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A Journey of Joy

By: Jay Dieffenbach

It was a grind from the beginning, a difficult road to travel. But that’s not close to the way Suns forward Ishmail “Ish” Carzell Wainright describes his complicated journey to the NBA.

Defined by starts and stops, dedication and dismay, his has been a lifelong trip best defined by … “joy”?

“It’s been a joy,” Wainright said.

His current job is the best of his career. He embraces this opportunity, staying ready.

On Wednesday in Los Angeles, Wainright blazed through the fourth quarter against the Clippers, scoring a career-high 20 points -- all in the fourth -- that included four 3-pointers as the Suns nearly overcame a 39-point third-quarter deficit.

The support from teammates and staff help immeasurably.

"I hit the first shot and I was like, OK, let's keep it going," he said after the game. "And then you get the ball.... I can hear Coach saying, 'Let it fly,' or hearing Jae (Crowder) or hearing Book (Devin Booker) say ... keep it going!"

And as of Sunday, Wainright will keep it going into the playoffs, securing an agreement with the Suns converting his deal from two-way contract to a standard contract -- making him eligible to play in the postseason.

He is a full-time member of the Phoenix Suns and, yes, certainly, this team is special … but we’ll get to that in a bit.

While it’s every athlete’s dream to reach the pinnacle of his or her sport, Wainright has been able to control those variables he can control. He’s traveled a road proactively, doing much more than just closing his eyes and hoping for the best.

Tip-off

Wainright, born in Kansas City on Sept. 12, 1994, to Calvin Wainright and Mary Mills, was always a big kid; eager and active.

He played youth sports under the close supervision of his dad, and it didn’t take long for observers to grasp Wainright’s long-term athletic potential.

The attention and the attendant hype began before high school, when he began to apply lessons learned from Kansas City legend Victor Williams, who developed a basketball academy and provided opportunity and guidance.

Wainright remembers Williams advising him: “You have a chance to do something good with your life.”

It was the first time Wainright played basketball for anyone but his father. Now, things began to heat up.

“It started when I was about 13,” Wainright said between helpings of french fries at a Scottsdale restaurant recently. “I was playing up, I believe, four age groups. I was point guard.”

He was playing against seasoned high-schoolers, so his size wasn’t working to his advantage. (“I wasn’t the biggest” in those games, Wainright said with a chuckle.)

That baseline experience opened the door to big-time opportunity. Wainright began to grasp that reality as eighth grade drew to a close.

He was able to attend a camp that year in Kentucky that included future college stars such as Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Nigel Williams-Goss and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, who would join Randle under coach John Calipari at Kentucky.

Wainright said he remains close friends with Randle.

He walked on to the camp’s practice floor the first time as a relative unknown commodity; he left Kentucky a few days later with his outlook – along with the perception from others – redefined forever.

The national ranking services took note.

“I turned heads,” Wainright said. “From that weekend, that changed a lot. I was unranked (entering that weekend) but coming out of that camp, I was top five.

“And then a few days later you got Jabari at number one, you got Julius at number two. You got Ishmail Wainright at number three!”

Navigating narrow roads leading to a college decision

Wainright and his father regularly attended Kansas Jayhawks games. Wainright’s goals were clear to see.

His basketball education included stars of KC high school excellence.

“My freshman year of high school I always knew I was gonna be good,” he said. “(Knowing about) Kareem Rush, Earl Watson, Anthony Peeler. Seeing those guys, being around them.”

But young Ish frequently had his head on a swivel early in his high school days. Already, he was looking for a safer, more streamlined path than what he perceived would be provided in Kansas City.

He told his dad he was concerned about staying at his high school – friends were getting into trouble, going to jail -- and the transfer discussion evolved.

After his sophomore season at Raytown South in Kansas City, Wainright aimed to transfer.

Private schools and basketball factories beckoned.

“Findlay Prep was in Vegas,” Wainright said, cracking big smile. “My dad was like, ‘Vegas? No.’”

They settled on Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Maryland, where Wainright boosted his resume, earning all-conference honors with a well-rounded 8.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game.

Eyes were open, and the big schools were coming.

Baylor Bears and beyond

Wainright had moved up the ESPN.com rankings to No. 28 in the 2013 class.

A process that had begun when Wainright was only 14 (“I went into the gym and seeing Rick Barnes and ... seeing Bill Self”) was drawing to a close.

