When they finally found him, 10 days after he was last seen alive, the 6-foot-11 man who held an outsize place in his city’s heart was diminished. The bullet-ridden, decomposing corpse weighed just 57 pounds. A family was torn apart. Memphis mourned. And for more than seven years the case ran cold … until now.
The stunning arrests of the victim’s ex-wife and a local deacon in connection with the murder have reopened the wounds and only deepened the mystery of why a man was cut down at age 34, on the verge of writing a comeback story for his professional basketball career. Even if the suspects — who proclaim their innocence — are indeed the killers, the motive and the details remain the stuff of fevered speculation in a town all too familiar with the blues. Was it drugs? Insurance money? Revenge? What happened to Lorenzen Wright?
The two suspects said one word between them at the March court hearing. Sherra Wright-Robinson — now a withdrawn shell of the fashionable millionaire who once cut a high-profile figure around Memphis — uttered “yes” when asked if she understood the proceedings. Three attorneys away, local laborer and deacon Billy Ray Turner, bespectacled and dressed in a green prison jumpsuit, was silent. The path to their appearance in the Shelby County Courthouse on charges of murdering Wright begins more than a quarter-century ago.
Sherra and Lorenzen started dating after he moved from Oxford, Mississippi, to Memphis — the basketball and blues capital of the South known as Bluff City for its location on the Mississippi River — for his senior year of high school. He was the city’s top basketball prospect, starring at South Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High, and she was the daughter of his AAU coach, Julius Robinson. Although she was 23, six years older than Wright, they hit it off — Lorenzen, the local phenom, and Sherra, his queen.
He chose to stay close for college, signing with the hometown Memphis Tigers, and their family grew quickly. Lorenzen Wright Jr. was born during his father’s freshman year on campus. In 2003, their seventh child, Sierra, died of sudden infant death syndrome. It was a devastating loss for a couple that soon would be on a rocky path.
Years of alleged infidelity from both parties and money woes also took a toll as Wright’s 14-year NBA career neared a close. The 1996 first-round draft pick, who spent five seasons playing for his hometown Memphis Grizzlies, was notoriously generous in the community — to a fault, some say. By the time the Wrights officially divorced, in 2009, the good times were coming to an end for the couple that was known for dressing well, driving fast and dining out with the Memphis public. “They didn’t hide their wealth,” says Jarvis Greer, a former Memphis Tigers football player who, as sports director at WMC Action News, covered Wright’s career at every level. In 2010, Wright’s NBA money was drying up. His million-dollar home in Atlanta was repossessed, and he soon struggled to pay his ex-wife the court-ordered $26,000 a month in child support.
Following Wright’s death, neighbors in the Memphis suburb of Collierville told the New York Daily News that, during that final year of Wright’s life, his ex-wife often walked the streets “acting strange” and was overheard “making demands for more money” on her phone. Wendy Wilson, a former personal assistant to Wright, urged police to “look hard at his ex-wife” and later claimed to have voice recordings of Sherra threatening Lorenzen.
Neighbors also reported that on the night of July 19, 2010, the day after Wright was seen leaving his ex-wife’s house, Wright-Robinson and a male friend held a backyard bonfire — on one of the hottest days of the year. In the years that have followed, Wright-Robinson and the four youngest children — all minors at the time of the murder — have been on the move. First they went to Houston in 2015, and then to the Los Angeles area in early 2017. Before the move to Houston, Wright-Robinson divorced her second husband, Reginald Robinson, a Shelby County sheriff’s deputy. She has since remarried.
Wright’s children, ages 12 to 23 today, are scattered between Tennessee and California. Lorenzen Jr. recently finished his senior season at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Twin boys Lamar and Shamar, 18, have blossomed into stars on the Southern California high school circuit. Recently, Shamar became the first player in Murrieta Mesa High School’s history to be named to the first-team all-state. As seniors, the twins appear likely to do a post–high school graduation year before playing in college.
For years, Wright’s mother, Deborah Marion, has been fighting for custody of her grandchildren amid pleas for Memphis police to investigate Wright-Robinson (she believes Sherra killed her son for a $1 million insurance policy). Now, only the youngest daughter, Sofia, remains eligible for adoption. “This has been difficult to explain,” Marion says. “I’m close to getting what I want for my son, but now I’ve got to work on getting my youngest grandchild.”
