Coach is moved by La Salle's Jerrell Wright, on and off court

Jerrell Wright earned the admiration of coach John Giannini with his words and play.
Jerrell Wright earned the admiration of coach John Giannini with his words and play. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 28, 2013

LOS ANGELES - This has become one of his rituals, John Giannini said. Before La Salle home games, the Explorers coach often will open a desk drawer in his office, grab a piece of paper, and read some familiar words.

They begin: I believe in love.

I believe in hard work.

I believe when things don't go right, I'm moving ahead.

There's more, with more detail, but you get the gist. La Salle's coach didn't write the words. He likes to read them because he is moved by them, Giannini said. They were part of a religion paper written last year by Explorers center Jerrell Wright, then a freshman.

Wright doesn't know that an academic adviser gave Giannini the paper, that the coach kept it and uses it for his personal purposes. Wright may not even remember he wrote the paper.

"The part about when something goes wrong, I believe in moving on, which I have a hard time doing - I find it very powerful," Giannini said. "It's very personal, so I won't tell you everything, but it's absolutely beautiful and inspirational."

This came up Tuesday afternoon right after La Salle finished a full-speed workout in preparation for Thursday's NCAA Sweet 16 matchup with Wichita State at the Staples Center. The coach was talking about what Wright is all about. He didn't mention season-saving free throws or huge second-half hoops or Wright's expanded duties right now because La Salle's other big man is out.

Giannini likes all those things, of course.

He likes that a 6-foot-8 sophomore out of Dobbins Tech has not been intimidated by this stage, is not afraid to be the lone big man out there, even though 6-8 isn't so big and won't be against Wichita State.

"So far, I'm doing great," Wright said.

Wright pointed out that La Salle's guards love it when he gets on a little scoring run, that it helps their game "to even it out, so teams wouldn't just have to worry about the guards."

It's part of the lore of this NCAA run how Wright, a 62 percent career free-throw shooter, made 9 of 10 against Kansas State, scoring La Salle's last nine points, the last seven from the line under the tightest pressure possible.

"The coach said I had beautiful form [in practice]; he just wanted me to have my same form, to think about one thing every time - I thought about in, that was the key word," Wright said. "I didn't worry about the crowd or anything like that. It was me and the rim."

Before the season, mentioning strengths of his team, Giannini had pointed out that not too many freshman big men average 9.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in a little less than 20 minutes, as Wright had done. His efficiency numbers are off the charts.

Losing 6-11 sophomore Steve Zack to a foot injury before this tournament could have been a death blow for La Salle. The two basically had split minutes in an effective big-man rotation.

"As long as his conditioning is fine, he's a highly productive player," Giannini said of Wright. "We probably should have tried to get him more minutes, because the more he plays, he's extremely productive as long as he's not fatigued."

Wright had been the Public League player of the year as a senior at Dobbins, and he saw that big-man minutes were available on Olney Avenue. He also saw that Giannini had been on him early, in 10th grade.

"When I wasn't even on the radar for high school recruits," Wright said, "he always knew I could be a special player."

What made Giannini pursue him?

"A local big man, I guess it ain't that hard to find," Wright said, pointing out that there aren't a lot of players his size roaming around city schools.

Wright's high school coach, William Johnson, had played at Rowan just after Giannini had left there for Maine, so there was some comfort level.

"When he came to Dobbins, he was a tall guy, very easygoing, pretty much the same person he is now," Johnson said. "He never had an ego, which is ironic, considering how good he became. He always just wanted to be part of the team."

Wright finished as the third-leading scorer in Dobbins Tech history, behind Bo Kimble and current La Salle assistant Pappy Owens.

"The one thing - this is Jerrell to a T - when the lights are on, he'll show up," Johnson said.

The Dobbins coach remembers a blowout loss to Strawberry Mansion. Two years later, it was still a sore subject when the teams met again.

"I don't think he missed a shot in the first half," Johnson said. "I think he had 40 points that game. He doesn't call for the ball, he's so quiet. He definitely shows up."

He's a guy who calls his coach "the coach." His manner and his game kind of fit together. Plain pound cake, "no icing," John Chaney used to call it, a high Chaney compliment.

Maybe Wright can write a paper about the genesis of all that. But somebody had better tell him that his words can end up on the coach's desk.

Contact Mike Jensen at Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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