Seven-year-old Mikey Wright quickly worked his way down the stands to Golden State’s tunnel, following the Warriors’ final preseason game last Friday night.
It was the first time he’d been able to see his brother, Marquese Chriss, play for his favorite team. Their mother, Shawntae Wright, had been to both preseason home games, and he’d begged her to take him.
As Chriss came off the floor, Mikey pulled back, self-conscious of the cameras. The 6-foot-10 Chriss reached into the stands, lifted Mikey up and hugged him tightly, before heading back into the locker room.
After a summer of uncertainty, Chriss earned an unlikely roster spot with Golden State out of training camp last week. Having played for three different NBA teams in his first three years and being pushed to the fringes of the NBA, he’s back in Northern California near his brother, who’s helped center him during his professional struggles.
“It’s different having somebody actually, physically be there,” Chriss said on Tuesday.
Chriss’ biological father isn’t in the picture. Shawntae had been married to Michael Wright for nine years by the time she got pregnant with Mikey. Chriss and Shawntae were in the parking lot of a local Ross when she began feeling pains in her belly. Chriss, then 14, suggested she may be in labor. She had Mikey that night. Mikey turned eight on Tuesday, and for half of his life, he and his big brother been separated by at times thousands of miles.
In between twice-yearly visits out to wherever Chriss was playing, the brothers often stayed connected by playing video games together on PlayStation Live. Chriss called Mikey frequently, inquiring about everything from school to sports to clothes to friendships. If Mikey was having trouble with kids on the playground, he called Chriss.
“That’s my little brother, so there’s not really anything that I think that can separate us,” Chriss said. “Time and space is kind of relative, you know?”
Whenever Chriss made it home to Sacramento during the last three years, he and Mikey would swim, boogie board and play one-on-one. They built complicated Lego sets together and played NBA2K. If school was in session, Chriss would drive there to pick him up.
“If he wants to be super book smart and go start a company, I’ll support him with that,” said Chriss, who at one point wanted to major in engineering at Washington. “If he wants to try to be the greatest of all time [in a sport], I’m gonna just be there to support him. I would never, never be the person to try to force my ambitions and my things that I want to accomplish in my life on him.”
Drafted eighth overall in 2016 by the Sacramento Kings (who traded his rights to the Phoenix Suns), Chriss was named to the NBA All-Rookie team. When he returned home early that offseason, he surprised Mikey by picking him up at school and taking him to his baseball game at a nearby park.
“He just likes seeing me pick him up from school because I think it validates what he tells his friends,” Chris said, smiling.
Having just bought a new Nikon D-7200, Chriss played sports photographer and took pictures of Mikey for the first few innings until his mother and step-father arrived. He then sat in the bleachers and watched like a regular, proud big brother.
Then, three games into Chriss’s second year with the Suns, head coach Earl Watson was fired. Phoenix traded its leading scorer and point guard Eric Bledsoe and foisted the blame for persistent, organizational disarray on a frustrated, 20-year-old Chriss, who averaged just 7.7 points in 21.2 minutes per night and was suspended for a game for allegedly arguing with a coach. Tabbed with the worst labels in the NBA — willful, stubborn and uncoachable — and even called a team cancer, Chriss was traded to the Houston Rockets in August of 2018.
When his family made trips to visit him in Houston, he played one-on-one with Mikey on a half court at his apartment complex.
On one of those visits, Mikey was getting frustrated as they played to 50. For the first time, Chriss let him win. Mikey ran up to the apartment and bragged to Wright.
“I don’t want him to be one of those dudes that pouts when they lose, or when things aren’t going their way, so I don’t go easy on him [anymore],” Chriss said.
After 16 games with Houston, Chriss asked for a trade and landed in Cleveland, where he started just two of 27 games and got into an on-court fight with Toronto center Serge Ibaka. Late in the season, Wright came downstairs one Saturday morning to see Mikey on his PlayStation, playing Apex Legends against Chriss and teammate Larry Nance Jr.
When the season ended, Chriss returned to his offseason home in Seattle, disappointed. His reputation as a malcontent followed him into free agency, and he received no guaranteed offers.
His mother sent Chriss inspirational videos and scriptures daily, and when he came to Sacramento for weeklong visits, he spent more time with Mikey.
“I want to be somebody that he can look up to and mold himself to be,” Chriss said. “I don’t ever want to be somebody that he doesn’t want to be like.”
Chriss has asked Mikey who his favorite basketball player is. Mikey told him it was Stephen Curry, but he’s told Wright otherwise. “It’s Marquese,” Wright said.
Instead of taking any one of several two-way deals, Chriss accepted a training camp invite from the Warriors. They couldn’t offer a roster spot — they were hard-capped, and couldn’t add a 15th man — but they offered him a chance to rehabilitate his image.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr — who came up under Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich — encourages players to be themselves, to make mistakes and feel safe doing so. It’s not dissimilar to how Wright — a high school counselor — raised both Chriss and Mikey.
“She makes us explain how we feel and explain what’s wrong with us,” Chriss said. “That’s why I feel like the biggest thing for me was just to self-evaluate. That’s just something, for me, that I had to do — just to reevaluate what type of person I wanted to be, and what type of situation I wanted to be in.”
With the Warriors’ frontcourt decimated by injuries, Chriss wound up starting four of Golden State’s five preseason games. Kerr repeatedly said Chriss was the surprise of camp, and praised him for his coachability, intelligence, passing and attention to detail.
Less than an hour after the final buzzer on Friday, after Shawntae and Mikey had left, wearing matching black shirts that said “We (heart) Chriss,” Chriss headed into the Warriors’ weight room to work out. Chriss said goodbye and thank you to the staff, and then general manager Bob Myers set down his foam roller, and looked up at him.
“Congratulations,” Myers said. “You’re on the team.”
Golden State had found a way to add him to the roster, waiving Alfonzo McKinnie’s non-guaranteed deal. Chriss immediately called Wright, who was driving home to Sacramento with Mikey asleep in the back seat. “Joy,” Wright said of her reaction. “Pure joy.”
Sitting in Golden State’s practice gym on Tuesday, Chriss smiled at the fact that it takes just two hours to get from the facility to Sacramento, meaning that, during homestands, he can leave straight from late-morning practice and arrive in time to pick Mikey up from school. It also means Mikey gets to see his favorite player in person a lot more often.
“It’s been tough,” Chriss said. “He gets to watch on TV and things like that, but I think it’ll be different, him being able to actually be there and see me in person.”
When the news had finally sunk in on Sunday, Wright and Mikey danced around their home to the gospel song “Never Would Have Made It.”
They will both be at the opener against the Clippers on Thursday, even though it’s a school night.
GOLDEN STATE OPENER
When: Thurs., Oct. 24, 2019 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Chase Center, San Francisco, Calif.
Radio: 95.7 FM The Game
Golden State opens its new $1.4 billion arena against a Los Angeles team that took them to six games in a tense first-round playoff series last season, en route to the Warriors’ fifth trip to the NBA Finals in five years. Since then, the Clippers have added All-Star and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George to a strong core, though George is injured and will not play. Golden State has nine newcomers, including eight who are 23 or younger, while half of their championship core —Kevin Durant, Andre Igudoala and Shaun Livingston — is gone, and Klay Thompson is out for much — if not all — of the year following ACL reconstruction.