University of Kansas, Wainright’s first love long ago, was not going to happen because of a challenging path to playing time.

“Wayne Selden and Joel Embiid were going there and I said, ‘Oh, OK.’”

A trip to Waco, Texas, with his mom and dad sealed his Baylor decision.

“It was genuine. I loved everything about it,” Wainright said, adding that his parents seemed happy with the decision and that helped immensely.

While at Baylor, Wainright established himself as a strong 3-and-D guy with a wingspan north of 7 feet and a consistent motor that drove him beyond most athletes’ limits.

During his senior season in Waco, Wainright willed his way onto the Big-12 All-Defensive Team.

Perhaps the most impactful event, though related to basketball, came off the court and culminated with a different kind of relation.

The DNA jolt that would have changed his path

If he’d known then what he knows today, he’d have been much more immersed in Monday night’s stunning NCAA title-clinching comeback by the Kansas Jayhawks.

While at Baylor, Wainright assembled pieces of evidence suggesting his grandfather was a basketball pioneer. With time and determination, he found DNA proof.

Maurice King, a University of Kansas star who burst through racial barriers to help pave the way for Wilt Chamberlain and others, bore a remarkable resemblance to Ish.

In 2007, according to an ESPN documentary young Ishmail saw a photo of King and asked his father about the man.

Calvin told Ish about stories from family members confirming the suspicions.

Photos of King as a Jayhawks star in the 1950s caused Ish to do a double-take.

In 2017, Ish contacted King's son, Maurice King III, and proceeded with a DNA test.

Maurice King, Ish found, was indeed Calvin Wainright’s father.

King had fathered Calvin as a high schooler.

Calvin, it should be noted, was not urging Ish to solve the puzzle, and other family members were even more hesitant to support this investigation.

But Ish?

“It wasn’t my dad (that had a problem with Ish’s pursuit); it was everyone else … (siblings and other extended family members said) ‘Why would you that?’” said Wainright, adding that he told the doubters: “It has nothing to do with y’all. That was for me.”

Wainright holds sacred the relationship with King, who died five days after Ish’s 13th birthday.

“If I had known this a long time ago, I would have gone to KU,” Wainright says today. “No ifs ands or buts. I would have gone to KU, I would have worn that number (8). I would have had ‘King’ on the back of my jersey.”

Wainright did pay tribute during his senior season in 2017, taking the floor -- at Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse -- with “King-Wainright” on his Baylor jersey.

The football thing

"I was a good quarterback,” Wainright said, speaking of his adolescence, during which he ranked baseball, swimming and football ahead of basketball.

Hoops, though, proved the ticket to his college ride. He cashed that ticket to continue at Baylor even after his basketball eligibility expired.

He looked at the football option.

Then-Baylor head coach Matt Rhule – now coaching the NFL’s Carolina Panthers -- said just try it. Try it out, if you don’t like it, go play basketball somewhere.

“I said OK,” Wainright said. “I will be there at practice.”

In April 2017, having made the commitment, Wainright wasn’t expected to play in Baylor’s spring game … but …

“I’m proud of Ish,” Rhule said in a Baylor Lariat story at the time. “I did not want him to play in the game. But he came to me and said, ‘I can play in the game. I know what I’m doing.’”

In that Green and Gold game, Wainright muscled his way into a 23-yard touchdown catch.

“Somebody said it was pass interference,” Wainright told the Lariat. “But there’s no fouls in football, and there was no flag thrown.”

That fall, playing for the Bears, Wainright hauled in four passes. Two of them were touchdowns.

NFL teams are always seeking to add depth, and the Buffalo Bills invited Wainright for a tryout.

The big tight end certainly looked the part, and said a good portion of his fellow invitees believed Wainright to already have been part of the team.

Ultimately, despite grabbing a few missiles from a youthful Bills rookie quarterback named Josh Allen, the NFL dream died.

But there was one more example of Wainright’s leadership to play out. As he and his fellow failed football mates filed onto the bus, Wainright found a seat at the front.

Eyes were trained on Wainright, perhaps expecting a “we’ll get ‘em next time” speech.

Wainright scanned the rows of downcast athletes before blurting out his pearl of wisdom he believed appropriate for the situation:

“Damn, we suck!”