To be sure, there’s no crime in alimony squabbles or out-of-season bonfires, but Wright-Robinson’s timeline has grown increasingly bizarre since she first reported her ex-husband missing. Initially, Wright-Robinson told police that Wright left home carrying money and a box of drugs and that he told someone on the phone he was going to “flip something for $110,000.” Then, two days before Wright’s corpse was discovered, another frightening detail emerged. Wright-Robinson told authorities that six weeks before his death, three men in trench coats came looking for Wright. This led some to propose another theory. In 2008, according to federal documents, Wright sold two luxury vehicles to Bobby Cole, a drag racer known throughout Memphis for his connection to the city’s longtime drug kingpin, Craig Petties. So, could a hit man have been sent after Wright?
There’s little doubt that Wright kept company with questionable characters involved in the Memphis gang scene, and the defense team will surely try to show that Wright’s own nefarious activity led to the former NBA star’s undoing. The Memphians we spoke to acknowledge that rumors about Wright becoming involved in drug trafficking were commonplace toward the end of his career. “Once you live a certain lifestyle, it’s hard to go back to cheese and crackers,” says Greer. “But that will have to come out in the investigation.”
And despite the rumors, there remains a sense, locally, that Wright-Robinson’s claims of trench coats and cartel connections are too far-fetched. Almost too perfect an ending for her next book.
In 2015, Wright-Robinson published a novel titled Mr. Tell Me Anything (Volume 1), featuring a thinly disguised plot that mirrors her life with Wright. The main character, Sharon Robinson from Memphis, juggles a volatile marriage to her philandering husband with her duties as a mother of six and an active churchgoer. The title character, “Mr. Tell Me Anything,” is a 6-foot-11 Mississippi native who plays for the NBA in the same cities Lorenzen played in. The story touches on the entirety of the relationship — the older Sharon finally relenting to the 16-year-old title character’s advances, the athlete’s financial troubles and issues of infidelity and abuse. And while the book ends before the relationship is over, it promises a sequel to explain “the beginning of their end.” According to NPD Bookscan, the novel has sold 300 copies.
“I don’t buy what she’s selling,” says Alan Jankowski, a Memphis local and lifelong Tigers and Grizzlies fan who dismisses Wright-Robinson’s claims. “We’re supposed to believe that the Reservoir Dogs showed up in the middle of the summer?”
On July 28, 2010, Wright’s body was found riddled with bullets in a wooded field along a trash-strewn connector road. An autopsy revealed that Wright was struck by at least five shots and shell casings from two different weapons were found at the scene. Oddly, the victim’s watch and expensive jewelry were still on him. The father of six was last seen alive 10 days earlier, leaving his ex-wife’s home. Wright had been in town visiting friends and family before heading back to his home in Atlanta. It had been more than a year since he played in an NBA game; although he knew his skills were deteriorating, Wright was training for one last opportunity to extend the only career he’d ever known.
After two years with zero progress, the mystery began to lose its luster. Memphians needed closure from the devastating gut punch, but as the investigation turned into a cold case, the saga of Lorenzen Wright faded. “People used to talk about it all the time,” says James Harrison, 62, who retired to Memphis from Chicago in 2011. “But after a while, it just seemed like the murder would never be solved. Luckily, his mother never let it die.”
One possible clue was bungled just hours after the basketball star was seen leaving Wright-Robinson’s house. On the afternoon of July 19, a 911 dispatcher in Germantown, Tennessee, received a panicked call from Wright’s cellphone, punctuated by the sound of rapid gunfire. The call dropped before the dispatcher could hear anything else, and since it had come from outside Germantown’s jurisdiction, the location was unknown. Unfathomably, the dispatcher failed to report the incident to supervisors until July 27 — a full five days after Wright’s mother filed a missing person’s report.
Wright’s murder rocked all of Memphis, but it hit the city’s tight-knit basketball community particularly hard. As the most recent in a long line of premier prospects who stayed home to play college ball before making the NBA, Wright was a local hero. But more than that, he was Memphis. “You could tell he had a big heart — that sense of Southern hospitality,” says Rodney Watkins, a former Stax Music Academy student. Wright agreed to make a pro bono appearance in a music video shot by Watkins.
Meanwhile, the police investigation was going nowhere. After investigating Wright’s rumored connections to Memphis drug dealers and international cartels, police had nothing to tie to the murder. And that was it — for more than seven years.
Then, last November, Memphis police announced they had found one of the two guns used in the murder in a lake near Walnut, Mississippi, 75 miles east of town. And on December 5, they arrested Turner, 42, a former landscaper at the Wright home in Collierville — and a deacon at Mt. Olive Number One Baptist Church, where Wright’s ex-wife served as a minister — for first-degree murder.
