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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Through his work in the community and longevity at Lakewood, Daniel Wright is a role model to many.
By JOE SMITH
Published March 2, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Daniel Wright's daily strolls, a big part of his sanity, are often far from serene.
The 52-year-old will throw on a T-shirt and shorts and begin his 4-mile walk around his quiet South St. Petersburg neighborhood.
Every few blocks, a car horn honks.
"Hey, Coach," a neighbor says, "How about that game?"
The legendary Lakewood coach greets them with a sincere smile, a warm handshake. A homebody by nature, Wright shies from the spotlight and deflects the attention that comes with being one of the winningest coaches in Florida history (a 599-263 record).
He's much more comfortable on the screened-in back porch of his one-story home, where he plants flowers, naps in his comfy loveseat or watches westerns and Sci-Fi shows on TV.
"I love what I do," Wright said with a smile. "But I wouldn't mind talking about something other than basketball."
Tonight, much of the talk will be about Wright going for his 600th win as the Spartans play Lake Howell at 7 for the state championship at the Lakeland Center.
A victory would give Wright three state titles in six years, eclipsing the total of his former coach and mentor, late Gibbs coach Freddie Dyles, and a few others for most among county boys basketball coaches.
Wright blends a fiery intensity with a Tony Dungy-like calm, cool and class; he's a stern disciplinarian and spiritual man who garners respect for giving, serving as a cornerstone for a community.
"He's been like a father figure," Lakewood senior Ed Nixon said. "To a lot of us."
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Wright was groomed in a working-class home.
His father, Dan, was a construction worker; his mother, Cinderella, a housekeeper. Wright grew up on a northern Florida farm before his family moved to St. Petersburg at age 5, when he enrolled in segregated secondary schools.
When he attended Gibbs his junior year (1971), the school integrated; but the transition wasn't as smooth as Wright's ball-handling skills.
A two-time all-state guard, Wright was admittedly flamboyant and brash; a trash-talker who could back it up with his work ethic and will. But the worst words were spurted from the stands, as Wright said he often heard racial slurs.
The situation became so tense, the team was forced to play all games in the afternoons; Wright said the only people allowed inside for the matinees were referees, teams, coaches and cheerleaders.
"It made for a quiet crowd," Wright said.
It didn't stop Wright from getting looks from college scouts. Also a Gladiators pitcher and quarterback, Wright was recruited by the likes of Michigan, Arizona State and Washington State to play football. He originally signed to play for Florida A&M before changing course to basketball, where he played at Martin (Tenn.) College and Florida Southern.
After college, Wright was recruited by companies to be a salesman. But the father of two didn't want to spend much time away from his high school sweetheart, Mona, whom he married 28 years ago.
Instead Wright followed his ambition of educating and coaching, taking over a struggling Lakewood program in 1977; the Spartans had gone 1-23 the previous season, winning only by forfeit over Northeast.
Wright posted four 20-win seasons in his first eight years, adopting Dyles' up-tempo style while teaching his players how to compete on the court and in life.
"Dan took over a decent program," said Joel Iles, a former Spartans coach and history teacher since 1974. "And made it a great one."
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Wright's office is the perfect example of organized clutter.
Trophies collect dust atop an 8-foot wooden cabinet. A school book, practice jersey and a few pieces of paper are scattered across the blue carpet.
A bulletin board is covered with old newspaper clippings and photos of his former players; pick one, and he'll quickly share anecdotes on each - from the 13th man to the all-stater.
"I would have never reached this level in my life without him," said Dixie Hollins coach Louis Rowe, a former Spartan who played 10 years professionally overseas. "He touched my life, like he does all his players."
What Wright loves about his longevity at Lakewood is that he has coached several groups of brothers - the Morrisons, the Lawrences. For many players, like Nixon, Wright watched them grow up through his work at the Lake Vista recreation center. That's where Wright was late Thursday night, the eve of the state championship game, keeping score for a youth basketball game.
Win or lose, on Saturday morning Wright will be up at 9 to work as a referee. For those children who can't afford the registration fees, Wright sometimes dips into his own pocket, a co-worker said.
So in four or five years, when Wright plans to retire, he said he'll probably be at some park, helping somebody.
"If I had to do it all over again," Wright said, pausing for a second, "I wouldn't change a thing."