By Noah Perkins
Keith Wright stands 6 feet 8 inches tall, is approximately the weight of a large washing machine and makes his living exchanging elbows with men of similar proportions, in the pursuit of stuffing a ball through a carbon-steel hoop.
On paper, the Westchester Knicks power forward doesn’t make the stereotypical marriage counselor or psychoanalyst. But, away from the basketball court, Wright has the same enthusiasm for a future career in psychology as he does for snagging errant jump shots.
“I love going out to a park or a coffee shop and people watching,” Wright, 31, said. “I love people; I love figuring out what makes them tick and do the things that they do. It’s just who I am.”
For Wright, a 2012 Harvard graduate with a concentration in psychology, the last eight years of minor league basketball and pro hoops abroad have been invaluable in preparing him for what he hopes is a career in conflict resolution, interpersonal dynamics, mental health and wellness.
“The G League grind can be tough,” Wright said. “It impacts your mental health when [NBA] teams are sending guys down. That impacts minutes and rhythm. Guys are trying to make it [to the NBA] and you start seeing players exhibit cancerous behaviors, where they are talking behind coaches backs and slacking off.”
It isn’t just the up-and-down nature of the G League that creates emotional turbulence. The pay, travel and accommodations can all be draining.
“When I first signed in the G League [in 2014 with the Austin Spurs], my contract for the full season was $13,000 before taxes,” Wright recalled. “We practiced at a rec center and our locker room was a storage closet. The mental health level around the league was low.”
Six years later, the grind remains the same, but the league has made strides in creating a healthier environment for its players.
“The money and the amenities have gotten better,” Wright said. “I’ve noticed a huge change with the per diem you get. Now, everyone is making $35,000. When I got traded to Westchester [in 2016,] we are in the same facility as the Knicks using the New York Liberty stuff. We have a hot tub, cold tub, steam room. Meals are prepared for you after practices, they box food up, so you can take stuff home and save money.”
As difficult as the G League can be, playing abroad is often harder.
“It’s even worse for guys overseas,” Wright said. “G League guys have it easier because they are home, they can speak their own language, they have teammates they can talk to.”
Soft-spoken and affable, for teammates, Wright is part inside-out big man, part Carl Jung.
“He’s always uplifting,” said Kyle Casey, a teammate of Wright’s at Harvard. “His spirit resonates. He was always singing and dancing, giving out bear hugs.”
“People tend to gravitate towards me when it comes to avoiding confrontation and dealing with difficult situations,” Wright said. “When I get text messages saying ‘We should get lunch this week,’ I know what it means.”
Wright cited his place as a relative outsider as why he is so good at drawing people in and getting them to open up. His parents separated when he was young, he went to four different high schools, and even now, as an Ivy League graduate in the jagged world of pro basketball, he is an outlier.
“Teams are always saying to my agent ‘Why is he even playing basketball when he graduated from Harvard? Is he going to be motivated? He won’t work hard; he doesn’t need basketball.’” Wright said. “I am constantly battling that.”
Of course, living as a large Black man in a culture full of preconceived ideas of what that means has played a significant role in shaping how he interacts with people.
“Growing up, I was always looking for ways to appear less threatening, because I am how I am,” Wright said. “Through a lot of self-reflection, I think ‘Am I this way because I disarm myself or is it because it’s really me?’ I am soft spoken. I smile a lot. I wear a lot of Harvard clothing. If I am wearing something else, I feel like people are more inclined to stereotype and prejudice and make assumptions about me because I am tall and Black.”
Out of work for the past eight months, Wright was under contract with Westchester, when the pandemic shuttered the G League season in March.
“I’m trying to find a contract overseas right now,” Wright said. “That’s been a headache. Not playing, financially has been really tough.”
On the possibility of contracting COVID-19 through playing a contact sport, Wright said, “It is a necessary risk. I need to make a living.”
For Wright, mindfulness, meditation and spending time with his wife and mother in Atlanta have been helpful for him in navigating this new normal. The Westchester Knicks training staff has also provided support.
“For the first three months they were checking on us daily,” Wright said.
The silver lining of being out of work has been Wright spending more time working toward his goal of becoming a counselor or therapist. He has been studying for the GRE and has taken steps toward a life coach certification. He’s even been in contact with a private practice therapist in Atlanta who may offer him a job after he completes his training.
“At the end of the day it’s what are you doing to impact the world in a positive way?” Wright said. “There is still a stigma about therapy. I envision a world where we are able to talk about our feelings. There is no right or wrong way to feel about anything. No one should be able to tell you that you are wrong for being sad. Why are you sad? I think we need to continue to move towards a more empathetic place.”