Memories of the Big O

This comes in a week where I am dealing with a heartbreaking cancer death in my wife’s family, a subject I’m probably not ready to write about just yet.

But Orlando Woolridge, dead at 52, is a different story. A sort of public figure to whom I have sort of personal connection. His obit mentions his arrest, not too long ago, of stealing piping for scrap. So a doubly tragic story: tragic for dying young, tragic for the obviously troubled life after basketball stardom.

In 1977, I showed up for my freshman year at Notre Dame. It might have been my first day on campus, or maybe my second, but I was in a hurry to find a pickup basketball game. I went up the the vaunted and venerable “Rock”, pulled up my knee socks with the three horizontal stripes at the top, and laced up the All-Stars.

Dunks, rainbow long-range jumpers, alley-oops, shots blocked straight down. Some serious ballin’ going on. After my team of challengers got crushed in short order by the team holding the court, I approached one of the winners at the drinking fountain. “Hey, you’re pretty good. Are you thinking about going out for the varsity.” “Going Out For The Varsity.” My ears redden as I type those words, and they are verbatim. He smiled and shook his head at my cluelessness. “I hope so. I was recruited.”

That was Tracy Jackson, who along with Orlando Woolridge and Kelly Tripucka, were the core of Digger Phelps’ killer recruiting class.

To another guy, the best player on the court, the one dunking on everyone’s heads, I said something similarly oblivious, and asked him his name. “Orlando.” “Rolando?” “No, Orlando.” “Rolando!” After four attempts I got it. Orlando. Woolridge. He was cool about it.

Flash forward three years, to Notre Dame’s storied Bookstore Basketball tournament. 384 teams. Single elimination, games to 21, played rain or shine — or snow. I am on a team with four other scrappy little white guys. For our fourth round game we draw True Blood Express I, comprised of Woolridge and three varsity football players. And another excellent player.

Partly because we were hitting shots, partly because TB Express couldn’t be bothered to look like they were trying too hard, we managed to get the score to 16-15. A big crowd had formed around our game, and eventually our opponents applied a little more pressure to the accelerator, and it was 21-15 before we knew it.

That game was covered in the school paper, which included my name and Woolridge’s in the same paragraph! No question, I was thrilled, and I got minor league-VIP treatment around campus the following day. But there were aspects of that game I really wish I didn’t remember. The crowd’s support for the underdogs was understandable, but there came a point when the cheering for five white guys against five black guys morphed into something ugly and racial. Even locked into the game with my laser-like focus, I heard a lot of things I wish I hadn’t, from people I thought I knew.

I don’t have any overarching commentary about it, other than to say it must have been rough being black at ND in the late 70s/early 80s, even if you were a superstar athlete. I’m betting the racial picture in South Bend has improved since then. Just over-sharing some of the darker memories of those days.

Ask me about the time counter-protesters pelted a girl (wearing her father’s letter sweater) with eggs, as she read Nicaraguan poetry at at anti-war rally on the North Quad.

Below Mike Brey shares his memories of Woolridge.

Memories of the Big O

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