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The Wright Stuff Week 1: Meeting legends, taking off, and doing the impossible

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For the Raptor who is somehow both old and young, we’re recommending films to Delon Wright to inspire the leap we know he has in him.

NBA: Preseason-Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Wright Stuff, our weekly column following the career of Raptors point guard Delon Wright. Since we can’t influence his training or anything on the court, we’ll recommend films that reflect his past week and hopefully inspire a leap forward. It’ll be part film breakdown, part essay, and part whatever loose piece of wisdom we can shake from the experience.

ACT 1

It’s never not funny to consider Delon Wright as the little brother of the Raptors. He’s already a little brother in real life, playing in the shadow of Dorell, seven years his senior with an NBA career already come and gone. But would it shock you to realize that Delon, at 25, is actually the fifth oldest member on the full-time Raptors roster (behind only Lowry, Miles, DeRozan, and Ibaka)? Yes, it’s true.

The obvious reason for Delon to be thought of as a little brother is his experience level, a fact even he acknowledges. This is just Wright’s third season in the NBA — this after he spent his rookie year in the G-League and half his sophomore season on the shelf with a shoulder injury. In truth, Delon’s little brother-ness comes out in little asides, like in his “I’m not a baby” mumble, or his shy confusion. “They still consider me young,” he said after the season opener. “I don’t know why.” Keep in mind: Wright had his braces taken off after his rookie year.

And yet, four games into the season, Wright is having himself a week. He’s assumed the role of backup guard earmarked for him since he was drafted, he’s played in all-bench lineups off the ball, or paired with Lowry in the clutch. He’s made some plays that hint at a future untethered from his little brother status — some that hint at his new found strength:

And others that see him execute coolly under pressure:

It’s encouraging to see Wright take off like this. The development arc of a basketball player is not a set thing, it does not quite follow a prescribed path even if we’d like it to. Many (most?) players don’t make it. Watching Wright slowly ascend then has been in exercise in optimism.

And now, off we go.

ACT 2

Adapted from the Tom Wolfe novel of the same title, The Right Stuff is about a lot of things. As written and directed by Philip Kaufman, it starts in the American desert in the late 1940s as ace pilot Chuck Yeager (played with towering presence by Sam Shepard) breaks the sound barrier for the first time. From there it races across the sky, marking time by feats of engineering and human daring. Test pilots hit Mach 1, then Mach 2, and then, of course, they look to further frontiers.

There’s a lot of talk of the demon who lives in that thin air. To fly that high and fast is a risk one in four test pilots at the time didn’t make it back from. Yet America’s scientists, engineers, and pilots kept trying anyway. It becomes something of a friendly competition. And through it all, a common refrain emerges: Yeager is the best of them.

That is until the terms of the whole deal change. “It’s called Sputnik,” we’re told, and we immediately understand: the terms of the competition have changed. In 1957 it was the Soviets getting a vessel into space; it meant an immediate high ground advantage to the Russians in the Cold War. The American hive flies into action, and off we go, back to the high desert of California, to find and train astronauts.

The film’s middle section becomes about assembling a team, each member playing a different part. The space program selects seven men, played by Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Lance Henriksen, Charles Frank, and Scott Paulin — a tremendous row of talent to reflect the stature of their real life counterparts.

As before, there’s a desire to compete against each other, to prove themselves to be the best. But ultimately they’re working towards the same goal. It’s how one man emerges to be the best version of himself; he pushes himself, finds that inner adventurer, while also working to be part of a system, one that operates in a much broader scope. Naturally, they all believe they’ll be the one to be first into outer space.

On a parallel track, The Right Stuff also documents the creation of a certain flavour of American media, one that makes myths and heroes through images, film, and the new speed of the medium itself. The film regards these developments with the same wide-eyed innocence as its characters. These men are all built to be larger than life, even if they appear small when we’re there standing next to them. We watch those images being built — their names, their character, their wives and families — everything assembled together to create the ideal. These concepts are in competition too: the real and the mythic.

The truth is harsh though. Many rocket tests fail in spectacular fashion. We take liftoff for granted now, the existence of over a thousand satellites and the International Space Station suggesting effortless travel in space. As The Right Stuff shows, it was no sure thing. And when the future astronauts are told they’re in competition with a monkey, when they’re told they won’t actually be doing any flyingat least not in the space program’s first iteration — it’s charming to watch how they manipulate the media to their own useful ends. They aren’t going to be space monkeys, the vessel they ride in will be called a space craft not a capsule, and dammit they’re going to be pilots.

At three hours, The Right Stuff is a long film, but it moves with a powerful grace, slowing and speeding up time as necessary to reach its goal. (The cut between a spacecraft upon re-entry and the post-landing celebration is, to name one example, breathtaking.) If you were ever interested to learn about a few decades of aviation history, or want to see the interplay of joy and pain that goes into making modern American myths, or if you just like seeing Sam Shepard looking as vital as ever, this is the film to see.

ACT 3

My favourite part of Delon’s first week of 2017-18 is his willingness — or desire — to try new stuff. Wright is not a hot dog per se, but he does want to imprint his style of play, his creative artistic flare, on the game. For a little brother, breaking out in this way is tantamount. Even as the game slows down for Delon, he’s trying to pick up speed.

The Right Stuff eventually circles back to that dusty air force base, the spiritual headquarters of Yeager. There’s a running joke in the opening third of the film regarding a wall of photos in a bar immortalizing dead pilots. It’s a spooky thing, a source of bad vibes, a hall of fame of the dead that looms into view in the film’s third act. But the wall is also an acknowledgement of history, of the proud legacy of what came before.

In the film’s reckoning, there’s an uncrossed line in the sky. Yeager never makes it onto that wall, but he never gets to go to space like some of his compatriots. Still, he becomes a living legend anyway. As the film makes clear, the subsequent astronauts are celebrated only in his shadow — even in outer space where shadows are hard to come by.

Looking at him now, we often wonder if or how Wright can become that much better, that much more significant, than he is now. Will he crash out? Will he break out? Will he make it?

Well, Delon has already met some legends this week while in competition, and I suspect he has a good feeling about the journey so far.