Playing for Pops
The way it starts, Renaldo Woolridge will wake up each morning, a flash of sunlight in his eyes, the same lyrics in his head. This will be every day, before class, before practice. He'll keep listening, but with a renewed sense of calm, sitting there nearly motionless.
Because he wrote this song, and he'll hear this same song again in August, and in September and in three months from now, too.
"See, I know that he's a part of me," Woolridge will hum along. At present, this is routine for the charismatic 22-year-old. His father, Orlando, an NBA forward of 13 years, died in May in Mansfield, La., at 52 due to a chronic heart condition after a six-month struggle that began in November with a heart attack. Yep, you can see Renaldo Woolridge is coping.
"The way I dealt with it was to immortalize my feelings through a song," says the younger Woolridge, who also moonlights as a rapper under the stage name SB Babyy. "It's my emotion. It's going to be there forever."
This is his tribute, his "Big O Salute," to the freewheeling play of his father, who spent more than a decade playing for the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, the Los Angeles Lakers with Magic Johnson, as well as five other NBA teams. He sings, reminiscing about the "King of Hops," who would electrify crowds across arenas on both coasts.
It's all there to see.
"That's my biggest coping mechanism," he says. "Growing up, when something went down, my mom told me to just write about it. Just write how you feel. As I've gone through college, whatever the case may be, when I write about it, I feel so much better."
Of course, these events stay permanent, and it's tough for Woolridge, who was granted an extra season of eligibility by the NCAA because of his injury-shortened junior year, to forget why he returned to the Southland, and by association USC, in the first place: to play in front of his late father in his final season of college basketball.
So it's been a particularly long five weeks for Woolridge, who has since enrolled in summer classes and participated in basketball workouts under the tutelage of the Trojans' head coach Kevin O'Neill and associate head coach Bob Cantu.
"He's been able to reflect on what his dad meant to him, understand who his dad was," says Cantu, who was also his primary recruiter. "He's a strong-willed kid. From what I understand, he's been more into celebrating his life instead of letting it affect him."
That's the hope anyway.
The path for Woolridge has no doubt been a winding one, and faced with one last season, he's looking to make it count in a celebration for his "pops."
Rooted in basketball
By now, Woolridge thought he would be in an NBA uniform, not participating in offseason practices and conditioning workouts at the Galen Center in mid-July. Four years ago, coming out of Harvard-Westlake High School in Studio City, he was a McDonald's All-America nominee, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds per game as a senior while leading the Wolverines to their third consecutive Mission League title. Rivals.com rated him as the best small forward in the state of California for the class of 2008, as well as the No. 53 prospect nationally. Scouts agreed he looked like a surefire college star, if not a pro player soon after.
"We felt he could come in and make an impact immediately," said Cantu, an assistant at the time under then-head coach Tim Floyd. "He was a top-level recruit for us. We spent a lot of time with him, anything we were allowed to do."
Not to mention his family's basketball pedigree, as well as that of his school. Over the last decade, Harvard-Westlake has sent several players to the professional ranks. Twins Jarron Collins and Jason Collins played collegiately at Stanford, before stints with a myriad of NBA teams. Bryce Taylor went to Oregon, latched onto a few NBA Summer League teams and has since played professionally in Italy and Germany. Former USC center Alex Stepheson, who played at the elite L.A. prep program as well, inked a deal with Proteas EKA AEL of the Cypriot League in Cyprus last fall.
So of course, the son of Orlando Woolridge expected to be on the fast track to collegiate and professional stardom. He looked the part. Tall, athletic and yet carrying a knack for 3-point shooting and perimeter play even with his height at 6-foot-9 - just like his dad.
"I thought if I wasn't a [one-and-done], then I'd be a two," Woolridge said. "I felt like, going into the situation, I'd be at least starting all four years. There are just a whole lot of things that didn't pan out that way."
