The unstoppable drive of Chris Wright, the first NBA player with MS

Chris Wright, 32, is the first known NBA player with multiple sclerosis. The toys in his home in Tortona, Italy, are evidence that his international basketball career is a family pursuit. Alessandro Grassani for ESPN

IT'S JUST AFTER THANKSGIVING and former Georgetown University point guard Chris Wright, 32, is inside an Italian gym, picking up his kids from an after-school program. He hunts for some quiet to tell his life story, but squeaks of sneakers and yelps ricochet around us. His daughter vies for his attention, to which Wright patiently says, "Sit here, sweetie."

Quiet is a monumental pursuit for a father of three, implausible when compounded by the grueling schedule of a professional basketball player. Wright stars for Derthona Basket, in one of the world's best non-NBA leagues, in an Italian wine township at the foot of the Alps. He's halfway around the world from Bowie, Maryland, where his basketball journey began, eventually leading him to Georgetown, Europe and the NBA.

He discovers a backroom, shelter from the noisy schoolchildren. Wright takes a deep breath, adjusts the camera, and shares the moment where that journey was nearly derailed 10 years ago.

It was 2012, and Wright was in Turkey playing for the now-defunct Olin Edirne. When he first arrived, he and his coach butted heads, so Wright was determined to mend fences. Sprint drills were completed with fervor, jump shots flicked with added panache, defense executed with floor-slapping zeal. In months, he'd gone from target to talisman. So, when he felt tingling in his right foot one day, he thought it was a casualty of overuse. He'd sleep it off, he reasoned. But, by the next morning's shooting drills, it had spread to his right hand, then arm, then entire leg -- his whole right side numb.

Then he couldn't get out of bed.

"I couldn't walk. I fell to the floor," Wright says. "I was paralyzed."

Lying immobile and alone, 5,000 miles from everyone he loved, Wright was terrified, unsure of what was happening to his body. He didn't know if he'd ever walk again, let alone hold a basketball.

Overnight, his livelihood and identity had been ripped away. He'd soon be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and doctor after doctor would tell him his career was over. Wright had every reason to turn bitter, but he refused. As he stands here now, a decade later, he remembers the decision he made then, and the resolve he found: He wouldn't retire, he would relearn how to walk and run, and he'd damn sure play basketball again.

"I never cried one time, I never had that feeling it was over," he says. "I just said, 'We're going to figure this out.'"

YEARS AFTER LEAVING MARYLAND, Chris Wright is still a local legend. He was a McDonald's All American in 2007 and left St. John's College High School as the school's all-time leading scorer. While he found success at Georgetown -- he's still sixth in career assists -- a lingering hand injury hampered him during pre-draft workouts, and he went unselected. Then the NBA locked out its players, so Wright joined the same Turkish league where Hedo Türkoğlu, Ersan İlyasova and Enes Kanter Freedom blossomed. He eventually blossomed too, playing the best basketball of his life, scoring 18-plus points in four out of his previous six games in Turkey.

A local doctor had looked at Wright, who was still unable to walk, and admitted he couldn't find a culprit before clearing him to return to basketball.

"'Go back to practice?'" Wright recalled. "'I can't f---ing move.'"

So he was referred to a specialist in Istanbul, a 3½-hour drive from Edirne. It wasn't long before a diagnosis was delivered: "sclerosis multiplex" -- Americanized for Wright's benefit. Before he left the room, he was on his phone scouring medical websites. His heart sank.

As a friend drove him home, Wright's diagnosis leaked in local media. He was in a dead zone -- internet access but no cell reception -- still researching the illness wreaking havoc on the wiring of his nervous system. Once back at his apartment, his phone erupted with 500-plus texts, calls and notifications from loved ones. He still couldn't walk and certainly hadn't talked to the media. "I don't even know what I have, what it is yet," Wright recalls thinking. "I just know I physically can't do anything."

Wright knew what he needed to do: return home to Maryland.

ORLANDO WRIGHT ISN'T SURE where his son Chris would be if it weren't for John Thompson III. He not only coached him through 88 wins in four years, Thompson also gave the Wright family access to the Georgetown team's medical staff when Wright returned home from Turkey in 2012.

"That was so fortunate," Orlando says. "It opened doors for us. Most of these [specialists], you couldn't get appointments for six months; we [got] appointments within a week."

Wright quickly met with several doctors to get an assessment of his condition. They explained that multiple sclerosis, also known as MS, is an autoimmune disease that attacks the protective covering of nerve fibers called myelin, causing scar tissue or lesions. This leads to communication issues between the brain and the rest of the body.

At least half a dozen doctors told Wright to retire, except for one: Dr. Heidi Crayton.