Ten days later, Wright-Robinson was arrested in California on charges of conspiracy, first-degree murder and criminal attempt first-degree murder. According to prosecutors, the criminal attempt charge stems from evidence that Wright-Robinson and Turner, after acquiring weapons with the help of Wright-Robinson’s cousin, Jimmy Martin, traveled to Atlanta between April and July 2010 for an initial, failed attempt at murdering Wright. This January, Wright-Robinson was extradited to Memphis and will now stand trial, along with Turner, for the murder of her children’s father in the most high-profile murder case Memphis has seen since James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Following Wright-Robinson’s brief appearance in court Feb. 26, Assistant District Attorney Paul Hagerman remained steadfast that although no evidence could be revealed, the prosecution had operated strategically. “I know this family has been waiting years now to start this process,” Hagerman told reporters. “A family like that helps you try the case, to see how much struggle they’ve faced. They’re the foundation on which we will put a lot of hard work.”
To hear his side of it, Billy Ray Turner is a God-fearing laborer engulfed in someone else’s nightmare. His attorney, John Keith Perry, states that Turner “maintains his absolute innocence,” and says that his client was surprised when officers arrested him. “This is a man who’s been working his entire adult life, has not been in trouble and has maintained connections with his church and the community that he grew up in,” says Perry.
According to Perry, Turner met Wright-Robinson through their work at Mount Olive Church after the Wrights moved to Collierville. A friend who managed landscaping at the Wright home got Turner a job there too. “I don’t know how well he knew Lorenzen,” says Perry. “He may have met him once or twice.”
But Turner was not singled out by chance. In 2010, two tipsters identified him as a person of interest for Memphis police, but he was eventually cleared. Another tip, which prosecutors on Friday revealed came from Martin, led to the discovery of one of the guns in the Mississippi lake. The case began rolling.
After Turner’s arraignment on January 29, Perry confirmed that the evidence included wiretaps and audio recordings, and while Perry will not confirm who or what is on the recordings, it is believed that those conversations led to Wright-Robinson’s arrest. Still, no one is quite sure how strong — or weak — of a case the prosecution has eight years after the homicide, as the incomplete evidence that has been aired publicly leaves plenty of holes. Both Turner and Wright-Robinson have pleaded not guilty.
And so a family and a city wait for findings that might finally make sense of a seemingly senseless act.
Whether over a plate of ribs in the back room of Blues City Cafe on Beale Street or in the parking lot of south Memphis’ Booker T. Washington High School, requests for local takes on the Lorenzen Wright story garner instant return. You see, Ren was the last of his kind. In a basketball-crazed city that embraces local stars like perhaps nowhere else in the United States, Wright embodied all that is “Hoop City.” His jubilant ferocity had an edge that only years of fighting for playing time on Memphis courts can hone.
But Wright wasn’t simply blue-collar Memphis; he had game. Like Penny Hardaway, Elliot Perry and Larry Finch before him, Ren was one of the chosen few, destined to put that Mississippi River soul on display at the highest level — in the National Basketball Association. Wright knew where he was headed, and there was no way in hell he was going to be stopped.
So, in 1995, before nabbing 16 points and six rebounds against Louisville in the first NCAA Tournament game of his University of Memphis Tigers career, Wright headed to the training room to get treatment on his sprained ankle. “He said that he wasn’t going to allow himself to be injured,” says Greer. “He would never let anyone see him hurt.”
That was the rule for Wright: Never give anyone a reason to take the game away. After all, in Memphis, respect and loyalty are earned through action. He was the player parents would take their kids to watch so they could see how to play the game the right way. “They didn’t have to visualize success anymore. They could see it,” says Greer. “For that, he’ll always be a favorite son of Memphis.”
Wright first met the dark side of Memphis at an early age. By then, basketball was already the lanky boy’s dream. Wright grew up with his mother in Oxford, often spending summers with his father, Herb, a Memphis native and a former guard on the Ole Miss basketball team. Herb played professionally in Finland but was back in Memphis each summer. Lorenzen would help him around the house, biding his time until the daily practice session began at the local recreational center.
At the end of the summer of 1983, days after 7-year-old Lorenzen returned to Oxford for the school year, his father “kicked some guys who weren’t acting right” out of the gym, says longtime Memphis prep coach Bubba Luckett, who played at Memphis and was a summer teammate of Herb’s. “They came back, chased him outside and shot him. Been in a wheelchair ever since.”
