Commentary

A friend of the people

Despite its tragic ending, Orlando Woolridge's life was filled with joy he created

Updated: June 11, 2012, 4:04 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

The first report out of Louisiana was shocking to those who hadn't heard his name in a while. And, as these things often are, it was cold.

Former NBA player Orlando Woolridge, 52, was pronounced dead Thursday night at his parents' home in Mansfield, La. The coroner said he had been under hospice care for a chronic heart condition.

And from there, the story was filled out with the facts of Woolridge's life: A 6-foot-9 star at Notre Dame, he was a member of the 1978 Final Four team. The sixth overall pick of the Chicago Bulls in the 1981 draft, he played for seven NBA teams over 13 seasons before concluding his pro career after two years in Italy in '96.

And then the transgressions: a suspension for substance abuse while playing for New Jersey during the 1987-88 season. And, 25 years later, almost mysteriously, after returning home following coaching stints in the WNBA and ABA came an arrest this past February on a charge of theft for allegedly stealing aluminum lines used to transfer water to natural gas drilling sites, material valued at $2,000 and sold for scrap.

By then, Orlando Woolridge was dying.

In the year preceding his death, he had two heart attacks, arguably three, said his mother Mattie, describing an episode he suffered in the hospital after having a stent inserted to alleviate the fluid that had collected around his failing heart. The father of five was 52 years old and too sick, doctors told his parents, for a heart transplant.

Unable to find a coaching or broadcasting job in the NBA, "he got depressed," she said. "So I told him to come home."

*******

Depressed would be the very last word any of his closest pals would have ever used to describe Woolridge. Instead they used words like brilliant, intensely determined and wickedly funny.

"The Chris Rock's of the world are good," said one of those friends, Terry Pfaff. "But if Orlando had not been an NBA basketball player, there's no telling where he'd be as a stand-up comic. We're not talking, 'Haha funny.' I mean, you could not keep your food down around him."

Mattie Woolridge called them "the Notre Dame boys" and they were loyal to the end, calling and visiting, recalling the good times, of which there were plenty.

"At Notre Dame, his dorm room was one of the favorite places for people to stop by and it transcended all sports and all groups," teammate Kevin Hawkins said.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Woolridge
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesOrlando Woolridge began his NBA career with the Chicago Bulls.

"Orlando was the magnet," Pfaff said.

Pfaff's friendship with Woolridge was telling. He met Woolridge, by then a star, in their dorm in South Bend. Pfaff didn't play basketball. He was, as he described it, "a middle-class, Midwestern white kid." And they remained lifelong friends.

"He was the glue, the guy everybody just wanted to be around," Pfaff said of Woolridge. "His room was like Grand Central Station and you could be the engineering major down the hall and a fan, a guy who had never been to 'the Rock' [Knute Rockne Memorial Gymnasium and the site of their many pick-up games]. You could be the most non-descript person, in the eyes of most college jocks a 'nobody,' and Orlando would make you feel part of the group. And you could just tell with him, it was genuine."

To his teammates, Woolridge was an indispensible presence, hilarious and fun-loving but more than that, the one they counted on in a foreign new home.

"He was the one, regardless of what might have been going on, if we were homesick, missing our mother's food, he just had this way where he'd just turn it around and make it into something fun. Where all of a sudden, you weren't thinking about those things anymore," said teammate Stan Wilcox, now deputy athletic director at Duke. "That was Orlando. He kept us going. I talked to a friend today who was on the football team and he probably coined it best. He said if you saw the movie 'Big' with Tom Hanks, that was Orlando. He was the little kid in the grown man's body and when you got together with him, you were going to be 12 or 13 again, having fun and laughing."

"He was a great kid, seriously," said Digger Phelps, Woolridge's coach at Notre Dame. "Just a sweet innocent kid."

Recently, while Woolridge was in intensive care, his mother called Pfaff to give him an update, though he suspected also just to talk.

"Unfortunately, I hadn't had many conversations with Mrs. Woolridge when we were younger but after Orlando started to become more and more ill and then there was the article about the misdemeanor, which I didn't even want to look at, I started to talk to her more," he said. "I knew she was down and dealing with a lot."

And so he described to her a scene he witnessed while attending the reunion of the Final Four team a few years prior.

"The best way I can describe your son," Pfaff told her, "is that there were old white ladies, young black kids, it didn't matter what race, age or gender. Absolutely everyone wanted to come up and say hi to Orlando Woolridge. If he was ever, in any way, projected as unapproachable, it wouldn't have been that way. But everyone knew Orlando Woolridge was one of the best personalities to ever come through the Notre Dame athletic program."

Mattie Woolridge remembered the reunion because afterward, she said, he was asked to come to Chicago for an appearance and autograph session.

"He told me, 'Mama, my line was the longest.'"

*******

So what happened?

