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After Six Years, the Thrill Still Isn’t Gone : Pro basketball: Former CS Fullerton star Leon Wood kindles NBA dreams in Continental Basketball Assn.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s Tuesday night, and Leon Wood is looking for a basketball game. Not just any basketball game. An NBA game.

It’s not easy finding one around here. The closest franchise is nearly 500 miles away in Minneapolis.

Except for national telecasts on the weekends and box scores in the local paper, Wood is completely isolated from the league he wants so badly to play in again.

When he can’t find a game on television, Wood goes bar-hopping. He is not out for that wild Rapid City night life. He’s looking for a tavern with a satellite dish.

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Satellite dishes mean sports channels. Sports channels mean NBA.

“I watch a lot of TV,” Wood said. “I catch all the games. There are a couple of places that have dishes, and I can get almost any game, East Coast, West Coast. Anywhere.”

Wood studies the games closely, particularly the first-year players. He was once a promising NBA rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, drafted in the first round out of Cal State Fullerton in 1984.

“I look at the rookies now, guys like (Seattle’s Gary) Payton,” Wood said. “The Sonics have given him a lot of minutes to show what he can do. He’s getting time to play right away, as a rookie.

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“I’m not saying if he’s good enough to play in the league or not. But at least he’s getting a chance .”

Wood, a 6-foot-3 guard, said he never had much of a chance during his 1 1/2 lost seasons with the 76ers.

Playing in a backcourt crowded with stars such as Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney, Wood had little chance to play.

He has never found a place in the NBA, drifting among six teams in six seasons. He has never played a full 82-game schedule. He has never averaged more than eight points.

But Wood has found opportunity in South Dakota, playing for the Rapid City Thrillers, a Continental Basketball Assn. franchise.

Seven years after playing before crowds of thousands in Philadelphia’s Spectrum, he runs the floor in front of a few hundred fans in arenas in Yakima, Wash., and Rock Island, Ill.

Wood can’t figure it. Everything he did in his amateur career hinted at success in the NBA.

He was a point guard for Bobby Knight’s gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the 1984 Olympics. He shared playing time with Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Alvin Robertson.

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At Fullerton, he was selected as the school’s first Division I All-American by the Sporting News, and led the nation in assists during his junior season.

He was a star at St. Monica High, averaging 42 points during his senior season.

“He’s in Rapid City?” asked USC Coach George Raveling, an assistant on the 1984 Olympic team. “What, is someone mad at him? It has been a mystery to me why he can’t make it in the NBA.”

Wood wonders, too.

“My agent told me to come here (Rapid City) and play ball and not worry about anything,” Wood said. “Everyone around here has that problem, they worry. But I know I can’t even think about it. If you start worrying where you are going to be, you’ll wind up with an ulcer.”

Wood, 28, can still score from three-point range and thread a pass to a teammate. He is sixth in the CBA in both scoring (25.5) and assists (9.1).

People still pay to watch Wood play. The Thrillers drew about 8,000 to each of their past two games.

Wood said Thriller fans are starving for basketball. Rapid City, a city of 70,000, is in the shadow of the Black Hills in southwest South Dakota.

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“You got to figure there’s not much else to do here but to come watch us play,” Wood said. “It’s either pro basketball or no basketball.”

Wood lives in a motel on Mt. Rushmore Road, not far from the Rushmore Civic Center, where the Thrillers play home games.

He is not the only one with NBA aspirations living there. Just down the hall is Keith Smart, who scored the winning basket in Indiana’s victory over Syracuse in the 1987 NCAA championship game. A few doors down is Stevie Thompson, a former Crenshaw High star who played at Syracuse.

Everyone has his bags packed, waiting to leave at any minute. In this league, the transition game extends far off the court.

“I don’t give up on anything I like to do,” Wood said. “Here, I’m still playing and still doing something I enjoy.”

Said Raveling: “I think it’s noteworthy that Leon hasn’t lost his desire to play. He’s not an easy person to discourage.”

Raveling said Wood has one of the best all-round games in basketball, which might be his biggest downfall.

“The only thing I suspect is that he’s good in a lot of areas, but not outstanding in just one,” Raveling said. “That might have hurt him in the NBA.”

Pat Williams, former Philadelphia general manager and now with the Orlando Magic, was more specific about Wood’s weaknesses in 1986. Why did Philadelphia scrap the Wood project? Defensive liability.

“Defense will always be an area of question in his game,” Williams said then. “He’ll never be known as a great defensive player. Someday, maybe he could be adequate.”

Wood wasn’t exactly excited about playing in Philadelphia. He was the 10th overall selection in the 1984 draft but says he was “picked by the wrong team.”

“We already had four guards, plus Doc,” Wood said. “I didn’t feel I should have been drafted by them. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.”

He tried to catch up in Washington, after the 76ers traded him to the Bullets during the 1985-86 season.

He tried to catch up in New Jersey, where he played for part of the 1986-87 and 1989-90 seasons. He tried to catch up in San Antonio and Atlanta, where he played part of the 1987-88 season. And he played catch-up in Spain, where he spent the 1988-89 season.

Wood split time between New Jersey and the CBA’s now-defunct Santa Barbara franchise last season. This fall, he was invited to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ camp but was cut before the season began.

He started the season in Rapid City, playing nine games for the Thrillers before he was contacted by the Sacramento Kings.

The Kings signed Wood Nov. 28 as a replacement for guard Steve Colter, who had suffered an ankle injury. Wood quickly became a crowd favorite because of his three-pointers.

Wood played in 12 games, averaging 6.8 points and 4.8 assists as the Kings went 5-7. Mainly a sixth man, he came off the bench to get 13 points and seven assists in the Kings’ upset of league-leading Portland. He had 25 points off the bench two days later in a victory over Orlando.

Wood thought he might finally be getting the chance .

Then came Christmas Eve.

Dec. 24 was the 55th day of the season and the day on which all contracts became guaranteed. Wood’s contract, which was worth about $80,000, apparently wasn’t worth a full season’s payment.

Wood was waived--again.

He was spending Christmas with his family in Los Angeles when he heard the news. Some friends called from Sacramento to let him know.

Jerry Reynolds, the Kings’ general manager, said the decision to waive Wood was a tough one.

“I don’t like being the Grinch,” Reynolds said. “It’s tough to tell some guys, but on Christmas Eve? Some guys, it’s not tough to tell. And when you have to tell a guy on Christmas Eve, and one that’s done a good job, probably better than we could have expected, it’s hard.”

So where does Wood go from here?

Europe is a possibility.

“But it’s very difficult for guards to get over there unless know someone,” Wood said. “All they want over there are tall players.”

Returning to the NBA is a possibility.

“I’d like that,” he said.

Wood has a degree in physical education from Fullerton.

“For now, I want to keep playing basketball, then try coaching,” Wood said.


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