The tension evaporated immediately and Wainright had won another round in his fight for life success.

“I said, ‘Guys, it was fun while it lasted but I gotta go hoop.’ … Y’all won’t see me again unless it’s on TV and I’m in the NBA.”

Finding a living in professional basketball

Undrafted by the NBA, Wainright played in Germany and France the next three years, fought through the challenges during COVID.

His performance leading Uganda in Rwanda at the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 tourney turned heads. Wainright had a triple double (22/12/10) in a victory over South Sudan, and Uganda reached the quarterfinals before bowing out Sept. 2.

“After Uganda, a lot of NBA teams had interest,” Wainright said.

Toronto jumped first but the marriage didn’t last.

Wainright was the Raptors’ final player released, but not before showing out during the Summer League.

After a big game in Las Vegas, Wainright unlocked his emotional tool box, telling media: "I do it for my kids, to be honest," he said, referencing his boy, Kai, and his daughter, Isabella Grace. "I'm trying to smile; I'm trying to have fun and I'm here and I don't wanna go back over there. I'm here to stay."

The Suns, who had shown interest earlier and had discussed a two-way contract, came calling, and the current arrangement has Wainright eager for more.

The Phoenix Suns chapter is still being written

As the Suns chase the franchise’s first NBA title, Wainright is positioned perfectly to reflect on the current roster.

Of Devin Booker, Wainright says, “I call him ‘Smooth’ -- the smoothest scorer I’ve ever seen. He’s so smart to be so young.”

Of Deandre Ayton: “He’s a big kid. But he’s special. There's stuff that he can do at 7-foot, the footwork and the fadeway. He can be very special. He can get you 25 and 15 every single night. I point at the guy going against DA and say, ‘These dudes cannot f—ing hold you.’ I tell him that every day. I feel he needs that.”

Wainright’s role in Phoenix is most closely tied to Jae Crowder, whom Wainright calls a “great role model.”

As for trash talk? “I watch who I talk to; I don’t have enough resume” to do too much of that at practice.

With these Suns, Wainright sees his duty as one who pursues “offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, getting stops, being in the right spot at the right time … they brought me in for a reason.”

“My role on this team is to be the first one off the bench to clap and cheer for my teammates because we’re kicking their butt,” he said. “If Coach calls my name to go in and get a stop, I’ll do whatever I can to get that stop. If I gotta go foul in the last 10 seconds of game? I got you Coach.”

Teammate Landry Shamet said after a March 20 win over Sacramento that Wainright’s value can’t be overstated.

“Ish comes into the game for 16 seconds and (executes) two of the biggest defensive possessions of the game,” Shamet said.

“That doesn’t go unnoticed. A guy on a two-way (contract) who works his ass off every day. We see him. Unbelievable teammate. Stays ready. Coach says, ‘I need you to come in and guard.’ Ish says, ‘I got it.’“

And Wainright is bullish on his teammates and the close-knit team’s recipe for success.

Of Mikal Bridges: “Mikal plays defense on the best players every single game. And he’s producing on offense. And we’re winning,” he said, before citing Bridges’ credentials as Defensive Player of the Year.

The chemistry is as important to a team’s pursuit as the talent, and this team is tight.

Wainright says the Suns put in the work every day, but “when 7 o'clock comes around, we’re at somebody’s house playing around. Video games, whatever.”

Whose house most frequently?

“Mikal’s house” in Paradise Valley, Wainright said, adding that “everybody lives in Paradise Valley except me. But I’ll be there soon.”

There’s no doubting his work ethic.

Wainright cites a one-day-at-a-time mindset but believes in his future.

Whatever hurdles are tossed onto his winding path, Wainright says, “I’ll still be the first one in; last one out.”

As this season rapidly draws to a close, Wainright is rapidly gaining comfort.

“I don’t wanna go anywhere else. I love it here. … The culture here is unbelievable; unlike any other in the league.

“That video of DA, Mikal … dancing on the court? That’s every day, practice … every day.”

Shamet echoed the sentiment, referencing the pregame ritual in the tunnel -- “all the handshakes, everything … just us acting stupid for four minutes” adds so much to an upwardly mobile franchise.

Wainright serves as a prime touchpoint.

“We're playing together,” he said. “We’re having fun.

“It’s joy. It’s just joy.”

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