(Editor’s note: I wrote this in 1990, as a member of the sports staff at the Asbury Park Press. It was named the Sports Feature of the Year by the New Jersey Associated Press. I recently found it in my clips and, while it betrays some biases and youthful innocence, I do like how many people I reached out to, and how I got to know the two young men at the heart of it. It has me wondering where they are now. Also, the article was published on Nov. 18, 1990, the day after my brother’s high school team upset the No. 1 team in the area and he was quoted in the article, which appeared on the sports section’s front page, too. It was a good day for the Donahue boys.)
In Asbury Park, the crossroads come early for a young man.
On one hand, there’s the glamour of easy money and acceptance from the majority of your peers—a world of gangs, drugs, alcohol and frequent fights. It’s all around you.
The other path is less clear, if not less traveled. It isn’t easy and it demands a constant vigil and constant dedication. Bruce Springsteen probably never realized how right he was about how hard it is to be a saint in this city.
“The streets get them after awhile,” says former Asbury Park basketball coach Nate Bruno. “If they have some direction they can get through high school and go on to college. If not, the streets will get him. It can turn a good kids into a problem.”
But to Anthony Wright and Mark Murray, former stars at Asbury Park now making their mark at the University of Delaware, the crossroads offered just one road—a road out. Maybe not forever, but a road out now.
“Asbury’s not the nicest place,” says Wright, a redshirt freshman last season who was the East Coast Conference’s Rookie of the Year. “There’s a lot of streets, street stuff. The drugs. We could have either taken the route to the streets or the route we’re on now. It was around me every day and I had to be strong to not fall into selling drugs, making all this money every week, instead of going to college.
“It makes you think when you live around it every day, so basically [Mark] helped me out and I helped him out and we stayed away from it.”
The two meet in 1984. Murray was a sophomore, Wright a freshman. Neither was a native of Asbury Park. Murray had come in seventh grade, from Norfolk, Va., where he and his mother hd stayed for two years after his mom’s divorce from dad, Otis, who stayed behind at Sumter, S.C. Wright was a new transfer from Freehold, where he had grown up. “We just built the closeness from that point on,” says Murray. “We didn’t drink, we didn’t do all that other stuff. You know, we partied, but we didn’t overdo it and we fit right in with each other.”
“[The other students] partied real hard,” he says. “They did everything. They’d go out and stay out all weekend partying. We knew people from the top of the gang to the quiet students±and most of them that fit in right in the middle, they went off that way with the hanging crew, that fighting crew. But not Anthony and I.”
Sitting in a comfortable office in the sports information office at the Newark, Del., campus, Wright leans in when he talks about the battle.
“You have the good,” he says, putting his right hand on the ask in front off him, “and the bad, “ the left hand comes down, “and you’re right in the middle with the crew, a group of y’all.
“Everybody’s starting to fall and your friends are in here now,” he says, lifting his left hand. “If you go with your friends, you usually end up there, so you have to stand for something.”
So the two stood for the future, for working hard and keeping clean. And they stood next to each other, while still choosing their own paths.
“They had character,” remembers their basketball coach, Bruno, who has since stepped down.
“Neither hung out with groupies. They were basically loners,” Bruno says. “Today in Asbury Park, it’s all gangs. They were never involved.”
“They’re probably two of the best kids to come through here in a long time,” says football coach Leroy Hayes, who only coached Wright, but knew both. “If one of them wasn’t at the high school, the other one was.”
Even their destructive side was constructive. The two broke about a dozen bikes riding each other from basketball court to basketball court, looking for a game or just a chance to practice. Once there, they’d work on their games. The two were virtually inseparable during basketball season, but would tend to go their own ways much of the rest of the year. Since going to college, the friendship has deepened further
“They complimented each other off the court as well as on,” says Asbury Park basketball coach Bob Gohl, an assistant while the two were at the high school. “Even now, they still stop back and visit me. You wish you had more like that.”
“People always drilled into our heads that we were two of the different ones in the school and they wanted us to succeed,” Murray says. “I didn’t see it as a letdown for me if I didn’t go to college, but for a lot of other people. My mother’s a schoolteacher and it wouldn’t have helped her a lot if I hadn’t gone to college.”
On the basketball court, Mark Murray is a soft breeze, a natural.
Fast as the wind, too. Murray is the East Coast Conference 100-meter champ two years running, last time in a searing 10.6 seconds. After redshirting his first year at Delaware, Murray has scored about 12 points a game through the last two years. Barring injuries, he’ll break the 1,000-point barrier sometime late this season.
