who grew up during the Depression and served in World War II as a member of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion, the only all-black, all-female battalion overseas during the war. While in the service, she met Wright’s father, Greg Wright, who was a driver for the Red Ball Express, a truck convoy supply operation that ran from the Normandy beaches to the front lines. Most of the drivers were African American.
“My father brought munitions to the front line, and dead bodies back,” Wright explained.
After the war, the couple married and settled in Yellow Springs, where Ruth Wright worked for Vernay Labs for 35 years and Greg Wright did odd jobs and, in the 1960s, owned an African-American beauty shop in the storefront where Earth Rose is now located.
“There are a lot of strong women who grew up in Yellow Springs, met ex-GIs and brought them here,” Wright observed.
Sterling and his siblings, Abdul Hamidullah and Muriel Brailey, were raised to value hard work and education. All three graduated from college and went on to professional careers.
“Our parents pushed us. They always emphasized the value of a college education,” he said.
Being black meant having to be “three-to-four times better” than a white person to get similar recognition and credit, Wright reflected.
His family encouraged activism against racial intolerance and injustice. Villager Karen McKee, his cousin on his mother’s side, remembers Wright — he was called “Skeeter” then — as passionate about civil rights issues from an early age.
“He cared deeply about the general welfare of his friends and family, and the social conflicts that plagued our world,” she wrote in an email this week.
Wright was 13 when a four-year effort to desegregate Gegner’s barbershop on Xenia Avenue ended in riots in March, 1964, with police officers coming in from outside the village to confront local demonstrators.
Though just a young teenager, he felt he was exercising his civic duty by taking part. But when police brought out water hoses and tear gas, he decided he’d seen enough.
“I was just 13. It was time to get the hell out of there,” Wright said.
A few years later, in 1968, Wright helped found United Society, a group of black and white students at Yellow Springs High School who came together to address civil rights issues. The group is still active today.
He was also interested in broadcasting, McKee remembers, and hosted a show on WYSO during his senior year.
And from a young age, there was basketball.
A life in basketball
Wright’s earliest exposure to the game was at the Mills Lawn courts, where it was a “rite of passage” for the little kids to get trounced by the big kids, he recalled. Then, by the end of the 1960s, the Village built two outdoor basketball courts at the Bryan Center. Wright and his friends “got better and better and started to get a reputation,” he recalled. Kids came from Xenia and Springfield to play the Yellow Springs teams.
“They knew they would have good games here,” he said.
Wright played basketball for Yellow Springs High School, working up to playing on the Varsity team his senior year. Teammate Joel Crandall, a year older than Wright, remembers him as a “late bloomer.”
“As a junior, he was easy to push out of the way,” Crandall chuckled. “But senior year, he just went crazy” as a player.
On and off the basketball court, Wright was “always very smart and very articulate,” Crandall added. “He’s a guy who’s thought a lot of stuff through.”
But the basketball coach at the time, who was also the school counselor, discouraged Wright from attending college.
“He told me to join the service,” advice commonly given to black students at the time, Wright said.
In this instance, Wright defied his coach. Graduating from YSHS in 1969, he won an academic scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the nation’s first degree-granting Historically Black College. As a student-athlete, he was a three-time Academic All-American at Lincoln, and graduated in 1973 with honors in International Economics, among other awards.
With every fresh honor, Wright put a notice in the mail to his former YSHS coach and counselor.
“I would cut it out and sent it to him,” Wright said of various accolades he received.
Wright worked hard at basketball through college, building himself from a strong player into a stand-out one. He stayed east in the summer, continuing to practice “eight or nine hours a day, beginning at 5 or 6 in the morning” to improve his game.
The effort paid off.
In 1973, Wright, at his full height of 6’8”, was recruited by the Philadelphia 76ers in the sixth round of the 1973 draft. He played first for the former ABA team New York Nets, then for the 76ers.
“If I could do it, anybody could do it. I’m not exceptional,” Wright said.
While his professional career in the U.S. lasted less than a season, his life in basketball was just beginning. In 1975, Wright was recruited by a professional basketball team in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He stayed for nine years, initially as a player, then as a player-coach. France became his home: he became a French citizen, bought a house in Toulouse and, in 1988, married a French woman.
“I decided to make my life abroad,” he said, adding that France has long been a haven for African American musicians, artists and athletes.
“I enjoyed the French culture, the lifestyle,” he said.
