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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Woolridge Writes His Own Ticket

February 15, 2004|Eric Sondheimer

On the day Zachary Jarrod Woolridge was born in 1986, the Chicago Bulls' general manager at the time, Jerry Krause, sent a contract to the hospital declaring that if he grew to a certain height and could shoot a basketball, the Bulls would sign him.

Now that Woolridge is a 6-foot-6 senior starter for North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake and headed to Princeton, he wouldn't mind finding that long-lost contract, if only to have a laugh with his friends.

Woolridge is much more than a basketball player. He has created his own legacy, moving beyond being introduced as "the son of former NBA player Orlando Woolridge."

"He's truly one of the nicest young men you'll ever want to meet," Harvard-Westlake Coach Greg Hilliard said.

Woolridge has a grasp of right from wrong, an idea of what's important and an instinct for making others feel comfortable around him.

He's a success story in the chaotic world surrounding the NBA, where families can be torn apart amid the glitter and hype of an athlete's public persona.

With the NBA All-Star game today at Staples Center, Woolridge will watch on TV and probably reminisce about his father, who played 13 NBA seasons and was the sixth pick overall by the Bulls out of Notre Dame in 1981.

But Woolridge also knows that it has been his mother, Patricia, who has been the guiding light for him and his two younger siblings.

"I have to give her a lot of credit for setting the standard for life -- trust, honesty and hard work," he said.

Patricia grew up in Mansfield, La., the same town as Orlando. They were married in 1983 and went through NBA life together in their 20s.

"There's so many positives with the opportunities young players have with their families," she said.

But the negatives were always lurking nearby.

"It's hard to keep a stable life," she said. "It's hard to keep your morals intact. That's what kept me on my kids so much. I grew up in church. There were certain things I learned that were being challenged. You have youth, fame, houses, cars. I had my God that kept me centered, but it's hard."

Patricia and Orlando separated in 1996 and were divorced in 2000. She views her relationship with him as "cordial," but she says he is not closely involved in the children's upbringing.

"When the lights were going out in the NBA, my children's lights were beginning to shine," she said. "They were becoming people. I loved my husband. I'm sorry we had to be divorced, but there's only so much you can take."

Orlando has dealt with well-chronicled drug problems, forcing the family to openly confront the issue.

"What I've tried to teach at the end of the day is he's their father," Patricia said. "When he makes a mistake, big or small, learn from it. Those times were very hard. Whenever I'd pick up the newspaper, I'd read about my husband's life."

Zachary has his father's phone number on his cell phone and can call him whenever he wants.

"At times, it can be intimate," he said of conversations. "At times, it can be very distant."

What's clear is Patricia's dedication to her children. She once taught high school English but now calls herself a "professional mother."

She has told the teachers for Zachary, 17; Renaldo, 13; and Tiana, 10, that if any cause trouble, just say, "I'm going to call your mama." That provokes immediate fear.

There was no more happy day in the Woolridge house than when Zachary received his acceptance letter from Princeton. He came home from practice and Renaldo was waving it around.

After Zachary opened the letter, "My mom screamed," he said.

Added Patricia: "There have been times I've sat and looked at him with tears in my eyes because I'm so proud of him."

As a basketball player, Woolridge has become one of the best on-the-ball defenders coached by Hilliard, who is in his 19th season. He has guarded UCLA-bound Arron Afflalo of Compton Centennial and possibly NBA-bound Sebastian Telfair from Brooklyn (N.Y.) Lincoln.

"He's the stopper every coach hopes for," said Hilliard, whose team is 17-7.

Woolridge has just begun to come into his own because he's finally playing the small forward position after predictions were discarded that, like his father, he'd end up 6-9.

"I still like the results I've had throughout high school," he said.

Harvard-Westlake appreciates Woolridge so much that he has been one of the students chosen to give campus tours to prospective students and their parents.

He has his own work to do at home, where he advises, inspires and looks after his eighth-grade brother, 6-footer Renaldo.

"He's got a little Allen Iverson in him," Zachary said. "When you see him, you'll see a different breed of player."

Meanwhile, college life beckons for Zachary. He'll take his 3.7 grade-point average and many life experiences to Princeton.

"He's seen a lot, lived through a lot," Patricia said.

Now, if only someone could find that missing Bulls' contract.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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