Tanisha Wright? Okay… you're not exactly objective. That was my reaction to Roi Izenberg's answer in our preseason MVP poll. He coached Wright in Hapoel Tel Aviv last season and was the only one who predicted this. Amber Hall, Chasity Melvin, Deanna Nolan, Plenette Pierson, those are the names that come to mind when someone says "MVP". Tanisha Wright? That 24 year old kid on Raanana Hertzeliya? Yes, she's our MVP. Hype is overrated.
Tanisha Wright signed with Hapoel Tel Aviv in the summer of 2006, before the newly crowned champs even knew which gym they're going to call home. The team fell apart as the season progressed for reasons we won't get into now, but Wright stayed and did her job. When she signed with Raanana Hertzliya this offseason, the news weren't big front-page material. "Am I surprised? You know what to be honest, I thought I had a decent year last year. Not trying to be… boasting or anything like that but I thought I had a decent year. It's just the fact that my name's not as huge as some of the other names that come through here, and well playing for Hapoel, when your team's not successful it's hard for people to notice you", said Wright, "this year my team is very successful so it's a lot easier to notice". Wright, who's only in her 2nd season outside of the states, wasn't worried about coming back to Israel after her first year. "It wasn’t that good of an experience basketball wise but personally, the friends that I made, it was enough for me to come back. I had a good time, I made some good friends so it made my life a lot easier when I came back this year".
So what do you really know about Tanisha Wright? That every time she steps on the court she gets 20 points at least, that she leads the league in assists, that if she could have controlled her temper a bit better in that notorious game, Ramla would not be the Cup holder right now. "I told Tanisha during the season that I had the privilege to play with two foreigners who other than being great players, had an amazing personality. On the court, in practice, they come and work, make you want it more and make you be better. The first one in Chasity Melvin and the second is her, Tanisha", said Raanana Hertzeliya's captain, Ornit Shwartz. "She's a player that can really do it all on the court, play any position, and she understands the game at the highest level", Shawrtz continued. "She helps me personally a lot, how to do things on the court, small things that other people wouldn't think of", she added.
For most of her career at Penn State University, Wright was known as a defensive stopper and not much more. She won an unprecedented 3 Big 10 Defensive Player of The Year awards, in her last 3 seasons. In her junior year she became a force offensively as well, and after the Lady Lion's star Kelly Mazzante graduated, Wright led the Big 10 in scoring as a senior with 19.3 points per game. She then became the first PSU player to be drafted in the 1st round of the WNBA draft. When she got to training camp in Seattle, Wright was told she needed to become more than a one dimensional player, who can only drive the lane. "Good defensive player, needs to be more consistent on her jumper, I don't know that's probably what it would say then", said Wright when asked what her scouting report must've looked like coming out of college. "And you could say the same thing today", she added and she was being serious. So what if she's shooting 46.7% from downtown this season? You try to get her to talk about herself.
All of Wright's numbers improved compared to last season. She's 5th in the league in scoring, 1st in assists, 2nd in steals and 5th in efficiency - 1st among the guards. All she cares about though is the fact she's leading the league in one more category, turnovers, and the fact she's averaging 1.3 assist per turnover is no consolation. "The ball's in my hands most of the time, whether I'm the point guard or not, the ball's in my hands a lot so with that comes more assists and more turnovers," she said. "It's a lot easier when you have a real point guard like Neda out there with you, it’s much easier to be the 2 and run a couple plays every now and then".
Wright, the 2nd oldest out of 10 siblings with the youngest being just 4 years old, majored in elementary education with a minor in sociology in college. She spent her first WNBA off-season at school completing her degree and teaching 3rd graders. "Yes I went for education, I love it. I don’t necessarily want to be in a classroom but I want to open my own day care eventually. When I'm done playing basketball in a couple of years that will be something that I'll look at for sure", she said. "The little kids are fun, they just keep you very relaxed and just like, high, if that makes sense. You're not stressed or worried with the kids, I like being around them and they're funny, some of the things that they do and the things that they say, it's just really funny", she laughed.
Wright says she grew up playing basketball, started playing organized ball in the 6th grade but didn’t think about making it a career until much later. "I used to not watch basketball, I used to play a lot but I didn't watch it when I was younger. I never watched the NCAAs, not until I got to college. Once I got to college and it was more real for me because we were in the NCAAs, then I paid more attention to it but before that it wasn’t that big of a deal to me", she said.
So even though Wright wasn't looking for it, success seems to have followed her everywhere she went. Her jersey is hanging from the rafters at her high school in Pittsburgh, she re-wrote the record books at Penn State, made it to the WNBA and now she's joining a long and honorable list of Israeli league MVPs. "It doesn’t come natural, no. Everywhere I went I had to work, I'm telling you, it doesn't just show up. When I got to college it didn’t just show up my first year, I worked and worked and worked and finally I got myself in a position where I was able to help a basketball team. Even in high school, same thing. In the WNBA right now I'm still at the point where I'm trying to work and get myself in a position where I can help a basketball club", she said. By the choice of words she used here, it's pretty clear what her secret is.
Right now she's a big help to her current basketball team, Raanana Hertzelia, but can they go all the way? That's what everyone wants to know. "A lot of people didn’t expect that, a lot of y'all [media] didn’t expect that, even through out the season everybody was giving us hell" Wright said with an "I told you so" grin. "I would hope that we're for real, we have a very good mixture of foreigners and Israelis, we all mesh really well together and I think that's really the key to our success. All our personalities basketball-wise fit really well. We didn’t make any changes and we're all comfortable with one another, and each other's games. The last couple of weeks we haven’t been playing like that but hopefully now that its playoff time and real-serious-championship-talk time, we'll get back to our form in the beginning", she said.
It has been six years since Raanana Hertzeliya made the playoffs, and the club has never won a championship. It's usually either Ramla or Ramat Hasharon that end up celebrating. "So maybe this year, you should want something different, parity is good to have", said Wright. "Raanana will be a place that people would want to come to, and it will create different rivalries. I think us beating Ramla and Ramat Hasharon this year has been good for the league, it adds interest" she said. Now imagine what a championship would do.
Photo: Motti Klinger