Woolridge entered college at Tennessee just a few years after the NBA changed its draft-entry requirements, effectively ending the league's decade-long prep-to-pro era. From 1995 to 2005, 39 high school players declared for the draft. But in 2006, the rules changed and draftees were instead required to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school, spawning the current "one-and-done" culture. Many players now anticipate playing just one year in college before making the leap, and Woolridge confesses he, like many, carried such expectations.
"A lot of young kids have the immature mindset of stuff will be given to you," he says. "I'm probably the biggest example of that. If you interview everyone in the top-100, they'll all probably say they're going to go one-and-done. The reality is only 60 people even get drafted and they aren't all freshmen. When you're 17 years old, you're not really aware of that."
Looking to make that jump, and fast, Woolridge settled on Tennessee over other options such as USC, his second choice, as well as Georgetown, Illinois and Marquette.
"Being that 17-year-old kid, I wanted to spread my own wings, go out to Tennessee and do something different," he said.
And so he headed east.
The Tennessee years
In the spring of 2008, playing college basketball in Knoxville, made plenty of sense. The year before he arrived on campus, the Volunteers went 31-5, landed in the Sweet 16 and beat an undefeated Derrick Rose-led Memphis team on the road in late February, resulting in a No. 1 ranking the following week.
Moreover, Bruce Pearl was the "it" coach, too. During a 2007 game between the fourth-ranked Lady Vols and top-ranked Duke, he sat in the front row of the student section, shirtless and his chest painted orange with a "V" on it. During a 2009 awards ceremony, Pearl, wearing an orange-and-white checkered sport coat, orange tie and no shirt, also performed a rap song with three other players. Under his watch, in each of his first three seasons, Tennessee won at least 22 games. He was energetic, engaging and created a significant amount of buzz around a school more often recognized for its success in football. The label, a player's coach, fit Pearl to a T.
"He was a real cool dude," Woolridge recalls, with a sly grin. "He was real charismatic. He was easy to like. He was real out there and real intense, too. Everything was on the up and up."
And then it wasn't.
Pearl was gone after Renaldo's junior year in 2011, fired after he was charged by the NCAA with unethical conduct, among 10 secondary violations under his watch. He had already been suspended for the first eight games of SEC play that season and admitted to lying to investigators regarding a recruit's unofficial visit in the summer of 2008.
Meanwhile, Woolridge never fully settled in. Though starting six games as a freshman and primarily serving as a small forward, his playing time decreased over the next three seasons. He never played exclusively at the three-spot, either, what he calls his "natural position." Then, complicating matters, newly-arrived head coach Cuonzo Martin replaced Pearl with a new system in his final season with the program.
"Their styles are so yin and yang," Woolridge said. "Coach Pearl's real out there, yelling and involved. Coach Martin was almost like a drill sergeant, real Xs and Os. Didn't yell but got his point across."
Still, a loyal Woolridge stayed and went on to post some of his best numbers of his collegiate career, averaging 4.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, despite playing out of position as a power forward. And he did so even as a center, facing players such as Kentucky's Anthony Davis, who would go on to be the No. 1 overall pick in last month's NBA draft. Against Davis on Jan. 31, he went five for six on 3-pointers while matching a career-high with 17 points.
"As a player, he's so versatile," said Scotty Hopson, who played with Renaldo for three seasons at Tennessee. "There are so many different things he can do on the floor that he's going to be an essential part. And when things don't go well for you, he'll come over, pat you on the back and give encouragement. That's just the kind of guy you want on your basketball team."
Finding USC again
In April, Cantu stumbled upon a surprising email. It arrived in his inbox by way of USC's compliance office, notifying him that Woolridge had sent the school his release. Cantu first thought it was a mistake, as he "had played four years."
But because he played in just six games during the 2010-2011 season - the result of an injury sustained during a practice on Dec. 9 - he was given an extra year of his eligibility. And since he was graduating with a degree in sociology from Tennessee and looking to enroll in a master's program elsewhere, it resulted in de facto free agency. And so USC was back in the picture, the school he nearly picked right out of Harvard-Westlake five years ago.
"I called his mom [Patricia] within 20 seconds," Cantu recalls. "When we heard each others' voices, it was like we had just talked a day ago. It was comfortable on both ends like it was meant to be."
