Saturday, May 25, 2024

Reece Wright: The Little Lions Who Became the Heart of Lions Basketball

By Jet Turner, Assistant Director of Communications

Langston University

Reece Wright looked at his mother and pointed to her nose, not noticing the tears welling up in her eyes.

“Nose!” he said. 

Ally Wright, Reece’s mother, could not help but smile. At just two years old, Reece already knows how to keep his parents grounded and focused on what is most important in life: their family.

Unaware that just minutes earlier Langston University’s Men’s Basketball team and his father, Head Coach Chris Wright, watched the NAIA Men’s National Championship slip through their fingers, Reece again pointed to Ally’s face.

“Ears!” he said, a smile creeping across his face. 

“Reece is just happy to be here,” Ally said. “He has no idea what’s going on or that we just lost, but that keeps us grounded and know that, yes losing and what’s going on in this moment is important, but this isn’t everything.”

That has been among Reece’s variety of roles all season, as he has been a source of stability, strength, encouragement and joy for all members of the team. 

But with all the support Reece has given this year, Reece needed his share of support too after a surprise diagnosis shocked the Wrights in basketball season.

During Reece’s regular 18-month checkup in May 2023, he failed his autism screening. This qualified him for a neuropsychic evaluation, but his evaluation could not happen until he was two years old. An appointment was scheduled for December 2023.

“At that time, we weren’t really concerned,” Ally said. “We knew at that point Reece was a little speech delayed… and that is what his pediatrician thought was the reason for his failed autism screening, and it wasn’t due to something else.”

In July, just two months after the Wrights were told there was nothing to worry about, Reece had a severe speech regression. He lost all the words and sign language he knew at that time. 

Ally and Chris called his pediatrician and were able to get Reece into private speech therapy. A follow-up appointment was made, and Reece was seen by his pediatrician again in August.

After having Reece’s hearing checked, the pediatrician reassured Chris and Ally that his regression was not related to autism, for autistic children usually also regress in motor skills, and Reece had no such regression.

Several months of private speech therapy passed and Reece began to not only relearn the words and sign language he lost, but also add more signs and words to his vocabulary. This progress continued through the beginning of basketball practice in October, and the season’s beginning in November.

At his 2-year-old appointment in December, Reece narrowly passed his autism screening test, but his pediatrician was becoming concerned about his mannerisms, with head shaking and arm flailing being new developments at the time.

The following day Reece had his neuropsychic evaluation. 

“It was pretty awful,” Ally said. “You’re in a very small room, and it’s just Chris, myself and Reece, who is only a day older than two, and this doctor for five hours. Reece was bouncing off the walls because you can only entertain a 2-year-old for so long, and Chris and I had to fill out a million questionnaires. We had to talk through our daily routine, what we love about Reece, what he struggles with, and more.”

It took four weeks for Reece’s results to come back. In the meantime, Reece was also evaluated for SoonerStart with the goal of getting Reece more speech therapy. SoonerStart is “Oklahoma’s early intervention program designed to meet the needs of families with infants or toddlers (ages birth to 3 years old) with developmental delays and/or disabilities in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),” according to 

SoonerStart’s autism screening is on a much smaller scale than the neuropsychic evaluation, and it additionally evaluates other items like fine motor skills and speech. 

Reece’s autism screening through SoonerStart came back with little to no concern, and with only a 10% delay in his speech.

“I think it gave Chris and I a false sense of relief where we thought everything was going to be fine,” Ally said. 

Finally, January 4, 2024, the day Langston University was slated to play its 12th game of the season against Mid-American Christian University (MACU), Chris and Ally went in to receive the results of Reece’s neuropsychic evaluation.

The doctor began meticulously going over the results page by page. ,

“I’m agreeing with some of what (the doctor) said but some of it I don’t think is as severe,” Ally said. “(Reece is) only two. He’s changing all the time.” 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is currently organized into three classifications, with ASD Level 1 being the least severe, and ASD Level 3 being the most severe.

Reece was diagnosed with ASD Level 2, meaning Reece would need substantial support. This came just days after receiving a screening with little to no concern for autism from SoonerStart.

“You just don’t give a damn about a basketball game in that moment,” Chris said. 

The Langston University Men’s Basketball staff knew what was going on, and Chris had to lean on them and trust his players more than at any other moment in his coaching career as they prepared for that afternoon’s game against MACU. 

When Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach Chris Vincent found out about Reece’s diagnosis, he was ready to give the Wrights the support they needed.

“(They are) not alone,” Vincent said. “We are all here, players, staff, everyone. And all of us on that day could feel that emotion. Being able to uplift (the Wrights) was really important.”

Langston University went on to beat MACU 79-60.

Senior Toru Dean said he was happy the team was able to come together and continue winning for Coach Chris Wright.

“I feel for Coach Wright,” Dean said. “We’re in the middle of the season talking about winning a national championship and something like this happens, you find out Reece has autism, and it’s a heartbreaker because Reece is a little brother to us. Mentally, we are going through the same thing as Reece. We are all on this bright stage to do it for Reece.”

