I learned of his death via a friend’s e-mail, and I immediately sagged. For most of my life, Woolridge was merely a basketball player. Strong, explosive, exciting. I also knew he had a pretty serious drug problem but, well, so do many of us.
As you read this, I am working on my latest book project. It has to do with the NBA in the 1970s and 80s. One of the people I wanted to speak with was Orlando Woolridge. So, a few months back, I called his home in Mansfield, Louisiana. His 81-year-old mother answered. I explained to her why I was calling, and she told me that sounded interesting and nice, but …
“Orlando is in a bad place,” she told me. “He’s suffered two strokes, he can’t catch his breath, he lives here with me, he refuses to go to rehab …” We spoke for, oh, 10 minutes, and it was heartbreaking. For Orlando, yes. But really for his mother. I imagine, as her son went off to Notre Dame, then the NBA, she felt as if she could float atop the world. He had made it big—every parent’s dream.
Yet here we were, in 2012, talking about a once-supreme athlete who, unbeknownst to his mother, was about to die.
The day after Woolridge’s passing, the New York Times ran an interesting obit. It included some information from his brief time with the Nets in the mid-1980s. There was an incident, the piece said, where the Nets learned that Woolridge had been using drugs, yet failed to take disciplinary action. The actual details (as I learned): The Nets were staying in a hotel, and the facility’s manager complained about one of the rooms being decimated. When a member of the team’s staff came up to look, he was shocked. The room was destroyed—broken furniture, crap everywhere. On one of the tables was a large amount of drug paraphernalia—specifically for cocaine. When Woolridge arrived at the scene, he denied ownership, then broke down and confessed that he had a genuine problem and needed help.
The Nets decided not to turn Orlando Woolridge in; to hope it all worked out while keeping him on the court.
How does this relate to his death? I’m not sure if it does at all. But, without question, athletes are products first, people second. And oftentimes, in the primes of their careers, when they need assistance, they are ignored and shooed away.