Dion Wright had never run from an opponent on the basketball court. But now his friends were firing text after text accusing him of doing just that.
It was mid-July, and the former St Bonaventure University player was on a team competing in the Drew, the famous summertime league that regularly draws NBA stars trying to keep their skills sharp during the offseason. Wright was supposed to miss some time at the Drew, which as usual was taking place in his home town of Los Angeles, because he had flown to Buffalo for another tournament offering a $1m cash prize.
But the timing was terrible. LeBron James surprisingly signed up to play one game for the Drew League’s MMV Cheaters, who also featured another NBA All-Star, DeMar DeRozan. And they were due to play Wright’s Black Pearl Elite the next night.
Wright’s friends offered him no mercy for being out of town when there was a chance to face a four-time NBA champion.
“Heard you’d play Bron and got out of Cali so fast,” one texted him. Another added that Wright would “never be back at Drew after this”.
Wright couldn’t let the taunts pass. And he knew he may never again have the chance to measure himself against one of the greatest basketball players in history. He immediately scrapped his plans to play in Buffalo and bought a ticket to fly back home to LA at 6am the next day.
“The competitor in me came out,” he tells the Guardian.
What happened next was a dream-like blur that saw him go toe-to-toe with a legend. Wright went viral because of social media users who teased him for the wide-eyed expression he wore defending James, with some joking that he was afraid for his basketball life.
But Wright and his team played James as close as anyone – even the NBA’s finest – could have hoped. And now, it’s opened up a professional opportunity for Wright that he otherwise may have missed out on, giving the sports world the kind of underdog saga that it thrives on.
“All my life I’ve been trying to make my way up,” says Wright, 29. “All this feels really good.”
Wright stopped at home briefly after his return from Buffalo before heading straight to the high school gym that hosts the Drew.
The first thing that stood out to Wright was the 2,500 spectators who had packed into a gym designed to hold less than half that number – just to catch a glimpse of James. They were perhaps the most energetic crowd he had ever played in front of.
Yet the 6ft 8in Wright knew he had the experience to deal with the challenge. He doesn’t have James’s NBA pedigree, but he played a few seasons of professional basketball in Japan and Ukraine before the latter country was invaded by Russia earlier this year.
So as their game against the MMV Cheaters approached tip-off, Wright made it clear to his teammates on the Black Pearl Elite squad who would defend James. He hadn’t flown across the country to just be another spectator. He told them: “I got ‘Bron’.”
The goal was to keep the 6ft 9in James from scoring 60 points or – failing that – 70. And it went better than Wright could have, in his wildest dreams, expected.
James netted 42 points, with the crowd greeting each of his one-handed dunks, fadeaways and pull-up three-point shots with deafening cheers.
But James didn’t make all of his shots. And Wright – who spent much of the matchup on the defensive end of the court with his eyes wide and in a focused crouch – would like to think that his guarding coaxed some of The King’s misses.
Meanwhile, on the offensive end, Wright was throwing haymakers of his own. In one surreal sequence, he collected a pass from a teammate, lowered his shoulder into James to create space and netted a right-handed hook shot.
Wright also served up an alley-oop dunk to a teammate and scored a right-handed putback after gathering an offensive rebound. Thrice, he pulled up from three-point range and connected, punctuating each by defiantly gazing over the crowd and holding up his right hand in a “W” for West Coast. One of those threes was from about 30 feet, with James – who has led the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers to championships – guarding.
“A lot of people would never even have the balls to take a shot like that,” Wright says. “But you know I’ve been in the gym my whole life and I have confidence.”
Ultimately, James, DeRozan and the MMV Cheaters won by two points against Black Pearl Elite, who had no NBA players on their side. Wright finished with a team-leading 20 points.
James shook Wright’s hand after the final whistle blew and told him, “Way to shoot it out there.” He agreed to take a picture with Wright, who thought the story – as neat as it was – would soon be forgotten.
However, as the dust settled, Wright grabbed his phone, checked social media and saw an overwhelming number of people sharing pictures and video clips of him with his eyes bulging as he crouched to defend a dribbling James.
One of the most typical quips aimed at Wright came from the verified Twitter account for the irreverent sports and humor website Barstool, which has 4 million followers. “The guy guarding LeBron in the Drew League is fighting for his life,” Barstool’s tweet said. “He didn’t sign up for this.”
Another social media account joked that “you could see the fear” in Wright’s eyes.
Wright insists that’s just what his eyes do when he’s in the zone while playing basketball.
“Obviously, they don’t know basketball, but they were acting like … I was just a random guy at Walmart,” said Wright, who with the help of his brother, Brian, created highlight reels of his finer moments against James which he posted on his Twitter account @TheWrightHoops and Instagram page @hooper21.
“I’m not saying I’m the best player in the world. But – you know – I’m far from sorry.”
The social media ignorance was annoying but easy enough to weather. After all, there was other business to attend to.
Wright and Black Pearl Elite – who received help from NBA players Trae Young and John Collins in a later game – went on to an appearance in the Drew League championship game. On the way, Black Pearl Elite defeated a James-less MMV Cheaters in a playoff rematch.
The Drew honored Wright with his most inspirational player award, largely because of his performance against James.
With the war in Ukraine still raging, Wright was financially supporting himself by working in a vacation sales office run by Brian. But the prospect of taking a break from that job looms after his tale caught the attention of Metta Sandiford-Artest, a former NBA champion known as Ron Artest and Metta World Peace during his playing days.
Artest has since helped Wright arrange a trip to the Philippines to work out for coaches and general managers in that country’s professional basketball league.
Wright said he would be eternally grateful for his time in the Drew this past summer as well as his showdown with James, which he acknowledges is the closest he’s felt to playing at the NBA, the peak of his profession. But, as the summer faded, the idea of continuing to play overseas pro ball was just as riveting for Wright.
“I just want one team – one person, one GM – to take a real chance on me,” Wright said. “I know for a fact they’ll never regret it.”