In 2007, Crayton opened the Multiple Sclerosis Center of Greater Washington, located about 20 minutes from Georgetown. She'd come a long way from the neurology fellow at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital who initially balked at her mentor's suggestion to specialize in MS. Though the first suspected case of multiple sclerosis was discovered around 1400, the first FDA-approved medicine to treat MS didn't hit the market until 1993. Quantities were limited and there was a lottery for patients to obtain it. Two more medicines came out in 1996, but they were physically draining and often completely sapped patients.

These medications slowed the degenerative process and combated future lesions, but reversing damage wasn't yet possible. The general consensus is that life expectancy for multiple sclerosis patients is, on average, 7 to 14 years shorter. "It was diagnose and adios," Crayton says. "People were told in the prime of their life that they had this degenerative condition and nothing could be done."

But Crayton loved puzzles and, to her, few were as necessary to solve as the one around MS. She wound up an investigator in clinical trials for a once-a-month injection called TYSABRI in the early 2000s. One study says nearly 70% of patients who received the injection remained relapse-free, while 97% developed no new lesions.

"It was a game-changer," Crayton says.

Crayton met Wright in 2012. He was despondent, but she was optimistic about his chances of recovery. She was on the cutting edge of MS research, knew treatments had evolved and that Wright hadn't quite fulfilled his destiny.

"His dad said, 'You don't understand: Basketball is his life, his identity,'" Crayton recalls.

Wright wasn't walking properly and his tingling had morphed into excruciating pain. Ten days of steroid shots allowed him to begin an aggressive treatment plan after bloodwork. Patients who go on TYSABRI need to be screened for the John Cunningham virus, or JCV, which is harmless in others but problematic for MS patients. Being above a certain threshold, when combined with TYSABRI, could lead to a rare brain infection called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), long-term disability and even death.

But Wright was negative. He'd start monthly injections immediately and continue the treatment for close to a decade.

Armed with a game plan and being stateside post-NBA lockout, he set his sights on a return. He retaught himself how to move first, then play basketball, a day at a time.

"I kept grinding out, told myself I would walk again, run again, jump, shoot, dribble, everything," he says. "[Relearning] was the hardest part, but it happened quick."

Wright wound up on the D-League's Iowa Energy in 2012-13, averaging 15.5 points, 7.0 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals. By season's end, he was an all-star, scoring 15 points and dropping a game-high seven dimes in the contest.

On March 13, 2013, his persistence was rewarded when the Dallas Mavericks signed him to a 10-day contract. Two days later, he made his debut, becoming the first-known NBA player with multiple sclerosis. In a year, Wright went from nearly paralyzed to sharing a court with Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter.

"The universe spoke to me," he says. "Making the NBA solidified it for me. I did it [and] it wasn't supposed to be done. This is a live universe and I'm living testimony to that."

When he returned home a year prior, the universe spoke in another way, too. One that might have saved him just as equally as Crayton, medicine or basketball.

He fell in love.

WRIGHT, VIA ZOOM thousands of miles away, stops himself.

"Family ... that's been my lifeline," he says. "They're the reason I've [done] something there's no blueprint to."

Wright met his wife, Erin, at 13. They dated sporadically in high school, but grew apart and lost each other's number.

Had Wright not fallen out of that bed in Turkey, they wouldn't have reconnected. During early dark days back home, when walking wasn't a given, let alone an athletic career, those closest to Wright say Erin weathered the storm.

"Their lives kept coming back together," says Diane Wright, his mother. "He's blessed."

Erin played basketball at the University of Richmond and Morgan State University. She was about to be named an assistant coach at High Point University in 2012 when her father ran into Chris at a Maryland mall. He'd just started treatment and her father insisted he call Erin -- so he did.

"My dad would never hook me up with a guy," Erin says. "That says something about Chris' character."

On their first date as adults, Wright told Erin about his diagnosis. While they ate, she googled MS under the table and felt the same dread that he initially felt. She asked if he was sure he'd be OK.

"He confidently responded 'yes,' in true Chris Wright manner," Erin says. "We pretty much decided after the first date that this was forever."

MS or not, they wouldn't fall out of touch again. His diagnosis was theirs.

"He really wasn't sure what was going to happen," Diane says. "[Erin] stepped right in."

Turkey was the last place abroad Wright played without Erin. They married in 2015 and have three kids: CJ, 9; Charlotte, 6; and Camilla, 2.

The stint with the Mavericks, on top of being named a D-League all-star, had given Wright back his basketball life. After CJ was born, a team in France called, then Italy. Then it was off to Puerto Rico, then Israel, before Italy called them back.

