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Former AFL/ABA Star Lonnie Wright Passes Away at 67

The South Orange resident and Newark native was the only man to play in both the ABA and the AFL in the same season.

How many men could say they intercepted a pass from Joe Namath or scored over Julius Erving?  And then how many can say they helped 2,000 minority youths in New Jersey from underprivileged backgrounds become medical doctors?  Well Lonnie Wright could say he did all of that and more in his illustrious life.

Wright passed away in his South Orange home on Friday due to congestive heart failure.  He was 67.

Growing up in Newark, Wright was a natural athlete from an early age.  He attended , where he earned All-City, All-County, All-State and All-American honors in both football and basketball. He also starred for the track and baseball teams and was inducted into the Newark Hall of Fame in 1988.

He then went to Colorado State, where he set the school's shot put record (with a throw of 52’ 9”) and was part of the Rams basketball team that went to the 1966 NCAA Basketball Tournament. 

"Baseball probably was my favorite sport, but there wasn't enough action," he said in an interview with the Denver Post in 2007.  "I was quite a football player as a quarterback, but I thought my future probably was in basketball."

After graduating from CSU in 1966, Wright returned to football as a safety with the Denver Broncos of the American Football League.  Despite not having played for four years, he quickly rose up and secured a spot in the starting lineup.

In his second AFL season, he started to get an itch to return to the hardwood and play some more basketball.  Two weeks after the season ended, he signed on with the Denver Rockets (now the Denver Nuggets) of the American Basketball Association and became a dual-athlete on the professional level.  Wright would play five seasons in the ABA, averaging 10.7 points per game, including 16.4 ppg during the 1968-69 season for the Rockets.

However, some of Wright’s best work was yet to come.  Following his playing career, he returned to Newark and became an assistant superintendent of parks and recreation for the city.  It was there that two doctors urged him to apply for an opening at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ).

He was hired and once there, he did what he always did and made the most of the opportunity presented to him.  He was able to rise through the ranks at UMDNJ and become the director of recruitment and summer programs for disadvantaged students.

“They thought students needed somebody who could give them solid advice,” Wright told The Gaslight in March 2011. I didn’t know what they meant.  How could I advise young people smarter than me?”

Well Wright found a way to advise them as he was able to recruit roughly 2,000 minority youths from underprivileged backgrounds and help guide them to careers as become medical doctors and dentists.  Many of those students then went back to the urban communities they came from to work.

“I found out (how to advise them),” Wright said.  “They have their own issues, and you can reach them through advice and counseling.”

Lonnie Wright retired in 2010 after 36 years with UMDNJ.

He is survived by his wife Johanna and their three kids and five grandchildren.  Services are pending.

