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Area's winningest basketball coach, Dan Wright, to leave Lakewood High after 35 years

ST. PETERSBURG

It is 2 p.m., and the first trickle of Lakewood High School boys basketball players walk into Dan Wright Gymnasium. • The sharp blast of a whistle signals that practice is about to start, and players crisply jog to the center of the court. Dan Wright, at age 58 the winningest coach in Pinellas County history, walks in their midst, clipboard in hand, standing before his black-and-gold-clad troops to begin the latest of his who-knows-how-many-thousandth practice.

Wright is scheduled to retire as coach at the end of this season, his 35th. Everything about this farewell season has a sharp ring of history.

Yesterday's practice, today's game, every shot, every steal, every rebound reflects the incalculable depth of a man who coached his first game at Lakewood the year America celebrated its bicentennial.

As he prepares for the final few weeks on the job, Wright is surrounded by his legacy.

There are the Pinellas County record 682 basketball victories, the state championships in 2002 and '05, and the awards and accolades that come with being the most successful basketball coach in bay area history.

Yet milestones seem irrelevant to the purity of his purpose. He wanted to do for Lakewood what others have done for him.

"The goal was originally to become a professional basketball player," Wright said. "When that didn't work out, I wanted to become a coach. And coaching is always about giving back."

• • •

Wright grew up on a northern Florida farm before moving to St. Petersburg when he was 5. He was part of a working-class family. His father, Dan, was a carpenter. His mother, Cinderella, was a homemaker.

Wright played baseball and football. Basketball, though, was his favorite.

He was good at it, too.

Wright played for legendary coach Freddie Dyles at Gibbs High from 1969 to 1972. A steady ball handler and tenacious defender, Wright became an All-American under Dyles' tutelage.

Wright admired Dyles' coaching style and the man himself, dedicated and firm, yet always a gentleman.

In 1972, when Wright's mother died, Dyles drove him to Valdosta, Ga., for the funeral. Wright stayed with the coach for two weeks after that.

"Coach Dyles was a great man, and I like to think he did that out of the kindness of his heart," Wright said of Dyles, who died in 1999.

Wright originally signed to play football for Florida A&M before deciding on basketball, which he played at Martin (Tenn.) College and Florida Southern.

After college, Wright was tempted to find work as a salesman. But he couldn't give up basketball. He became a teacher and took over a struggling Lakewood program in 1976.

The Spartans had gone 1-23 the previous season with their only win coming via forfeit.

Wright's brand of up-tempo basketball transformed Lakewood. His teams press and trap and run up and down the court.

"I tried to emulate Coach Dyles in a lot of ways," Wright said. "I wanted to play an exciting brand of basketball because you get more kids involved in the program and it helped fit the style of athlete we had at the school."

He had chances to leave for other schools but decided to stay. By doing so, he became an institution.

Wright has outlasted five presidents, and his tenure put Lakewood on the basketball map as a state — and national — power.

He is tied with Dyles and former Dixie Hollins coach Roy King for the most state titles won by a county coach, and he coached in and won more games than anyone else in the area.

Wright has coached All-Americans and sent dozens of players to college. He has a talent for finding diamonds in the rough, players with intangibles, who relish fighting through life's picks and screens.

• • •

More than 50 students try out for the basketball team each season. Some of those who play for Wright feel a pull to return to their alma mater and help coach.

Chris Blackwell is one of those players. He played for Wright from 1982 to 1984 and was an assistant with the Spartans from 1991 to 2002.

"Just watching him coach you wanted to emulate everything he did," said Blackwell, now the head coach at St. Petersburg High. "He was always fair and raised the bar and wanted you to compete. He's just a good role model and made you want to reach the highest level in anything you did."

Even coaches who haven't been part of the Lakewood program seek his advice.

Boca Ciega girls basketball coach Will White, who has led his team to the state final four the past three seasons, decided to do a research paper on Wright when he took a Sports and American History class as a graduate student at the University of South Florida.

"Dan Wright is an icon as far as a coach," White said. "Plus, to be honest, it gave me a chance to sit down and spend some time with a legend."

Wright, who is in the school system's Deferred Retirement Option Program, decided in June that this would be his last season.

It has been a memorable one. On Dec. 14, he passed his mentor, Dyles (674 wins), as the county's all-time winningest boys basketball coach and had the gymnasium where he has stalked the sidelines for so many seasons named after him.

This month, he was inducted into Gibbs' first Hall of Fame class, along with 19 others, including Dyles.

Soon the games will end. District tournaments start this week. A retirement party is planned for April 20.

Wright said that even though he will retire, he will not be far away.

"I don't know if I'll stay involved with basketball," Wright said. "I'll have to see how things go once I leave. But I'll still help out in other areas. I know I'll do some volunteering in the community. I still want to give back."

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Dan Wright

Age: 58

Alma maters: Gibbs High, Florida Southern

Family: Wife, Mona (married 32 years), and sons Dan and Edward

Career highlights: Was a two-time All-American at Gibbs … One of the team's leading scorers as a junior and senior at Florida Southern … Had four 20-win seasons his first eight years at Lakewood; in 35 seasons, he has won 14 district titles and been to the state tournament eight times and is 34-16 in the playoffs the past 13 seasons … Three of his former players — Chris Blackwell (St. Petersburg), Louis Rowe (Dixie Hollins) and Anthony Lawrence (Admiral Farragut) — have been head coaches of programs in the county in the past five seasons.

Area's winningest basketball coach, Dan Wright, to leave Lakewood High after 35 years 01/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 3:31am]

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