“Certain things you just don’t teach,” says Gohl. “Mark was a very smooth players, a great leaper, an all-around athlete.”
But when Delaware coach Steve Steinwedel talks about Murray, it’s not the athletic package he mentions.
“He’s just so competitive,” says Steinwedel. “That’s by far his biggest strength. He has a lot of pride and he hates losing—from losing to a teammate in practice to losing to an opponent in a game, and because of that he works very hard and has become a better player.”
Talk to Murray about losing, and he agrees. “I hate it. I hate it—sometimes too much, to the point where I’ll be arguing with my teammates when they do something bad, or I get frustrated in a game sometimes that I take myself out [of the flow] sometimes.”
Steinwedel isn’t the only coach to take notice of the two young men from Asbury Park.
“They’re great,” says Rider College coach Kevin Bannon. “I love guys like that. People say they’re not this and they’re not that. People say, ‘Well, they’re not a forward and they’re not a guard, they’re not this’ and they overlook them and Delaware just took them.
“Yeah, they’re not all those things. They’re just great players who play their butts off every single night. They get a rebound, they make a three-point shot and they shut down your best guy. We got a 6-10 guy and that’s great, but I’d just as soon fill my team with 6-4 to 6-6 guys who are tough guys. They’re just what we’re going to look for in our recruiting.”
Murray has also spent the past two summers in newark, working at the local Chrysler plant, fine-tuning his game and bulking up for the coming season. With an assist from Tony Decker, the Delaware basketball team’s strength and conditioning coordinator, the 6-foot-4 Murray has gone from a 175-pounder who got pushed around as a freshman to a 192-pound junior who can do the pushing. A post player in high school, he is now a legitimate shooting guard, with three-point range on his jumper.
“Mark has improved by leaps and bounds every year,” says Steinwedel, a man not prone to faint praise.
All this intensity is news to Ruth Murray, Mark’s mom. A teacher at Asbury Park Middle School, where she works with emotionally disturbed students, she was a great believer in keeping things in perspective.
“Maybe being a single mother, I was different,” she says. “But whenever Mark lost, I would say, ‘You can’t win them all,’ or ‘You can always do your best, but you won’t always be the best.’ “
Around her, Mark was always a laid-back, engaging son.
“He’s more competitive than he was in high school,” says Bruno, who remembers sitting next to Ruth Murray last year during Delaware’s game against Rutgers, at Piscataway, when Mark blew up over a call. “She was embarrassed by the way he acted and said, ‘I’ve never seen him like that.’ But I had, during games. When I had him, I kind of welcomed it, as long as he didn’t try to prolong it. It helped to motivate him.”
“Maybe he’s always been that way,” Ruth Murray says now, “and he hid it from me.”
As a teacher, Ruth never hid her expectations from Mark and his sister, Tiffany, 16. Education has always been the No. 1 priority, as one would expect in a family fairly bursting with teachers. Besides his mom, Marks’ grandmother and two cousins teach. After a short stint as a communications major, Mark is now a physical education major, with thoughts of pursuing a graduate degree as an athletic trainer.
A HOWLING WIND
If Murray’s a breeze, Anthony Wright is a driving rainstorm, a howling wind.
He has careened through life, with great highs followed by great lows, but always his unrelenting determination to succeed has pulled him through.
Wright’s dad left soon after he was born and his mom, Augustine Brown, was hard-pressed to raise four children by herself. A chronic back injury that has kept her out of work, on and off, for the past decade has only made things tighter. The money has been scarce, but Brown has given her children all the things that money can’t buy—love, as much attention as she can muster, and her own fierce pride.
“I told them always to think of themselves as No. 1,” she says. “And when you want something, don’t ever stop. I never gave up because once you stop, you’re finished. No one’s going to help you.”
And despite his mom’s protests, young Anthony, whom she nicknamed “Sweet Curl” when he was an infant, needed a father figure. He got one as a 9-year-old, playing on the Freehold Pop Warner football team for coach Wayne Holton.
Holton, a white man, was the coach for five years, dealing with about 200 kids, but there was only one Anthony Wright in his life.
“He’s a kid who has grown on me,” Holton says. “I’ve always felt something special toward him. He always gave me his best and then some.”
In return, Holton has helped Wright in any way he could. Back then, the coach brought Wright his first pair of football shoes, the occasional ice cream cone. After losing touch for a couple years, Holton, now living in Westfield and running an accounting firm, saw a story in the newspaper about an Asbury Park student named Anthony Wright, who was the first freshman in years to start on the Blue Bishops’ basketball team.
