Former NBA player and Chicago Bulls star Orlando Woolridge is dead at age 52 after battling a chronic heart condition, according to the Shreveport Times.
Known for his spectacular dunks, Woolridge played five seasons with the Bulls and will be remembered as an electrifying player but enigmatic person.
Woolridge was a standout at the University of Notre Dame. He led his teams to dramatic upsets of the nation’s number one-ranked teams four times. The Fighting Irish compiled a record of 92-26 with four NCAA tournament appearances while Woolridge was at South Bend. He graduated from Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters in 1981 with a degree in economics.
The 6’9” tall 215-pound Woolridge was a physically sculpted athlete who loved to run the court and play above the rim. Known as the “Big O” and wearing the number zero, Woolridge arrived to Chicago with high expectations after the Bulls selected him with the sixth overall pick of the 1981 NBA draft. Woolridge teamed up with Ennis Whatley to form one of the NBA’s first alley-oop duos Two seasons later he became the team’s leading scorer.
But, Woolridge’s play didn’t change the fact that the Bulls franchise was among the league’s worst. NBA fans were focused on the exploits of Larry Bird in Boston and Magic Johnson in Los Angeles. In Chicago, you could almost see tumbleweeds blowing across the court at the old Chicago Stadium were sometimes the Bulls would finish games in front of hundreds of uninspired fans.
Then Michael Jordan arrived.
Woolridge was amazed at the attention Jordan generated for the Bulls. He said, “It’s like being on the Michael Jackson Victory Tour. He’s Michael and we’re the Jacksons.”
During Jordan’s 1984-85 rookie year Woolridge averaged his career-team high in points as then Bulls head coach Kevin Loughery often relied on the one-on-one talents of Jordan, Woolridge and Quintin Dailey to win basketball games. Woolridge relished the system and averaged 15.9 field goal attempts per game, 3.9 fewer than Jordan. Woolridge finished the season with 22.9 points per game; Jordan had 28.2; and Dailey 16.0. All three players were highly adept scorers; unfortunately it was one of the few things Woolridge and Dailey had in common with Jordan.
In David L. Porter’s biography of Michael Jordan he wrote that the star player was often disgusted with his teammates calling them “The Looney Tunes.” Porter writes that Jordan viewed then as “very talented, but lacking goals, the passion to win, and mental toughness.” By the following season, whispers around the league spread of widespread drug use by several members of the Bulls.
Whatever Woolridge was doing off the court he was still getting it done on the court, at least statistically. In his final season with the Bulls he got out of the gate quickly ranking among the top five scorers in the league for much of the first half of the season. But in March of 1986 Woolridge was fined $8,000 for missing two consecutive games. He did not call then General Manager Jerry Krause to ask for permission or to explain his absence. Woolridge allegedly called his agent who told the media his client had personal problems and was suffering from mental stress.
Later, during the offseason Woolridge, a free-agent, signed a contract agreement with the New Jersey Nets. The Bulls had 15 days to match the offer but elected to immediately release Woolridge to the Nets saying the draft choices they would receive in exchange – a first rounder and two second round picks – was sufficient compensation. (The first round pick would become Stacy King.) The word around the league was that the Bulls were happy to be rid of Woolridge for fear that his behavior might poison their star player, Michael Jordan. The Bulls also released Quintin Dailey that off-season who received drug treatment during the year. (In 2010, Dailey, coincidentally, died of heart failure too.)
Woolridge continued to play at a high level with the Nets as he averaged 20.7 points per game, matching his average from his last season with the Bulls.
But, in 1987, the NBA suspended Woolridge for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Basketball insiders alleged that New Jersey team officals entered Woolridge’s room and found a chemical factory for freebasing cocaine.
Woolridge rebounded and went on to play for the Lakers (he and the team reached the NBA Finals), Nuggets (where he averaged a career best 25.1 points per game), Pistons, Bucks and Sixers. He finished his NBA career with averages of 16 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. He was truly a very good player and many basketball experts say he might have earned a spot in the NBA’s top 50 players of the first 50 years had it not been for his troubles.
In 2010, Woolridge was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. By some accounts Woolridge had turned his life around. But, then in February the inscrutable Woolridge was arrested for stealing aluminum tubing at a drill site in Desoto Parish, Louisiana.
Thursday night, Woolridge was pronounced dead in his parents’ home in Mansfield, Louisiana at 11:20 p.m. DeSoto Parish Chief Deputy Coroner Billy Locke said Woolridge had been under hospice care for a chronic heart condition.
Woolridge is survived by his children, Zachary, Renaldo and Tiana; parents, Mattie and Larnceen; sister, Dr. Vanessa Woolridge Duplessis; brother-in-law, Darren Duplessis; and nephew, Nigel Duplessis.
– Woolridge was the cousin of NBA Hall of Famer Willis Reed
– He participated in one of the greatest slam dunk contests of all time in 1985, competing against Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Julius Erving,
– After ending his NBA career, Woolridge spent his final two seasons playing professionally in Italy
– After playing overseas, Woolridge was a coach for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and recently coached Arizona in the ABA.