Tanya March 26, 2012 at 04:30 PM
Dear Mrs. Wright, our thoughts and prayers go out to you and the family. Our deepest condolence from the Dixon family, Kiana, Bryce, Dylan, Keith and Tanya.
Harriette Waltner March 26, 2012 at 08:21 PM
My deepest condolences to the Wright family. Lonnie was a very special man. He helped so many young men and women realize their dream of becoming a doctor -- more than that, they knew he was there whenever they needed a shoulder to cry on or a smiling face to share an achievement. When I came to NJMS in 1974, Lonnie was one of the first people to welcome me to the Admissions Office. I considered him a good friend, and we shared many laughs and commiserated about "getting older." I have missed him since his retirement, but feel fortunate to have known him. May your cherished good memories help you through this difficult time. Harriette Waltner
Judy Levy March 26, 2012 at 10:06 PM
Our deepest sympathy is with you. Lonnie is a legend and will be remembered by so many. We hope that your fond memories of him will help to ease your sorrow. Sincerely, Judy, Ken, Adam and Jordan Levy
RED March 27, 2012 at 12:16 AM
I often wondered why Mr. Wright always addressed me like we had been friends for years. He always had that warm friendly hello. I didnt know him that well that well but I felt like I did because of his kind disposition. It must have been that Newark connection...yeah yall dont know nothing bout that (smile). I really cant explain it but he was just special. Each time we were at the BB games he would have me in stitches. Mr. Wright was a special kind of man (one in a million, needle in a hay stack) who understood that love is the condition in which the happiness of another was essential to his own......We sooo badly need people like you Mr. Wright.. You will be deeply missed....tears R.I.P Mr. Wright
Pat Brannigan March 27, 2012 at 12:19 AM
My deepest condolences to the Wright Family on the great loss of your husband, father and grandfather. My prayers are with you and also for Lonnie. I attended Seton Hall Prep while Lonie was an All Stater at South Side. I would marvel at his fantastic performances during Essex County Tournament games - he was the greatest. Then one day, a group of us were at the Boy's Club in Newark for a game - I cannot remember the name of the team we were to play - it has been 50 years - and as we warmed up - a hush came upon the teams and those watching - Lonnie Wright walked out onto the court. I never played against a greater player - he was awesome in the game I played against him and in all games and in life. For over 50 years - I often have asked people - do you remember Lonnie Wright? And then I would say - I played against him once at the Boy's Club. What is so wonderful about Lonnie is not all the thrills he gave to those who watched him play - and those who have for so many years bragged that they played with or against him - what is so wonderful is how he gave opportunity to so many and through the healing hands of those he mentored - Lonnie saved lives and created futures for countless others. God bless you Lonie, we loved you and we do know where you are for surely, your Maker welcomed you with: Well done My Good and Faithful Servant. Rest In Peace Good Man. Pat Brannigan
Amoona March 27, 2012 at 12:38 AM
This is truly a sad day. Dr Lonnie wright interviewed me for medical school ... He was fun easy and told me not to be nervous we were just chatting. He gave me the chance to show him why I wanted to be a doctor. Thank you dr. Wright for giving me the chance.
Jared Kofsky March 27, 2012 at 01:22 AM
We're very sorry about your loss. Jared Kofsky & Family
Cal Schwartz March 27, 2012 at 03:47 AM
Just last night (synchronistically) I stumbled upon Robert Masin's excerpt of his book, "Swede: Weequahic's Gentle Giant" and I can't remember how/why I found it and then all of a sudden I was on page 177 reading all about Lonnie Wright who has been a hero of mine since growing up in the sixties in Newark. Lonnie Wright has always been a legend for me and how often when you get together with Newark and Weequahic alumni, Lonnie's name and achievements was always at the forefront. And how often I lamented that I never got a chance to meet him. And I read the passage about Lonnie last night twice, savoring the words of his greatness, and his being part of the 'Nifty Fifty' and so much more. Two hours ago I got a text message from a friend from Newark that Lonnie Wright had passed and I was deeply saddened. And I thought how special it was last night to have read all about him. So I just spent the last hour reading everything I could find about Lonnie and I marvel at his achievements at UMDNJ. To his family my deepest heartfelt condolences.
Gary Montel March 27, 2012 at 04:53 AM
Thanks Lonnie for influencing my world as a teammate and roommate at CSU and in Denver. I loved to play one one against him after most practices(never beat him). Along our college journey I appreciated his tremendous talent but most of all his humble approach to life. At his induction into CSU Hall of Fame he showed his love of life and passion for others. Thank u Lonnie for your incredible spirit and impacting my journey. God Bless from Gary Montel '67'
Robert J Silvera March 27, 2012 at 03:59 PM
Much love to the family of a true legend of our beloved South Side High School, the city of Newark, and all the Bulldog Nation across this country. You will be missed. Many years of love from Miller St.School till today.... Bob Silvera, a fellow Bulldog,Forever.......
Matthew Siket March 27, 2012 at 11:27 PM
I am one of the countless NJMS students who is a better person for knowing Mr. Wright. He was encouraging, inspiring, and a great role model. I met him as a graduate student at UMDNJ hoping to get in to medical school. I'm not a minority, nor from the inner-city, nevertheless he found time to counsel me and helped provide me with the opportunity to succeed. I'm not sure if he realized how thankful I am, how important his influence was for me. I've never met a more beloved person and am so grateful for knowing him.