“I thought, ‘Jesus, could that be Sweet Curl?’ “ Holton remembers. It was. Since then he has helped Wright in high school and with the transition to college. When Wright went off to summer school before his first year at Delaware, Holton and Wright stopped at the mall on the way and bought bedsheets, underwear and a college wardrobe, including jeans, button-down dress shirts, and a pair of penny loafers. Holton sends him $25 a week spending money, $5 less than he sends to his own son, a freshman in more-expensive Boston. When the care packages go out around exam time, one goes to Delaware. Wright has eaten over and slept over. He showed up at Holton’s daughter’s high school graduation this summer with teammate Alex Coles. Dressed in suits, the two hit 20 of 25 three-pointers in the backyard. “I used to coach him in football,” says Holton, “now I coach him in life. He’s the third kid in my family. I’m so proud of him. To me, he’s a son.”
“He’s like my father,” Wright says.
“He helps me. He makes sure I’m doing well, his children treat me like a brother,” he says. “Thank God for him.”
And for his help, Holton has attached just one string: Wright must do the same for another minority student some day.
WHAT IF …
Imagine if God reached down and took away Picasso’s paintbrush. If He just plucked the music out of Leonard Bernstein’s head. What if you lost the one thing you really loved doing in the world, just watched it disappear in an explosion of white pain, watched a surgeon remove it with a knife.
Then you’d know what it’s like to be Anthony Wright.
Wright was the next Ronnie Lott in high school, a strong safety who could do it all.
Here was Wright in his senior year, an All-State defensive back and quarterback on a 9-2 team his own coach admits shouldn’t have done so well. “He hates to lose at anything,” says Hayes. “He exuded confidence and it rubbed off on the other kids. He got more out of that team the I would have thought possible at the beginning of the season.”
Hayes remembers the first state playoff game that year, against South River, as one of the coldest days of the year, with a windchill of -10 degrees. Wright played brilliantly that Saturday, but ended up with frostbite on both feet.
The doctors said he probably shouldn’t play on Thanksgiving against Neptune, but Wright disagreed. He was on the field Monday and wouldn’t go back inside. He stood out there and exhorted his team through practice. Tuesday he practiced, saying, “This is Neptune, I’m playing.” Thursday? Wright scored twice and led the team in tackles. Asbury Park won.
“I never saw a person with the desire to win as much as Anthony,” says Gohl. “He wouldn’t let you lose.”
Even today at Delaware, that competitiveness shows through. Ask Wright about the Hens’ poor road record last season and his eyes light up.
“That has to change … I’m not going through that again,” he says.
“My mother gave me the will to win,” says Wright. “I hate losing. I hate losing at anything. I’m not a sore loser, but I’d rather win. Besides playing unfair, I’d do anything to win.”
After the football season ended, it appeared Wright couldn’t lose. He was being chased by Penn State, Syracuse, UCLA and USC, among others, all hoping to land a football player who was projected straight up to a professional defensive back. He was the real thing, a sure deal. The only hurdle was his SATs, and the afternoon before playing Wall High School in January 1988, he found out he was OK there, too. He confided in his mother that Syracuse would be the choice.
Then the wind began to blow his world around.
College on his mind, Wright scrambled for a loose ball. He picked it up as a Wall player dove for it. The player’s head hit Wright’s right knee, and three of the four ligaments that secured the joint snapped like dry kindling. Goodbye, Syracuse. Goodbye, football. Goodbye, track, where Wright was high-jumping close to 7 feet as a junior and dreaming of someday competing in the Olympics.
Dr. Norman Scott, who performed the reconstructive surgery on the knee, told him football and high-jumping were out of the question. The schools retreated, their offers drying up and blowing away like so many tumbleweeds.
“He was completely down,” says Augustine Brown, Wright’s mom. “He didn’t want to talk. It was completely over, he thought. I told him to don’t feel sorry for yourself … He’s a strong kid. When he’s hurt, he won’t tell you. I could see the tears in his eyes, but he never once shed a tear.”
Holton had received even more sobering news from the doctor.
“Dr. Scott told me when the operation was complete that the tear was so bad, only Bernard King had ever come back from an injury so bad,” he says.
Only one school called the day of the operation—the University of Delaware.
“They told me the offer [to play basketball] still stands,” says Wright. “And St. John’s called two days later, but I said Delaware’s first, and Murray was there and we were tight. He’s like my best friend.
“I just thought about it, sitting in my bed one day, thinking. And you know, that can touch a person. They knew I was hurt but they called right then … That was the first positive thing that happened after the operation.”