One slight issue remained, however. USC wasn't, on the surface, exactly an attractive destination for anyone harboring hopes of ending up in the NBA. When Woolridge first considered USC as a prep standout, the Trojans were amid one of their best runs in school history under Floyd with three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, including a Sweet 16 finish in 2007. Comparatively, they went 6-26 under O'Neill during his third year in 2012, setting a single-season school record for losses.
"When I looked at USC's results, I didn't believe it at first," Woolridge said. "I was in shock."
But then, Woolridge heard about the injuries, the lost recruiting classes because of NCAA sanctions and figured he could help bring about a turnaround for the program. He's never been afraid to think big, never the least bit short of optimism.
"I looked at the circumstances," he said, sounding unfazed. "When you have losing momentum, it's hard to come back from that. I understand. Once I was being recruited, I saw the situation. I saw the people who were sitting out and I saw the recruits coming in."
Woolridge, as he points out, isn't the only new face around USC these days. Joining him is junior college transfer guard J.T. Terrell, Serbian forward Strahinja Gavrilovic and Brendyn Taylor, another guard from nearby Fairfax High School. Others such as Ari Stewart and Eric Wise, transfers from Wake Forest and UC Irvine respectively, will also be eligible after sitting out last season per NCAA rules.
"With the group we have, everybody's hungry, everybody's motivated and everybody can play," Woolridge said. "K.O. sees that. He knows something's big for us this year and we know it, too. I think it'll just take us proving it out on the court, for everyone else, too."
A final tribute
His nickname is well known by now. He's Swiperboy, because of long-held a goal to "steal the spotlight," he says. But that desire has since shifted. It's no longer about him. He's carrying his father's memory. He'll wear No. 0 this season, the number Orlando wore throughout his NBA career, and he's looking to release an on-the-court tribute, as well.
"Every time I'm on the court - even now in these workouts - and I feel like I'm getting real tired, something kicks," he said. "I keep going that much harder. I have a whole 'nother level of motivation."
He'll have that opportunity, too. Though it's early, Cantu figures Woolridge could very well start. He'll also play more minutes for the Trojans than he has at any point during his college career and he'll do so, almost exclusively, at the small forward spot.
And the way many see it, his journey doesn't necessarily end with USC, either. O'Neill has told Woolridge he has a chance to hear his name called next June in the NBA draft, in the second round or possibly even in the late first round. And Cantu, who has seen five Trojans taken in the first round in the last six years, has echoed similar beliefs.
"When you look at guys who are going to play at the next level, you look at size per position," he says. "So he's a small forward at 6-foot-9, which is what those players in the NBA look like. He's got potential for sure, because he not only can shoot the 3, but he can shoot it deep. He's got length, he's got athleticism. The sky's the limit to be honest."
Renaldo has heard those whispers. He recognizes the possibility of a pro career, but for that to happen, he admits USC "has to win."
The thing about the younger Woolridge is he worries about the things he can control. He couldn't always control what happened at Tennessee, his playing situation, the NCAA investigation, the coaching change. And he certainly couldn't control his father's health, either.
But he can learn from the Tennessee years and he can control the next leg of the race, as he'll suit up in cardinal and gold come November in memory of his father.
"It still hits me, knowing the season is going to come and he physically won't be here," he said of his dad. "If we win Maui or go deep in the tournament, I won't be able to look out and see him. My mom will be the person that will make me feel like everything will have paid off. But at the same time, I feel like there's a piece missing."
Those close to him understand. They know how badly it hurts, no matter how strong he appears. So the way they see it, Renaldo's looking to make the final stretch count.
"I think he really looks at his father's legacy, and is trying to be that and more," said Hopson. "He just loves everything about him."
Indeed, his father's lasting memory drives him - now more so than ever.
Joey Kaufman is a Print and Digital Journalism major at USC and has covered the Trojans for the Daily Trojan, SB Nation and Neon Tommy since 2010. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeyRKaufman.