When life as a Notre Dame men's basketball player became too cluttered and confused to the point where it seemed the four walls of his single dorm room were closing in, Stan Wilcox always knew where to turn.
Wilcox would visit a teammate who also lived in a single right next door in Fisher Hall. It didn't matter if Wilcox spent two minutes or two hours with someone he grew to consider a brother, he would return to his place with a smile on his face and a fresher perspective on life.
Friday was one of those days when Wilcox wished he could go next door, step inside, listen to his friend laugh and have it all feel all right. Only on this day, there would have been no answer on that door.
Wilcox's buddy, former Irish forward Orlando Woolridge died late Thursday at age 52.
"He loved life," Wilcox said of Woolridge, whom he met as a fellow freshman in the fall of 1977 before Notre Dame made its lone Final Four appearance in their first season together. "He was the one person in our group who kept you laughing. If we needed someone to cheer us up, he was the one to do it."
"We lost a great, great teammate and a great friend," said former Irish teammate Tracy Jackson, a constant companion of Wilcox and Woolridge. "He was the battery amongst the three of us. He kept us going."
Woolridge died at his parents' home in Mansfield, La. Early reports indicate that Woolridge, who struggled through years of substance abuse during and after his National Basketball Association career after graduating Notre Dame in 1981, suffered from a chronic heart condition that recently required hospice care. Former teammates knew that Woolridge was nearing the end of what had become a battle to live a healthy life. Still, when the end arrived Thursday, it hit many of his former teammates hard.
"My heart is heavy," Jackson said from his home outside Washington.
"None of us wanted this day to come," Wilcox said Friday from Duke University where he serves as deputy director of athletics. "It's a shocker when it does."
"Terrible," said Kelly Tripucka. "Terrible, terrible, terrible."
A big kid at heart
Once the initial shock subsided, the stories between Woolridge's former teammates and college buddies started flowing. Wilcox swapped a few with Jackson and Gilbert Salinas. Another college friend, Vince Rochelle, maybe said it best about Woolridge, who was a mountain of a man on the basketball court at 6-foot-9, 215 pounds, but really just a teddy bear away from it.
"Vince said how Orlando was like that kid in the movie, 'Big,'" Wilcox recalled of the 1988 film starring Tom Hanks. "No matter what you were doing, no matter where you were, if you were around him, he was going to take you back to when you were 12-, 14-years-old where you just loved life."
On Thursday, former Irish coach Digger Phelps, who recruited Woolridge from rural Louisiana to South Bend, was at dinner in San Diego to celebrate the high school graduation of one of his grandsons. Midway through the meal, Phelps received a text message from Kevin Hawkins, whose father, Tommy, remains the all-time leading rebounder in Notre Dame history, informing him of Woolridge's death.
Phelps also knew Woolridge was in declining health. During his 20 years at Notre Dame, Phelps coached 56 players who each finished their four years with an undergraduate degree.
"This is the first guy that I've lost," said Phelps. "It hurts. I lost a son."
A son who seemingly was destined for Notre Dame. A first cousin of basketball legend Willis Reed, Woolridge attended one of Reed's basketball camps at the New York Military Academy when he was in the eighth grade. Phelps, who ran a camp at nearby Marist College, often would drop by as a tutor/instructor during four-on-four drills.
Years later, Phelps talked one night with Reed, then in the front office with the New York Knicks.
"He said, 'You've got to recruit my cousin,'" Phelps recalled. "I said, 'Who's your cousin?' He said, "Orlando Woolridge. He can play.'"
Reed then reminded Phelps that Woolridge once helped Phelps in one of his 4-on-4 drills.
"We end up getting him," Phelps said. "He was just so good."
A bright-lights guy
Phelps can close his eyes and still see one of the more magical moments of many during Woolridge's collegiate career. Nineteen seconds remained in the Feb. 27, 1980 game against top-ranked DePaul. The score was tied in a double-overtime game that some consider the greatest of so many great ones played at the arena formerly known as the Athletic and Convocation Center.
Woolridge, who had connected on just 48 percent of his free throws as a freshman, was sent to the free throw line to try and help give Notre Dame yet another upset of a No. 1 team. Phelps, who had spent so much time during Woolridge's career working with him on foul shooting, insists that when No. 32 was fouled then, there was no doubt.
"He knew he was going to do it," Phelps said.
Woolridge sank both free throws in a 76-74 Irish victory. Nearly a year later, Woolridge corralled a loose ball near the baseline and dropped in a fade-away jumper to give Notre Dame another win (57-56) in the Rosemont Horizon over another top-ranked team - Virginia - in 1981.
That Woolridge delivered in a nationally-televised game was a surprise to no Irish. The bigger the game, it seemed, the more Woolridge found a way to impact it.
"Anytime there was a national TV game, he'd always say, 'Hoss (Jackson's nickname), we're on national tube today; we've got to come with our 'A' game,'" Jackson said. "He really showed up. Win or lose, he was going to leave it on the court."
A four-year contributor who increased his scoring average each season, Woolridge scored 1,160 career points, still 36th in school history. He enjoyed his best season as a senior captain (1980-81), averaging 14.4 points and 6.0 rebounds a game while shooting 65 percent from the field. The Irish won 92 games during his career, including four wins over No. 1 teams.
"He was a great athlete," Tripucka said. "He could jump through the gym and do it with a great smile. He made himself into a great player."
Woolridge was a first-round pick (sixth overall) by the Chicago Bulls in the 1981 NBA draft. He played for seven teams and in Europe during a professional career sidetracked by substance abuse.
Woolridge's athletic ability was legendary. Even today, Wilcox can remember Woolridge getting a steal in the backcourt against Dayton, then racing down the floor and finishing with a two-hand reverse dunk, a play as rare as the 3-point line in those days.
For Woolridge, it all came so easily. So naturally.
"He was a very athletic player in an era when they weren't as common as they are now," said former Irish radio play-by-play voice Jack Lorri. "He was just a beautiful basketball player."