- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- When she was around 5 years old, Monica Wright's parents, Garry and Lynette, decided to try her in ballet. She always had energy to burn, and she didn't lack for grace, skill or natural ability.
"We only went once," Lynette said. "She said, 'Mom, it makes my legs hurt, and I'm not going back.'"
The truth, the now grown-up Virginia basketball star says, was a bit different. It wasn't really that ballet was painful it was just painfully boring because it wasn't about competing.
So what was the point? Whom did you "beat" in ballet? Thus, Wright almost instantly decided she had no interest. If it wasn't something where you could try your heart out to win, it was pretty much a waste of time.
"I was definitely one of the more active children you'd find," said Wright, who was walking at 7 months old. "I had an older brother, almost 9 years older, and it was always about me trying to keep up with him. I'd try to ride my bike like him, skateboard like him, Rollerblade like him. I have all these scars from racing around trying to stay with him.
Gerard Wright went off to college at Texas A&M -- "I cried when he left," Monica said -- but little sis never stopped trying to catch up.
So you hear all that, and it makes perfect sense when Wright's coach at Virginia, Debbie Ryan, says, "Honestly, Monica is a player you don't have to motivate; she is intrinsically motivated. She's willing to do whatever we ask her. Play the point, play inside, it doesn't matter. She'll do it to the best of her ability and still outplay everybody else. She wants to be good at everything.
"The sky's the limit for her; she's so gifted athletically and so smart. But not afraid to admit that she doesn't know everything. She's a sponge in all areas of her life."
Wright and the Cavaliers, who are the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament, will start play Friday in Greensboro, N.C. Tournaments begin this week for four of the "big six" conferences: the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and SEC. The Big 12 and Pac-10 have their tournaments next week.
The Cavs, at 21-8, should be safely in the NCAA tournament field no matter what happens in the league tourney. But Wright's time is limited, and so Ryan will relish every last minute she has with her.
"Monnie is the real deal," Ryan said of Wright, who surpassed UVa legend Dawn Staley as the program's all-time leading scorer on Jan. 11. "She has an aura. And one of the best parts of her game is the one that people don't necessarily give her credit for, and that's her play off the ball.
"Defensively, that's where she picks up a lot of steals and deflections. She'll seem like she comes out of nowhere to be in the right place. She's really good at reading things so she can provide her teammates with help as well as stopping her own player. Sometimes for me, it's still amazing to see."
The 5-foot-11 Wright will see how far she can lead Virginia in the postseason, then wait to see where she will start her WNBA career. The Minnesota Lynx have the Nos. 2 and 3 picks, and Wright might go there with either selection.
Whichever team picks her will get a player already polished in several areas and bursting with still-developing potential. Wright is averaging 23.0 points this season, and one can expect she will become an even more proficient 3-point shooter (she's 29-of-93, 31.2 percent, this season). She has 117 turnovers, but a lot of that can be explained by the amount of time Wright is trying to make plays as the lone senior on a team composed mostly of freshmen and sophomores.
Those are about the only minor flaws to be found in a season in which Wright has been named both the ACC Player of the Year and top defender, plus made the all-conference first team. And she very likely will be an All-American.
But all the accolades don't really tell you what's so pleasing about seeing Monica Wright play. Watch her for even a little while, and you can guess why her parents might have once thought dance was a good fit for her. Wright moves on the basketball court the way Ginger Rogers used to move on the ballroom floor.
And, yes, that's a crazy-old reference, but it fits. Because there's something classy and refined about Wright, whether she's gliding around the court or traversing the UVa campus.
The distinguished history of the university appealed to her, along with its proximity to her home in Woodbridge, Va., about a two-hour drive away. Her parents haven't missed a game in Charlottesville.
Born in San Antonio, Wright is a child of a military family; her father is retired from the Air Force. The Wrights moved to Germany when she was 1, then settled in Virginia when she was 4.
"I kind of got the tail end of my parents traveling with the military, but I definitely did learn a lot about discipline and hard work," Wright said. "My dad always made sure I said, 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir.' And I always carried that with me in sports. My dad would be at games and would just give me this look like, 'Let's go; you need to be working harder than that.'
"And I would go all out all the time. Even when I the only one doing that. He just instilled in me, 'You shouldn't be out there if you're not sweating, giving it your all. And you need to stand up straight, and don't ever talk back to your coaches.'"
Her first sport was track, just like her brother's (surprise), and she swam and played soccer. But basketball emerged as her greatest love, and it also occurred to Wright at an early age that hoops would be a great way to help her family.
"I made it a goal of mine to make it easy on my parents for me to go to college," Wright said. "I thought, 'If I can make it in basketball, I can get a scholarship.' I wanted to get a full scholarship, and I thought basketball was the best way."
It should be pointed out that Wright wasn't even in high school yet when she figured this out. Her powers of observation always were sharp.
"When she was little, Monica didn't do a lot of talking," Lynette said. "She did a lot of observing. And when she did talk, it was in full sentences. Her kindergarten teacher told us Monica rushed through things to get done and then sit back, relax and watch everybody."
Wright is the opposite of a procrastinator; she still fights the urge to hurry through all tasks. Ryan, like every other coach Wright has had, pleads with her not to rush so much. Basketball is a game of speed, but there are times to change pace or be more deliberate.
"I had to realize how important it was to slow down," Wright said. "It was like in class, I always wanted to be done first and have it perfect. I mean completely done first. It was a problem because then I would disrupt everybody else. So my mom would say, 'When you're done, read a book, do some busy work.' And I'd say, 'No, I'm done with that, too.'"
Ryan said, "She's always been a player that plays with so much speed, and we had trouble getting her to understand how to put a bit of a hitch in her step, switch speeds, make your opponent not sure what you're going to do next. Learning to have that little change of pace has made her lethal."
The one thing Ryan really wishes she could slow down now is time, because Wright has so little of that left in her career at Virginia. But Ryan knows she'll enjoy watching Wright's pro career, and then she fully expects Wright to be a coach, general manager or athletic director one day.
What a journey, huh? The kid who grew up following her big brother turning into a great leader.
"She's taught herself how to do that," Ryan said. "She keeps a personality that is true to herself as she's leading. She is a good encourager, although she once struggled to be an enforcer. Now, she's learned how to do that and has picked her spots: 'When do I need to jump on somebody, when do I nurture, when do I encourage?'
"She developed her own leadership style, and in that she doesn't compare to anybody I've had here. I've asked our other players, even after just a few weeks here, 'Who do you think is a leader? It doesn't even have to be on our team, just in general.' And to a woman, they all said, 'Monica.' You ask why, and they said, 'Because she sets such a great example, she's always there for you, she reaches out to you, but she'll tell you if you're doing something wrong.'
"And I thought, 'Shoot, what more could you ask of a leader?'"
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
From the time she was a young girl trying to keep up with her big brother, Monica Wright has always looked to compete with others.