"It can't be overlooked that -- while traveling the world, still playing basketball -- he keeps his family close and they go everywhere together," Thompson says. "It's unique."

Wright helped Italy's Victoria Libertas survive a relegation battle in 2015, then was denied insurance in Israel before facing doping allegations in Italy. He'd tested positive for the banned substance Modafinil, a stimulant often prescribed to combat MS fatigue. He was blacklisted, then defended himself in court all summer of 2016 while facing an 18-month ban. When his name was cleared, he'd missed free agency.

"All the jobs I was up for were gone," Wright says, exasperated.

Stipulations are written into Wright's contracts tying his employment to not missing games due to MS complications -- a challenge he welcomes. In Trieste, Italy, a two-year deal finally materialized; he was getting paid well and on time for the first time in his career.

"My wife loved that city, my kids are in school, we were immersed in the community," Wright says. "[Then] the owner" -- Luigi Scavone, eventually implicated in large-scale tax evasion -- "was found fleeing the country with 10 million euros in a Gucci bag."

In March 2020, the Wrights were in Poland when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down borders. Two hours after his season ended, one in which Wright averaged 18.6 PPG on 51.7% shooting with 6.7 APG in the Basketball Champions League, his family frantically packed up and fled as the country closed down around them.

Later that year, a deal materialized, in Turkey of all places. Wright had barely been back since 2012. This time, Erin and her relentless optimism, not to mention their kids, were with him. "They kept calling and I had to conquer that," Wright says. "When I got off the plane, I broke down."

He led the league in assists and posted a career-high 39.3% from deep.

"I knew he would play for a long time," says Thompson, now the VP of player engagement for Monumental Basketball, which includes the NBA's Washington Wizards and WNBA's Mystics. "The basketball gods still smile on him."

Wright laughs. "It's been a roller coaster."

"And not one of those new, metal smooth-riding ones," Erin adds. "A wooden, squeaking ride."

Wright is, no surprise, the motor of Derthona, currently fifth in Italy's Serie A. The NBA door might be closed, but he says he has valuable years left before the coaching talk. For now, he's all ball.

"I don't feel like I'm losing a step," Wright says. "I want to keep playing, I want to win."

By 2019, Wright had responded so well to treatment that he and Crayton decided to wean him off TYSABRI. In retesting, he'd marginally eclipsed the threshold for JCV, terrifying his family. But medicines had advanced since 2012. Wright knew he could handle a change.

"It's hard for me not to get misty every time I see him," Crayton says. "I've seen him blossom."

Crayton suggested Mavenclad, a treatment comprised of 20 pills over a two-year period. When it came to market, it was the only FDA-approved drug for relapsing MS, with 10 years of safety data.

"It doesn't wipe out your immune system like other drugs. It's [a] reboot," Crayton says. "It takes away the bad guys and lets the good kids come out to play."

Wright just finished his second year of treatment. Ten years after his diagnosis and relearning how to walk, he's medication-free. Crayton anticipates MS being "a nonissue" for the rest of his life. But she also knows it feels too good to be true. This is, after all, the illness so bleak it seemed fruitless to devote her career to 15 years ago. Now it is, in some respects, beatable.

"This is why you do this, right?" she asks.

IT'S JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS and presents and holiday decor fill Wright's Zoom backdrop. Erin's parents are visiting and, off-screen, they fuss with their grandchildren riding a yuletide high. Extra hands or not, Wright seems at peace.

I ask how it feels being medication-free considering how ludicrous that seemed 10 years ago. It's not lost on him that March, the anniversary of his diagnosis, happens to be MS Awareness Month.

He peppers his reflections with wisdom from Socrates, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Malcolm X. He's elegiac and unabashed, noting that life is meant to be lived with dignity and decency.

"It's about the endless pursuit of self," he concludes.

The concept of time -- truly healthy time -- is novel. Crayton anticipates Wright's post-medication life will be devoid of medical community fanfare. Normal. Boring even.

As a spouse and father, Wright knows he can't obsess over basketball like he once did. At least for not much longer. "As a parent, you got to leave it at the door," he says. "You're in constant motion -- what is time, really? [Other than something] to make the most of."

After Wright's diagnosis, some urged Erin to distance herself -- but she ran toward what scared her. "People are amazed he's playing with MS," Erin says, "[but] I see playing as helping his MS."

Those closest to Wright say he's a coaching natural and believe he would thrive with a college program.

"If you want your soul to be felt through eternity," Wright says. "You teach."

One day, but not yet. Wright has faith in whatever lies ahead.

"At the end of the day," Wright says, "what's faith without any work?"