From there, Wright turned his crackling intensity on his mangled knee. He went to rehabilitation every day, for up to six hours a day. Holton got him in to the local YMCA on a friend’s membership to swim. Wright lifted, he rode the stationary bike. He fought the world.
“It was painful,” Wright says. “It was like me against the world. I always did look at it like that and I still do, because once you get hurt everyone looks at you like ‘He’s not going to make it back.’ “
Working with Decker to rehab the knee, Wright sat out his first year as a redshirt at Delaware, and doubted how long he would be able to take this foreign place. “I felt out of place,” Wright says. But having Murray there, who had also redshirted his first year after suffering a compound dislocation of finger, made things bearable. Now he feels comfortable.
“It’s different. Once you meet people, there’s a lot of great people here,” he says. “A lot of good people that go here and make you feel welcome.
“Now I can react to both [worlds]—up here and at home. I feel more versatile.”
Wright struggled early last season, but his game came together in January of this year. He came home for this summer after averaging 7.1 points and 4.6 rebounds for the Blue Hens, who finished 16-13. His knee was finally back, he felt he was peaking—when he hurt the left one, playing in the Jersey Shore Basketball League.
The injury was not as severe as the first one, and the arthroscopic surgery was performed quickly. Wright is just now rounding back to form. “It was like starting all over again,” he says.
But the heartache is still there for Wright. He looks at the football team practice, or sits in the stands watching the team play on Saturday afternoon, and he retreats into his own private Field of Dreams.
“It’s frustrating,” he says. “Sometimes I think, ‘What if I had played football? Why am I playing basketball?’ It’s like dropping your favorite thing to do. Football was the first sport I ever played. Everyone thought I liked basketball better, but it was football. I high-jumped. I miss that too. It’s depressing because I think what I might have really done if I hadn’t gotten hurt. I had goals of going to the Olympic games because I was high-jumping [nearly] 7-something my junior year.
“So it was like staring me in the face.”
So far, Wright has stared back. He has overcome the athletic setbacks and last year overcame an educational one. A drop in his grades led to the diagnosis of a learning disability that had not been spotted before. Working with his academic counselor three times a week, Wright had gotten himself back on track for his degree, carrying a 2.6 grade-point average in his physical education major. He hopes to stick around the university and pursue a graduate degree in accounting, like Holton.
Wright’s mother looks forward, as does Holton, to the day the young man they have raised by turns receives his degree. For both it will make the conclusion of a job well done.
“I have four children and two didn’t finish [high] school. I don’t care if he ever turns pro,” Augustine Brown says. “I just want him to get that piece of paper.”
“He had friends who got in trouble, ended up in detention centers,” she says. “I don’t believe in drugs. I never felt a need to do it. I work with young kids at Marlboro Hospital and I saw a 16-year-old kid who was into drugs. Sixteen, he could have been my son … I didn’t want to see any of my kids like that. Why do they do that stuff? I never understood it.
“And I always told [my children], even if I had a million dollars, if they did it and went to jail, I would never get them out. I’d leave them there. I worked, I struggled, I did my best and I never turned to drugs, and you had better not either.”
Wright and Murray have yet to win anything of consequence at Delaware. There have been no ECC titles. When they speak of winning a tournament, it was the Shore Conference, not the NCAAs, which Delaware has never made. The high point for both young men was Murray’s senior year, when Asbury Park High School won a state basketball title.
But time passes. Both Wright and Murray have a sister on the Blue Bishops’ girls basketball team. Nathalie Brown, 17, and Tiffany Murray, 16. Ironically, this pair could end up at Delaware, too. They’ve both received feelers from the university. And if the girls go to Newark, would the boys return to Asbury Park?
Sometimes Murray thinks about returning to his old school, maybe to teach in the same halls he once roamed as a student. Teaching, and Asbury Park, it seems, are in his blood.
“I wouldn’t mind going back and trying to raise the school to one of the best from one of the worst,” he says. Maybe he’d even coach track or basketball.
“It’s a good way to help people,” he says, “taking what I learned and applying it to somebody else.”
Wright says he’d never live in Asbury Park again, but he’d like to be active in the area. And he still has his pledge to Holton to fulfill. Somehow, it’s easy to see Wright walking away from a football field with a 10-year-old in hand, taking him for an ice cream. Giving him a chance. Showing him the right route to take.
“There are a lot of kids with talent out there who need the guidance,” says Wright. “I can show them what [Holton] showed me. He let me know that someplace the grass is greener.”