Thanks to his insightful and pragmatic mother, Leon Wood always enjoyed a deferential relationship with referees.
“When I played, even as a little kid, I never had issues with referees,” says Wood, a former Cal State Fullerton All-American and NBA journeyman. “My mom taught me early on to try to get referees to be on my side. She told me, ‘If there’s a ball that’s loose, go get it and hand it to the ref because, you never know, a 50-50 call might go your way just because you’re a good guy.’
“This was my mom.”
Evelyn Wood’s message -- referees are worthy of respect -- obviously resonated with her oldest because, for the last 12 1/2 seasons, he has made his living as an NBA official.
Wood, 46, wasn’t the first former NBA player to become an NBA referee, but he is one of only three to have made the uncommon transition, succeeding his boss, director of officials Bernie Fryer, and paving the way for rookie official Haywoode Workman.
Of the three, Wood was easily the most decorated and highly regarded player. A prodigious scorer at Santa Monica’s St. Monica High, where he averaged a state-record 33.7 points a game over his career and 41.5 as a senior, Wood set scoring and assists records at Cal State Fullerton and won a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where Bob Knight was his coach and Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing his teammates. A point guard, Wood made the Olympic team while John Stockton was cut.
But the 6-foot-3 Wood, the 10th pick in the 1984 draft, failed to leave much of a mark in the NBA. Playing for six teams in six seasons, he averaged 6.4 points, 3.2 assists and 16.5 minutes a game over a 274-game career that ended in 1991.
Back then, even as he continued playing overseas and in the Continental Basketball Assn. before finally retiring in 1994, Wood says he never seriously considered officiating.
“Coaching was always going to be my deal,” says Wood, who worked Thursday night’s emotionally charged Lakers victory over the Boston Celtics. “The referee thing never even entered my mind until, in my last year in the CBA, one of the referees mentioned that I should think about it.”
When a friend told him that officiating would at least keep him close to the game, Wood gave it a shot.
Starting with high school games, he soon found his way into a summer camp run by NBA officials, where it was hinted to him that once the NBA found out he was officiating, he would be fast-tracked into the league.
“Sure enough,” Wood says, “that’s what happened.”
After working 24 games as a replacement referee during the NBA officials’ strike at the start of the 1995-96 season, he was the only new referee hired before the ’96-97 season.
An obvious role model was Fryer, who launched a 28-year officiating career after playing two seasons in the NBA and American Basketball Assn. in the early 1970s.
“When you first start, you’ve got people that you played against that are still playing or are coaches or general managers,” Fryer says. “I can remember guys like Henry Bibby and Maurice Lucas that were roommates or teammates and now all of a sudden you’re blowing fouls on them and they don’t understand that you’re no longer one of the guys.
“You’ve kind of gone over to the dark side, so a little bit of conflict kicks up until they realize you’ve made that jump.”
The easygoing Wood says he was told early on that, in order to survive, he would need to develop a more authoritative edge to his personality. Charles Barkley, he says, all but dared the then-greenhorn official to give him a technical foul, which Wood did, and to this day Wood says Jordan still gives him a knowing smirk whenever he makes a call against the Charlotte Bobcats.
At first, Wood notes, he also detected a level of paranoia among coaches who had released him: “They were thinking they weren’t going to get the calls and I said, ‘It’s not like that.’ ”
A divorced father of two, Wood lives in Ladera Ranch, where for the last several summers he coached his daughter Whitney’s AAU basketball team. She is a 6-2 freshman center at Seton Hall. Her brother, Wolfgang, is a 6-4 freshman football and basketball player at Santa Margarita High in Rancho Santa Margarita.
Wood says the travel demands of his job -- he’s on the road about three weeks a month during the season -- probably “took its toll” on his marriage but says he loves the work.
“I’m so happy right now,” he says.
His NBA playing career may have been a disappointment, but Wood says the experience only helps him as a referee.
Concurs Fryer, “I think there’s a credibility there, a feeling that, ‘This guy’s been there, he’s done that, so he maybe understands the emotions, he understands the game,’ which is a much different game than it is in college and high school.”
Wood needs no reminder of that.