Jovita N Oruwari March 27, 2012 at 11:58 PM
My prayers go out to the Wright family. I am one of the countless NJMS students who sat many hours in Lonnie's office. I was just coincidentally telling my husband a story about him last week. He was always available to listen and to give advice. He made the difficult process of getting through medical school that much easier. He was a great man and will be extremely missed. -Dr Jovita N Oruwari
Renee Enriquez March 28, 2012 at 01:41 AM
Renee Enriquez, MD Mr Wright supported me through my times at UMDNJ. Whenever difficulties and challenges confronted me, Mr Wright was always there to support me and was always on my side. He was always on the side of the student. He cared so much. God bless Mr Wright and his family. He has definitely earned his angel wings.
LUCKY FLORES March 28, 2012 at 03:02 AM
I remember Mr. Wright on my initial interview at UMDNJ and how at ease he made me feel. I knew then that this was the school for me. Thank you Mr. Wright for the opportunity to be a physician and for being an example of what a caring human being is all about. May you rest in God's peace and your family be comforted by the fact you made such a difference in many peoples lives including my own. Lucky Flores, MD
Stan harrison March 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM
I was one of those 2000. In 1987 i asked mr wright if i should pursue a football career? He said you weigh 175 lbs, in 2 yrs youll be out of the league and re applying. Thank God I took his advice and now i am an orthopaefic surgeon. He was our friend and our advocate, a true hero Stan harrison class of 1991
Thomas Ortiz, M.D. March 29, 2012 at 02:17 AM
Lonnie Wright was instrumental in my becoming the family physician that I am today. He provided support, advocacy, and love to all minority students, going back to the mid 70s. He maintained true to his core. The Thomas R Ortiz, M.D family extends their deepest sympathies and celebrate his life today.
Krock March 29, 2012 at 12:19 PM
Our prayers are with the Wright family. The McCombs Family
Alfred B Parchment March 29, 2012 at 12:34 PM
My dear friend mentor and brother. A true blessing to so many. Jo, Jas, thank u for sharing Lonnie with us.
Nick Ingoglia March 29, 2012 at 01:07 PM
We have lost a great man. But we can honor and remember him by pledging to lead our lives in the selfless way that he led his. Deepest sympathies go to his wife Johanna and the rest of the Wright family from me and the members of my family, Laura, Emily, Dave and Danny, who had the privilege of knowing him. Nick Ingoglia
Jim Trotter March 29, 2012 at 03:16 PM
I hadn't spoken personally with Lonnie since I left my employment with NJMS in 2006, however, I spoke OF him often. He was a giant of a man, not only by his physical stature but more so by the grace, character and dignity he carried and shared with ever step he took in life. All who knew him were blessed to share in his presence. He was and always will be as special as one could be. God bless you Lonnie and the entire Wright family. Jim Trotter
Lisa Davis March 29, 2012 at 03:30 PM
My prayers go out to the Wright Family. Lisa Davis (mom of Marcus Jamison)
mendo matt March 29, 2012 at 03:35 PM
deepest condolences from Colorado...what a life, what a legend
Stuart March 29, 2012 at 03:43 PM
My condolences to Johanna and family. I was in Weequahic High during the time that Lonnie was attending South Side. He was the premier athlete in Newark at the time, not simply participating in football,basketball and track,but excelling in all three. When I reminisce about the "good old days" of growing up in Newark with my two sons ,invariably Lonnie Wright will come into the conversation. As he rose above the basket in my memories, so did he continue throughout his life. RIP
Lori Capellari March 30, 2012 at 12:03 AM
May Lonnie Wright's memory serve as a blessing to those who loved him. May the G-d of peace and love surround your family at this trying time. Lori Capellari-Neetz
Charles Flores, MD March 30, 2012 at 11:40 AM
Thank you For all the encouragement and support Mr. Lonnie Wright. I will see you in heaven
Linda M Mann March 31, 2012 at 08:58 PM
I am sorry to hear of your loss but please know God will keep you in his arms. I will always remember him, his brother Charles and their wonderful parents. Mrs. Wright was one of my role models who always encouraged us to strive for the best things in life and Lonnie followed in her footsteps. Mr. and Mrs. Wright along with my parents Deacon James and Deaconnes Ruth Melton were quite instrumental in making sure all their children achieve success in life. Lonnie was a success because he truly cared about others. Remember to celebrate his memory and the love he had for you.
ed finnen March 31, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Lonnie you were one of my heroes growing up in south Denver may god put his arms around you and love you as much as the fans in Denver did Rest In Peace
Herbert knight April 03, 2012 at 01:38 AM
My sincere condolences to the family of Mr. Wright. As one of the earlier advisees at the then CMDNJ, I fondly recall the influence of this very sweet man. Herb Knight '77
Julie Masin April 14, 2012 at 04:41 PM
I grew up hearing wonderful stories of the great Lonnie Wright. Very sorry to hear of his passing, he was a truly incredible person. He and PopPop Swede are probably getting some hoops on! My love to your family. Julie Masin
Dr. Kwasi O. Armah December 11, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Bigger than life; a disarming smile that permeated the soul; Godspeed my inspiration; your mark will never be blemished; and thank you the Wright family. Dr. Kwasi O. Armah

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