Feb. 1, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- He's in the scorebook for only three points, but Fred Wright-Jones is one of the most accomplished student-athletes on the University of Michigan men's basketball team.
Wright-Jones, who wants to be a doctor, competed for and was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholars scholarship that covers not only his undergraduate education but seven possible avenues in graduate degree programs. He was encouraged to pursue the prestigious scholarship by Detroit East English Village Prep counselor Gwendolyn Mia, who also happens to be the mother of his good friend and Wolverine football fullback Khalid Hill.
Still, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound point guard never figured to get on the court for a game here. He had a chance to play at Wayne State and a few other Division II schools but was happy just being part of the Michigan program as a student manager.
Then, late last season, when Wolverines guards Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht were injured and reserve players moved into starting roles, Coach John Beilein had tryouts for guards needed as scout team practice players.
Guess who made the team and got handed a uniform?
It was the three-time team captain from East English Village who averaged 10 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals as a senior while being named the Bulldogs' defensive player of the year.
"When Coach Beilein called me into his office and asked if I officially wanted to be on the team, I was like, 'Yeah!' "
His face absolutely lit up while re-telling the story.
Wright-Jones has played in 11 games this season and sank a three-point shot against Maryland Eastern Shore.
How does he describe his wonderful and unlikely journey?
"It still isn't real to me, honestly," Wright-Jones said. "I didn't think it was a possibility to become a real player on the team here. I just wanted to be a manager to be around the game because I love basketball that much. I decided that a Michigan degree was worth more than going to college and playing basketball elsewhere."
Beilein said, "One of the best things was that he was just willing to come here and be a manager. We tried out some of our managers, and he really played well. What you can't get enough of on your scout team is a guy who can guard people and really play defense. He's great in his role."
Wright-Jones relishes his primary role -- that of portraying opponents' point guards in practice -- but occasionally gets playing time.
"And now," said Beilein, "when I see him getting into a game for us, he's just a wonderful young man to coach, and he's so bright as well. So, it's been a lot of fun having him around the team. The team loves him. He's become very close with (Kentucky transfer) Charles Matthews, and Fred has really helped him through his first year here. He'll help Charles through his next three years, too."
Wright-Jones recalled the three-pointer that's been his personal highlight.
"That was definitely it for me," he said. "When I shot it, I just wanted to make sure I hit the rim. When it went in, I tried to harness my emotions, but I was going crazy on the inside.
"It came off an out-of-bounds play. Xavier Simpson drove to the middle, and I was to the left of the top of the key when I got the ball. I knocked it down. That was pretty cool."
The basketball part has been a thrill, but the academics are the key to his future, just as his parents, Jennifer and Fred Jones Jr., told him.
"My family always emphasized education first," he said. "I had to do my homework before going to practice. They said, 'Get an education because nobody can take that from you.'
"Going to college and seeing the smile on everybody in my family's face is priceless."
Receiving the scholarship funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is paying his way as the first member of his family to attend college.
According to the scholarship's web site, www.gmsp.org, the program was created in 1999 to educate "potential leaders drawn from groups that have traditionally and historically been denied access to higher education" to "help build a stronger society" by supporting African-American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander-American and Hispanic-American students.
Wright-Jones also displayed leadership as a two-time president of his school's chapter of the National Honor Society, which recognizes "high-achieving scholars with a drive to succeed" in every way.
"I wanted to leave my mark on my school both athletically and academically," he said, "and I try to help others, too."
He made a friend at East English Village in Hill, the touchdown-making Michigan fullback, and his mother.
"His mom was my counselor," said Wright-Jones. "I saw her at a home (football) game here and she was excited. Khalid has a great personality and is a fun dude. His mom still stays I touch with me.
"I was very close to her because she also oversaw the National Honor Society. She mentioned the scholarship to me, and I thought I was going to get an academic scholarship somewhere because of my grades and things. But she told me to apply just in case to make sure everything was paid for.
"It's kind of funny that it ended up being the only scholarship I applied for and put all my marbles on that. I had to write nine essays and have two recommendations from people who also had to write essays with my application."
That got him to the next level in the process.
"I got a letter in the mail from them," said Wright-Jones. "I only read the first sentence, which said, 'Congratulations!' After that, I was just happy."
Injuries suffered in basketball and baseball, where he was an all-city shortstop, helped him choose a career path.
"Eventually, I know I am going to med school," said Wright-Jones. "I'd like to practice sports medicine, and right now I am studying movement sciences. I want to stay around the game of basketball as a doctor and help those with injuries."
He "just got into the School of Kinesiology" and is excited to take more classes in his major. Classes begin at 8:30 a.m. and go until lunch time. He takes a short nap before reporting to the William Davidson Player Development Center about 2:30 p.m. and readying for practice. He generally leaves at about 8 after a training table team meal, and then returns to his East Quad dorm room to study for two or three hours. Lights out usually comes by midnight.
"There isn't much room for anything else," Wright-Jones said.
He said Beilein has become a "father figure" to him and others on the team while away from home and stresses being true student-athletes.
"He's always asking us how our school work's going and how we feel emotionally," said Wright-Jones. "Coach Beilein is a great coach because he emphasizes to us that what we do on and off the court will benefit us later in life to be better men."