Tyronn Lue's advice keeps Ish Wainright pushing to stay in the NBA

Six years before their first-round meeting in this month’s Clippers-Suns playoff series, Tyronn Lue was giving Ish Wainright an earful.

“Ty,” Wainright said, “cussed me out.”

It was the summer of 2017. Wainright, then a basketball player at Baylor, had called Lue, then the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, to ask whether the Cavaliers’ Summer League roster had an opening for a 6-foot-5, 250-pound wing like himself. Lue worked to make it happen.

Within days, Wainright called Lue back.

“And he said, ‘I’m gonna go play football,’” Lue recalled.

Cue the curse-out.

“He was mad,” Wainright said. “He said, ‘Bro, what the!”

With a baby daughter, Wainright knew his NBA prospects were slim, but he’d been invited to play tight end at Baylor, and grabbing the attention of the NFL seemed like a gamble worth trying. Within a year he would make a rookie minicamp with the Buffalo Bills, playing briefly alongside future All-Pro quarterback Josh Allen.

So there was a practical reason for Wainright’s change of plans. There was also a strong reason why he’d called Lue, 17 years his senior, in the first place.

“He’s like a big brother,” Wainright, now 28, told The Los Angeles Times.

Suns forward Ish Wainright flashes three fingers are making a long-distance shot.

Suns forward Ish Wainright reacts after scoring against the Pacers during a game in February.

(Doug McSchooler / Associated Press)

Echoed Lue: “He’s a little brother.”

The first-round postseason matchup between Phoenix and the Clippers, led by the Suns 3-1 entering Tuesday’s potential elimination contest, is a seven-game series doubling as a reunion. Suns guard Chris Paul against his former team. Russell Westbrook against former Oklahoma City teammate Kevin Durant. Suns coach Monty Williams and Nicolas Batum, 15 years after their mentorship began in Portland. It is also a repeat of the 2021 conference final.

Lesser known is the connection between Wainright, who is in his second season as a Suns wing, and the Clippers’ coach. It was sparked 15 years ago through a mutual friend and history, with both playing high school basketball in Raytown, Mo. Lue endured in the NBA for 11 years as an undersized guard through guile and sheer confidence, an example Wainright said helped maintain his own confidence that he could do the same as he switched back to basketball and found his way onto an NBA roster by taking a path less traveled.

“He encourages me because I know it’s possible,” Wainright said. “I know things are not going to go the way that I wanted and I’m going to be patient. He was patient and that’s what I look up to. What’s mine is mine. God said that what’s yours is yours, so that’s how I live. What’s mine is mine and he showed me a way — Ty did it, why can’t I do it?

“I’m not going to say I’m going to be an 11-year pro-slash-future Hall of Fame coach but I’m going to do whatever I got to do to stay in this league and make my way through all the tough times.”

In the mid-1990s, Lue moved from his tiny hometown of Mexico, Mo., to attend high school in Raytown, a small community southeast of Kansas City’s downtown. He quickly became a star for the Bluejays, and watching his every crossover was Earl Watson, a point guard from Kansas City who was two years younger.

Watson and Lue eventually played on the same travel team, the Kansas City 76ers, and remained friends. Lue went to Nebraska, Watson to UCLA, and both began long playing and coaching careers in the NBA. Lue feels a responsibility to keep tabs on promising players coming out of Missouri, and Watson feels the same, even sponsoring travel teams to provide prospects exposure.

It was through one of those teams, which Watson also dubbed the 76ers in homage to his former squad, that he first met a middle school-aged Wainright.

Watson brought the 76ers to play pickup games in Las Vegas and UCLA, throwing teens not yet old enough to hold a driving permit into summer runs featuring professionals such as Ryan Hollins, and retired All-Stars such as Mark Jackson. That’s where Lue saw Wainright the first time. Standing nearly 6-5 and a “freak of nature” athlete, as Lue said, Wainright more than held his own.

Watson, Lue and Wainright all recalled one game stopping when one of the veterans — Watson thinks it was Bryon Russell, a 13-year pro — posed a question to the dunking Wainright: How old are you, exactly?

“I’m only 13,” Wainright recalled.

“He was big as hell,” Lue said. “He was still pretty much the same height in eighth grade and he was just dominating. It wasn’t even close.”

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue stands along the sideline with his arms folded as he watches his team play a game in New York.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has had many choice words for Ish Wainright over the last 15 words, mostly of the motivational variety.

(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

While others were watching Wainright, he was watching Watson and Lue as they jumped into games.

“We have a competitive edge,” Wainright said. “[Lue] knows, because I got it from them. They taught me to be competitive even more.”

Wainright’s crossover to football was just a yearlong dalliance sparked by practicality. By returning to basketball, he extended a family connection that has lasted multiple generations.

While playing for famed Kansas coach Phog Allen, Wainright’s grandfather, Maurice King, became the school’s first Black starter in 1954. Two years later King was joined by another: Wilt Chamberlain, who was not only King’s teammate but fraternity brother. King, who played one game for Boston during the Celtics’ 1960 championship season, died in 2007. Wainright’s father, Calvin, also grew up playing in the Kansas City area, sometimes in summer games with Larry Drew, a K.C. product and current Clippers assistant. Calvin Wainright eventually became a youth coach so influential in the area that his death in October spurred news reports and outpourings in the city.

“The Wainrights are big-time in Kansas City,” Lue said.

Ish said he didn’t know all of his father’s basketball exploits. They are the father-son conversations he wishes he could still have.

But, “he was cold,” Wainright said of his father. “He was a shooter.”

Cut by the Bills and hearing no interest from other NFL teams, Wainright returned to basketball at a lower-division team in the German league, then played the 2020-21 season in Strasbourg, France. In 2021, he received an invite to Toronto’s Summer League team and training camp roster.

Cut by the Raptors before the regular season began, Wainright quickly signed a two-way contract with Phoenix. That November, at age 27, he made his NBA debut.

“I’m just happy for him,” Lue said.

Wainright appeared in 45 games as a rookie, then saw his minutes nearly triple this season in 60 appearances. Playing off the bench, he appeared in the first two games of the first-round series against the Clippers. The overlap between Lue and Wainright struck Watson as having the potential to resonate with young Kansas City kids now looking up to them.

“Seeing Ish there playing against T-Lue and different generations of Kansas City basketball with Larry Drew on the bench, it’s up for Ish to pass the torch now,” Watson said. “Ish understands the responsibility we have in our community.”

The Suns hold a team option for Wainright’s contract next season, making his NBA future anything but guaranteed. Yet he is undeterred. A key reason why is a message he heard from Lue — one he delivered with fewer curses, yet just as much conviction.

“He’s like, ‘You deserve to be in this league, it took a little time but you’re here and you’re going to stay for a long period of time,’” Wainright said of advice from Lue that has stuck with him. “So that’s what clicks in my head every day I wake up and that’s one thing I think. I was made for this league. I’m going to be here for a long time.”

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.