Wright played two years in Toulouse, then worked in Dijon coaching top-level pro teams. Other assignments came his way. He coached professional and national teams in Casablanca, Morocco, for eight years, flying between his home in Toulouse and Casablanca during that time. The success of the teams he coached caught the notice of FIBA, and he was asked to do a basketball clinic in Senegal, the first of many clinics and sports development programs he led as a technical advisor and master instructor for both FIBA and the International Olympic Committee.
“On weekends, holidays, I was flying to do clinics for the Olympic Committee,” he said.
His passport kept accumulating stamps, and became thick with extra pages.
He returned to France for eight years, and in 2002, was asked back to Morocco to coach that country’s professional and national teams. He also founded and directed a National Basketball Institute there to bring together talented youth to develop their basketball skills and get an education. Two years later, in 2004, he was invited to Libya in a similar capacity to develop that country’s basketball program.
Throughout this time, Wright was leading basketball clinics in countries as diverse as China, Vietnam, Laos, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Barbados, Costa Rica, Iraq, Jordan, Seychelles, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Sierra Leone and many others. He was in demand as an American with wide experience and skills who spoke both French and Arabic.
In Sierra Leone, just after the end of that country’s civil war, he worked with children in an amputee camp.
“When I gave them a basketball, the kids started crying — they were so happy,” he said.
All told, he’s been to 47 of the 54 African countries, Wright said with pride.
“The Olympic Committee sees basketball as an educational tool, as a way to learn how to interact with people. If you don’t learn how to interact, you can’t win,” Wright explained.
His own principles of coaching involve developing players’ and coaches’ intrinsic motivation.
“It’s about maximizing your own possibilities — winning the war with yourself,” he said.
He’s developed thousands of players and coaches in his career. Sometimes his role is to bridge a cultural gap, as when he shared photos of Sierra Leone with teachers in Barbados, who cried at their first sight of the country from which their ancestors were taken.
“It was the first time they’d seen where they’d come from. And I was a black kid from Yellow Springs showing them that.”
Coming home to the village
Wright credits growing up in Yellow Springs with giving him the skills to interact with a wide range of people.
“I feel that I’ve been blessed to grow up here. You learn to interact with everyone,” he said.
But the village has changed a lot in his years away.
He’s distressed by some recent developments. The village’s formerly robust African American population has been in decline since the 1980s, and the influx of newcomers and tourists at times feels alienating to black residents with long histories here.
“We feel like strangers in our own town,” Wright said.
Some newer residents understand what Wright calls “the Yellow Springs mentality” — rooted in tolerance, respect and care for one’s own — but others seem more drawn by the image of Yellow Springs as a 1960s haven, he fears.
“Change isn’t all bad. But there are some things that concern me,” he said.
As a member of the Friends Care board, Wright tries to be a voice of the community for an important local institution. More such community voices are needed locally in the schools and the police force, he believes.
“Community activism is what’s missing today,” he said.
In some ways, though, Yellow Springs remains unchanged.
When Wright first moved back to Yellow Springs, his daughters were living with their mother in France. But then Melodie, his older daughter, asked her father if she could move to Yellow Springs to finish high school.
“Why Yellow Springs?” he asked her.
“She said, ‘I’ve got family there and I can be myself in Yellow Springs,’” according to Wright.
When his younger daughter, Shanice, was a teenager, she made the same request, with the same reasons. “She said, ‘I can be myself there,’” Wright recalled.
Both girls graduated from YSHS, went on to college — Shanice is now entering her senior year at Youngstown State University — and still live in Ohio.
Wright himself has his eyes on returning abroad. He misses France, and years ago he purchased land in Seychelles, a group of islands off the east coast of Africa, in hopes of building a house there.
“I can’t live here 12 months a year anymore. Staying in the same place is hard for me,” he reflected.
A convert to Islam at 16, Wright has been a practicing Muslim all his adult life. His faith has deepened as he’s traveled to Muslim countries and worshipped in mosques around the world. He’s made the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca twice. The atmosphere of tolerance in his family made his religious choice possible, he believes.
“I was always taught you wear religion in your heart, not on your sleeve,” he said.
And he’s low-key about his career, though in recent years, he’s been recognized by Lincoln University and Yellow Springs High School as the only person from each of those institutions to go pro in basketball. He was inducted into Lincoln’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016, and is a member of the inaugural class of the YSHS Athletic Hall of Fame, launched last year.
You could say he’s made his town and family proud.
“Sterling is a quality human being,” his former teammate Crandall said. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think that.”
Credit goes back to his great-grandmother and the generations before her, according to Wright.
“If my great-grandmother and her mother and father could see the results that living in Yellow Springs has had for their family — I’m pretty sure they would be more than proud,” he said.