San Jose State has made a second-half charge, pulling as close as four points, and the crowd stuffed into tiny Titan Gym is beginning to wonder if Cal State Fullerton’s 24-game home winning streak is about to end.
Leon Wood apparently has no such doubts.
A half-dozen shoulder feints shake off the two defenders he has been wearing like a sweater most of the game and his length-of-the-court breakaway leads to a short bank shot and a free throw. Then comes a spinning drive through traffic and a shovel pass to center Ozell Jones for a dunk, which is followed by six consecutive free throws.
For the 25th consecutive home game, that familiar grin splits Wood’s face and the Titan faithful roar at the climax of another victory.
Two things Leon Wood could always do, fake you out of your jock and knock your socks off with that smile.
The idea last summer was to write a local-guy-makes-good story about Wood, who was back on the courts of the NBA as a rookie referee after a less-than-illustrious career as a player. Nobody was going to ask him who was the league’s dirtiest player or dumbest coach or even if Pat Riley had bad breath or Dennis Rodman offered free body piercing for favorable treatment.
But before you talk to a referee, even in the off-season, you talk to the NBA bureaucracy.
“Hi, I’m a sportswriter with The Times, requesting permission to interview Leon Wood for a story. Nothing controversial, just a nice little feature about a former local college favorite who has found his niche as a ref.”
Three follow-up phone calls and two weeks later, an assistant to NBA senior vice president for basketball operations Rod Thorn finally calls back with an answer: “No.”
But tonight, Wood--Fullerton’s all-time leading scorer who set the NCAA single-season assist record by averaging 11.0 in 1982-83--will be inducted into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Anaheim Marriott. And, well, the NBA powers that be probably realized they might look a tad silly if they refused to let him talk before his big night.
Oh, and Leon can talk.
--To those who can’t believe all-time NBA assist leader John Stockton was cut from the 1984 Olympic team in favor of him at point guard:
“I understand that John’s a fabulous player, but during that period, at that point in time, I was getting the job done. I was second on that team in minutes played to Michael [Jordan] and I still hold the Olympic assist record . Some guys just develop later than others.”
--To those who say it takes many years to become a really good NBA ref:
“They say you’re only as good as your level of experience, but I think my years in the league as a player count toward my years of experience as a ref. I’m able to react a little quicker, I’m able to sense if something’s ready to come up and can recognize things a little quicker. A guy will complain about a call and I’ll say, ‘Hey, you grabbed his jersey from behind. You know it and I know it, because I used to do it too.’ ”
--To those who say refereeing is emotionally easier because you don’t win or lose:
“Well, you certainly never win, that’s for sure. But you’re always the foreigner, nobody’s ever rooting for you. It takes a special kind of mental makeup and a special mental toughness to do this job. There are a whole lot of people who just couldn’t handle it.”
--On playing for Bobby Knight during the 1984 Olympics:
“He’s incredibly intense, but, heck, I played for [Titan Coach George] McQuarn, so I was used to intense coaches. I definitely learned a lot from Bobby and I could deal with him for 3 1/2 months. But four years? Well, luckily I never had to find out.”
--On Larry Bird:
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Larry, before I got in the league and after. He’s a good coach and he doesn’t complain that much. If he gets really upset, you tend to think, ‘Wow, maybe I did miss something.’ ”
--On infamous referee harasser Charles Barkley, who was also drafted by the 76ers in 1984 and is the godfather of Wood’s 8-year-old daughter, Whitney:
“Charles and I are very good friends and someday, when he finally hangs it up, we’ll sit down to dinner and talk.” (The NBA doesn’t allow officials to fraternize with players or coaches.)
--To those who perceive his six-year NBA career--274 games averaging 6.4 points with seven teams--and ensuing stints with pro teams in Spain, France, Italy, Germany and the Philippines as a disappointment:
“My goals in high school were to play in college, get an education and a degree, make the Olympic team and then play in the NBA. I reached those goals. Maybe I wasn’t in the right place at the right time and maybe my stats and career weren’t the best. Maybe I was a role player most of the time. But I’m certainly not dissatisfied with the way it turned out. I know one thing, I did the best I could, a 100% effort. I left it all out there on the court.”
Actually, there are three things Leon Wood could always do: appear to be going in one direction while really heading in another, pose for toothpaste commercials and shoot the lights out.
As an NBA reserve, he used to show up three hours before games and entertain the arena staff with his shooting prowess. The show usually included a bunch of swishes from behind the team benches, just inside half court and up against the scorer’s table.
That eye for the hoop piqued the interest of more than 200 college recruiters after Wood broke the California high school scoring record, averaging 42.1 points as a senior at Santa Monica St. Monica’s. But he told them all he was going to UCLA.
That boyhood dream ended when Gary Cunningham resigned as coach and Larry Brown, not mentor Larry Farmer, got the job. So Wood went to Arizona. Sitting on the bench with Farmer at UCLA would have been one thing, but sitting on the bench at Arizona was no fun at all.
So Wood took his mother’s advice and joined McQuarn at Fullerton. “She said, ‘Why don’t you go there and you make the program, make it so people want to go there on account of you,’ ” Wood said.
McQuarn turned the extremely reluctant Wood into a point guard and the transformation was a huge success for all concerned. Fullerton, 4-23 the year before, went 18-14 in 1981-82, Wood’s first season as a Titan. A year later, Wood set the NCAA record for assists and the Titans were 21-8. And he averaged a school-record 24.0 points as a senior.
Longtime NBA director of scouting Marty Blake called Wood “the premier point guard in the country.” The Philadelphia 76ers obviously agreed, making Wood the 10th overall pick in the first round of the 1984 draft, even though their backcourt corps already included Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Sedale Threatt and Clint Richardson.
Wood signed a $1.1-million, four-year contract with the 76ers. Today, he’s quick to point out, the NBA’s minimum salary ($272,500) exceeds his best yearly pay as a player.
“Born too soon,” says Wood, 36. “But I’m not the least bit bitter about that. I have no regrets. I’m really happy where I’ve been and where I’m at right now. I just want to be the best referee I can possibly be.
“I love being a part of the NBA and I’m having fun because I love the game of basketball.”
Ask anyone who shared the joy of one of those laser-guided no-look passes or slithering drives to the hoop. Just the memory makes you want to smile too.