An addictive personality? The NBA lifestyle of the '80s? After signing his contract with the Bulls, he helped put his sister Vanessa, now an OB/GYN, through medical school. One of his sons graduated from Princeton; a daughter currently attends Princeton and plays volleyball; and two boys play basketball, one transferring from Tennessee to USC, and another from Kansas to Washington State.

As a basketball player, Woolridge was supremely gifted. A cousin of Willis Reed, Woolridge came to Notre Dame, recalls Irish and Bulls teammate Tracy Jackson, a skinny but determined kid in the fall of 1977 before disappearing into the weight room.

"He got much, much stronger," Jackson recalled. "He always had raw talent and a leaping ability you can't teach, and that combined with his strength propelled him over the top. He was an athlete who really exploded to the basket and was so quick and agile, we had never seen an athlete like him at Notre Dame."

As a point guard, said Irish and Bulls teammate John Paxson, "I always felt I could throw the ball anywhere near the rim and he was able to catch it and do something with it."

The 6-5 Hawkins recalled going up for a rebound in his first college practice and Woolridge easily plucking it over his head. "I had never seen anything like this," he said. "He made people say 'ooh and aah,' and took a lot of enjoyment in entertaining.

"One time he got the ball in the open court in a fairly tight game and did a reverse jam. It just electrified the crowd and put us all in a dither, and I remember Digger said afterward, 'If you missed that thing, you could have just kept running right out of the gym.' It was one of those things where the coach is saying 'No, no' and everyone else is saying, 'Oh, yeah.' "

Phelps remembers learning of the kid from Mansfield, La., from Reed and then being told by Reed that, as an eighth-grader, Woolridge had been a demonstrator at Phelps' camp in New York.

Paxson I always felt I could throw the ball anywhere near the rim and he was able to catch it and do something with it.

-- John Paxson
on playing with Orlando Woolridge

"We knocked off seven No. 1 teams during my coaching career and he was on four of those teams and won two of those games," Phelps said, describing Woolridge's two free throws to beat DePaul in overtime and a loose-ball rebound against Ralph Sampson's Virginia squad. "He was a tremendous talent."

Paxson recalled the 1985-86 Bulls, the season Michael Jordan broke his foot and the attention shifted to Woolridge, who had combined with Jordan to average 51 points per game the previous season.

"[Woolridge] was the primary scorer, and he could score," Paxson said. "He was a very good isolation player and he got to the foul line a lot. As his career progressed, he was able to make the midrange jump shot. When teams prepared for us, they always had to prepare for what he could do offensively."

He averaged 20.7 points per game that season, but his style didn't mesh with Jordan's and he signed with the Nets as a free agent, matching his average points per game total in '86-87, at 20.7. He would miss the majority of the next season due to the drug suspension and re-emerge as a reliable bench player with the Lakers; then averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 rebounds for Paul Westhead after a trade to Denver.

Woolridge's NBA career averages: 16.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists.

*******

Mattie Woolridge's memory is, unfortunately, not selective and she remembers several conversations with her son over the past few months.

"He told me, 'Mama, I'm so sorry about the way my career turned out, but it was my own fault,'" she recalled.

His friends aren't sure what to make of his regrets. On one hand, they say, he had a 13-year NBA career.

"You can't be a slouch and hang around that long," Hawkins said.

"Believe me," Phelps said flatly, "he fulfilled his career. The other issues are sad, the ugliness of the game of life. Sometimes you can't escape that."

Wilcox thought his friend may have found it hard to find the same perfection and satisfaction off the court as he often found on it.

"In the latter years, he just felt he should be somewhere coaching or still involved in the game," Wilcox said. "Sometimes it's best for somebody to step away from the game and try something totally new and then come back to it. But he was always around it, he thrived on that spotlight and it was tough when that spotlight was not there anymore."

"It's unfortunate," Hawkins said, "because his athleticism was so engaging and entertaining, he could have done more perhaps. When drugs and alcohol enter into it, things are going to change. But I don't want to diminish what he did. So many people focus on what happened later on in life, and he was a great guy and I don't want that to be lost."

Though his mother had told him to come home, she also knew it wasn't a good idea.

"He said 'Mama, you know I never wanted to hurt anybody,'" Mattie recalled. "People tried to get after him for money because they knew he had some but, 'They didn't love me,' he said.

"He wanted to be people's friend but he'd get used up every time. I told him to be humble and to be kind and that's what messed him up. People took advantage of him."

Low on money and unable to find a job because of his failing health, he became increasingly depressed. The arrest in February, she said, was devastating to him.

"When he was around company like that, he was always persuaded," she said. "When it came out in the paper, he came home crying. He was so sorry."

After that, he fished every day until he lacked the energy. By then, he knew.

"He said 'Mama, I thought I'd live at least 'til 55,'" Mattie said of one of their final conversations.

They sent him home from the hospital where his parents had a hospital bed and oxygen ready.

"He couldn't talk for the last week but he could hear us," she said. "His breathing slowed and he just went quietly. He had a lot of friends, but I don't think people know how much they're loved."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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