In the locker room after a win, the men’s basketball team will lock arms in a circle and chant the names of everyone who participated during the game in a tradition they call “put ups,” including coaches, players on the bench and others. 

After the team’s win at MACU, Ally was not thinking about put ups until, suddenly, student assistant coach J.P. Walz came sprinting out of the locker room asking for Reece. 

Walz explained that the team refused to do put ups without Reece. Being one of the few people who Reece will allow to hold him, Ally handed Reece to Walz, and Walz sprinted down into the locker room. 

“I think there’s a lot of things about coaching college basketball that’s really difficult or maybe the average person just wouldn’t get,” Chris said. “But for me, the coolest part about being able to do this is we really get to do it as a family.”

Reece is a part of the team, and the team is a part of the Wright family.

For many players, if you are being recruited by Langston University, one of the first stops you make is at the Wrights’ home. Chris and his staff make it a point to not only recruit talented players, but players with a good heart as well. 

Once you are on the team you not only get used to seeing Ally and Reece around, you expect it.

Ally and Chris worked hard to ensure Reece was comfortable around the basketball team from an early age. Reece was introduced to his first team while the Wrights were still at Talladega College when he was just 10 days old. Reece attended his first game when he was only a month old.

“Reece’s relationship with the big boys (Reece’s word for the basketball players) is everything I dreamed it would be,” Ally said. “I love that he’s obsessed with them. It warms my heart. I just think it’s so important he gets to know them. I think that’s part of being a coaching family. Families that don’t get to bond with their players like that and don’t get to make that connection miss out on so much.

“It’s so much more than just basketball. You get to have bonds with these players that you would never get to have with other people, and to extend that past Chris and I and have Reece get to form these relationships now is really special.”

To Chris, Reece has become another member of his staff. On game day in C.F. Gayles Field House, Reece can be found on the Marques Haynes Court stretching with the big boys, passing the basketball back and forth, running sprints and much more. 

To the players, Reece is their motivation.

Senior Cortez Mosley said seeing Ally, Chris and Reece still giving the team their all after the adversity they faced this year encourages him to play his hardest.

“Reece is our little energy guy,” Mosley said. “I need my high five from Reece every game. Reece man, with all the stuff he’s been through and coach and Ally, he just enlightens us. When I see Reece, I’m motivated to play good.”

And Reece, undoubtedly, loves his big boys.

During the NAIA Men’s Basketball National Championship Tournament in Kansas City, Langston University’s team, including coaches and their families, shared a hotel floor. Once Reece realized all the players were staying around him, he wanted to spend all his time with them.

Reece, with toys in hand, would pace up and down the hotel hallway waiting for one of the players to leave their room so they could play with him. The players would help Reece put his puzzles together or play with his trucks. When they would leave, Reece would wait for the next one.

“Reece’s interactions with the players are great for him,” Chris said. “But I also think it’s really good for our guys. When you’re in such a high intense environment, like the national tournament, there’s so much adrenaline and the magnitude of each game is so big it really weighs heavily on you. Having Reece there hopefully makes them a little less stressed and helps them take a step back from their stress.”  

Langston University Men’s basketball team ended its season 35-2, winning the Sooner Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championships for the second straight year, capping off the season with a trip to the national championship game. 

Even though the Lions lost the national championship in heartbreaking fashion, losing to Freed-Hardeman University 71-67, their team family is closer than ever. Reece is not just the glue that holds them together, he is the person that makes them special.

“I think Reece brings a lot of joy and positivity to our team,” Chris said. “We are a family, and he is an example of that. Reece is the most important thing in our life, and we trust them with him. I think that’s part of showing the team that you are part of our family, and we are going to treat you as such.

“It just solidifies the fact that our program is family.”

Pull Quotes and Additional Information:

ASD Level 1 is currently the lowest classification level, with individuals on this level requiring some support with issues such as inhibited social interaction and lack of organization and planning skills.

ASD Level 2 is where individuals require substantial support and have problems that are more readily obvious to others. These issues may be trouble with verbal communication, having very restricted interests, and exhibiting frequent, repetitive behaviors.

ASD Level 3, the most severe end of the spectrum, requires substantial support. Signs associated with Level 1 and Level 2 are still present but are far more severe and accompanied by other complications. Individuals at this level will have limited ability to communicate and interact socially with others.

“I love that kid man. He’s just high fiving everyone and bringing that good spirit without him even knowing it.” – Toru Dean, Senior

“Not everyone has their mom here. So Ally is really our mom… and if we need our mom she is always there, whether it’s good, bad or whatever the case may be. She’s always there.” – G’Quavious Lennox, Senior

“I have my own dad, but coach (Wright) plays that role. And that’s how he came toward me. It was more than just basketball. He always wanted me to get my degree and graduate. I can’t wait to get it done at Langston. That’s why I’ve been with Coach Wright for so long, it’s more than just basketball.” – Paul Turner, Senior

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