JOHN DOHERTY: Another ex-irish star dies too young

2012-06-04T15:49:00Z 2012-06-04T16:57:38Z JOHN DOHERTY: Another ex-irish star dies too youngBy John Doherty Times Columnist
June 04, 2012 3:49 pm  • 

Not again.

In the wake of Blair Kiel's recent passing, that was my first thought when I heard that ex-Bull Orlando Woolridge had died last week.

For the second time in two months, an old friend from Notre Dame, this time a classmate, had passed away far too young after falling on hard times.

I'll remember the better ones.

Against the Soviet National team prior to the official start of the 1977-78 season, Woolridge played for the Irish for the first time when he entered late in the first half. His defensive assignment? Seven-foot-4 center Vladimir Tkachencko. Seemingly as wide as he was tall, the Olympic gold medalist soon went to work on the skinny, 6-9 freshman, backing him down the right baseline before taking his patented line-drive jumper.

Which Woolridge promptly swatted into the fifth row. The sell-out crowd erupted but the Soviets, leading by double digits, retained possession. And Tkachenko wasn't about to be embarrassed by a teenager. Consequently the Soviets ran the same play to the other side and Tkachenko made the same mistake but Woolridge did not. His rejection landed at half court.

Woolridge did not play regularly the remainder of that Final Four season but he did a year later when the Irish reached the Regional Finals only to lose to ultimate National Champs Michigan State — and Magic Johnson.

During that season, the basketball athletic trainer's position had become a revolving door and when the dust finally settled after the NCAA loss, the only athletic trainer left was a student, your reporter. Despite the loss, the season wasn't over because a trip to Yugoslavia was still on the schedule. Woolridge didn't want to go but his cousin, Willis Reed, convinced him otherwise.

We departed in mid-May facing nine games in 14 days. Woolridge and I were roommates during part of the trip. One evening, I returned to the room and found him and fellow future-NBAer Tracy Jackson in a spirited academic argument. Woolridge couldn't believe Jackson had not learned and memorized a particular poem while in high school. I asked what the poem was but rather than telling me, Woolridge simply recited, “Whose woods these are, I think I know.”

I replied, “His house is in the village, though.” (From Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.")

Whereupon, his point proven, Woolridge howled with laughter and high-fived me while Jackson left the room shaking his head at us both.

Memorable moments on the floor during that trip included Woolridge exploding a backboard with one of his dunks during warm-ups and him hurdling from behind me — seconds after I had put ice on his knees — to defend teammate Bill Hanzlik who had been punched by an opponent.

When fall arrived that year, the revolving door stopped. Skip Meyer was appointed the men's basketball athletic trainer and has held the position since. I still helped out at home games but my travels would be largely limited to football and lacrosse.

Upon graduation, I didn't see Woolridge too much. The last time, in fact, was in 1987. I was on the Irish football field for a 1977 football team reunion. An NBA star at the time, he was on the sideline, too, speaking with one of the '77 players. I walked by without saying a word, not wanting to interrupt. Not long after, though, a hand grabbed my shoulder and I was being scolded for not saying hello.

Now, sadly, it's time to say good-bye. Rest in peace old friend.

John Doherty was an athletic trainer at Notre Dame 1977-82.

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