Those close to the Wrights cite Herb’s paralysis as one of the driving factors behind the player — and the man — that Lorenzen became. Herb continued coaching Lorenzen and his younger brother, Lou, staying ”very involved in the local basketball scene,” says Luckett. “That family has certainly had an incredible impact on the sport here.”
“Seeing his dad in a wheelchair, still out there doing his best to help kids, I think that fueled Lorenzen’s fire,” adds Greer, the sports broadcaster. “Because, man, he was ferocious. If you’re coming up in Memphis, you better be about something. That’s the culture, and he totally embraced it.”
Wright moved to Memphis for his final year of high school before accepting a scholarship to play for the hometown Tigers. “It was important to him to continue that local tradition,” says Greer. For decades, beginning with the Larry Finch–led University of Memphis (then Memphis State) team in 1973, the Tigers were the biggest show in town. All the local stars wanted to stay home to play for the blue and gray. “Racism was really horrible here after Martin Luther King was shot,” says Luckett. “But that team in 1973 made a run to the national championship and really united the city, because they did it with local guys. …After that, the city was booming with support for Memphis [State].”
Hardaway, who starred at the school two years before Wright arrived, is the basketball team’s most famous alum, but Wright was the last local golden child to grace the university’s courts. In two seasons at Memphis, the big man was one of the best players in the nation, earning All-America honors as a sophomore in 1996. But Finch, who coached Memphis from 1986 to 1997, ran into health problems and eventually stepped down. The program slumped for a time until John Calipari returned the Tigers to national title contention in the 2000s. Still, Calipari did so with little reliance on local recruits. With Calipari’s departure for Kentucky in 2009 and the local pipeline dry, citywide support for the Tigers has been more difficult to muster in recent years.
Which may be why Wright is so revered. He returned to the city each NBA offseason — raising his family in town, hosting camps for underprivileged youth and generally maintaining a presence. So, of course, when the Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis in 2001, there was one man they needed on board. “He was the perfect ambassador for the Grizzlies,” says Greer. “What better way to get the fans on your side than to bring back the hometown hero?”
Wright was the seventh overall NBA draft pick by the Los Angeles Clippers in 1996, but he was never as dominant as he’d been in college. He became a hustle player in the pros — tough defense, quality rebounding and energetic bursts. In other words, exactly the type of player needed to build a winning culture in Memphis. On the court, Wright teamed with young rising star Pau Gasol for a dangerous tandem in the post. Off it? He played the role of shepherd, guiding the rookies, foreign players like the Spaniard Gasol and veterans unfamiliar with the South to the best soul food joints in town. “He was this larger-than-life character who took everyone under his wing,” says Greer.
After two early losing seasons, Wright led Memphis to three straight playoff appearances before signing with Atlanta in 2006. He bounced around the league for three more seasons, his numbers dwindling as his off-court concerns grew.
Wright’s grave, at the summit of a sparsely populated slope in Calvary Cemetery on Elvis Presley Boulevard, doesn’t command as much traffic as it did during the first few years of grief, but evidence of recent visitors is clear. A fresh, NBA-regulation Spalding basketball rests above a brown headstone softened by artificial poinsettias and a few seasonally appropriate pastel arrangements. Baby Sierra’s resting place is to her father’s left, and Julius Robinson and his wife — Sherra’s father and mother — are not 10 feet away.
But only Ren’s and Sierra’s gravestones reveal signs of who has visited lately. Three pinwheels flank the stones, with handwritten notes on the blades. “Keep watching over us!” “I will forever be your lil sis” and “We Want Justice” are just a few of the messages. And on the back, the authors let you know who’s been visiting lately: “The Wright Family!”
When discussing the case with Memphis locals, there’s a sense that most of the public, like Wright’s family, is desperate for a swift conviction and closure. But the trial may very well bleed into 2019. In the end, the outcome likely comes down to what is in those recordings, and what dirt the defense teams can dig up on Wright. “None of those rumors have tainted Lorenzen’s image,” says Greer. “The city remembers who he really was.”
Whatever the trial’s outcome, Memphis finally seems close to solving one of the strangest mysteries in sports. Lorenzen Vern-Gagne Wright will continue to rest in peace, while Memphis eventually moves on. A Grizzlies rebuild could help bolster enthusiasm for Wright’s old team, but with Hardaway having recently been named the next head coach at the University of Memphis, smart money is on a Tigers revival. Another local hero called back to restore the city’s soul.
by Matt Foley, Reporter