Tough luck always followed former Bull Orlando Woolridge
BY MARK POTASH Twitter: @MarkPotash June 1, 2012 3:54PM
Updated: June 1, 2012 7:27PM
Orlando Woolridge always seemed to be at the right place at the wrong time.
The former Bulls forward, who died at 52 Friday of an apparent heart condition at his parents house in his hometown of Mansfield, La., parlayed his unique physical abilities — his small-forward skills in the body of a 6-9, 220-pound power forward were hardly the norm in the late 1970s and early 1980s — into a four-year career at Notre Dame and 13-year career in the NBA.
But he was born either too early or too late. He hit the NBA when the league was mired in a drug culture that ruined careers and threatened the popularity of the league — Woolridge eventually was suspended in 1987 for violating the league’s drug policy. He would play for five different teams in the final six years of his NBA career that ended with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1994.
There have been far more tragic figures than Orlando Woolridge in NBA history, but he had a star-crossed, tough-luck career. Woolridge averaged 16 points a game over 13 NBA seasons. He averaged 22.9 points a game in Michael Jordan’s rookie season of 1984-85 and averaged 20.7 points the following year, when Jordan missed most of the season with a broken foot.
And then he left. At 26, Woolridge signed a free-agent contract with the New Jersey Nets in 1986. The Bulls had the right to match the offer, but let him go for a No. 1 draft pick and two No. 2s.
It was typical of the poor timing that haunted Woolridge’s career. With Jordan healthy, the best was yet to come for the Bulls. With recently hired Doug Collins, the Bulls had a coach who would specialize in nurturing young talented players like Woolridge. Woolridge would lead the Nets in scoring in 1986-87, but other than his 20.7-point scoring average nothing would be the same. The Nets went 24-58. The Bulls went 40-42 — 10 games better than the Woolridge-led team the previous year — and were on their way to greatness.
Jordan and the Bulls eventually reached the pinnacle, but Woolridge never did. It was the story of his career, and his life, as it turns out. Woolridge played with Jordan and the Bulls but not when they won NBA titles. He played with Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers (1988-90), but not when they won titles. He played with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars with the Pistons (1991-93), but not when they won titles.
Woolridge finished his NBA career with Moses Malone and the 76ers in 1993-94 — when both Moses and the Sixers were a shell of their 1983 NBA championship team. The Sixers went 25-57.
Woolridge’s Bulls career was typically unsatisfying. The Bulls selected him over Oregon State’s Steve Johnson with the No. 6 overall pick in the 1981 draft. He was a contract holdout as a rookie and missed the first five games of the 1981-82 season. The Bulls had an opportunity to trade him to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Mike Mitchell and Bill Laimbeer, but turned it down. He finally signed a five-year, $1.5 million contract. His first appearance in an NBA game was delayed momentarily when he answered coach Jerry Sloan’s call off the bench, but couldn’t get his warmups off. Woolridge averaged 7.3 points and 3.0 rebounds a game as a rookie.
Woolridge developed into a capable NBA scorer — he averaged 16.5 points a game in his second season with the Bulls. But trouble never seemed too far from him. In 1986, concerned about upcoming contract negotiations, he went AWOL for two games in March. He apologized and was fined. But his Bulls career was all but over. The Bulls drafted Brad Sellers in 1986 when it was unclear whether Woolridge would return. They let him sign with the Nets in exchange for a future first-round draft pick. It ended up being Stacey King, drafted sixth overall in 1989. The disappointing Woolridge era had come full circle.
But if it was difficult for the Bulls, it was more difficult for Woolridge. A flamboyant, gregarious personality, Woolridge was a star who never became a star at a time when the NBA was making a star out of almost anyone who wanted to be one. Woolridge was a big-time scorer on bad teams — the 1984-85 Bulls (38-44), the 1985-86 Bulls (30-52), the 1986-87 Nets (24-58) and the 90-91 Denver Nuggets (20-62). As a role player, he was never the guy to put a team over the top.
After his NBA career, he played overseas and coached in the WNBA, but never totally got his life together. In February, Woolridge was arrested for stealing aluminum tubing in Louisiana. The material was sold for scrap — an unfortunate final public chapter to the Orlando Woolridge story.