Woods overcame hate to become star for Bucs

Joe Avento • Dec 23, 2018 at 12:01 AM

By the time Tommy Woods’ basketball career was over, he was a beloved star on the East Tennessee State team.

But in the beginning, the hate and vitriol the first African-American to play basketball at ETSU was forced to endure would have shaken a lesser man.

“I always wondered ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ ” Woods said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. “I didn’t do anything to anybody.”

In 1963, Woods came to Johnson City from Alcoa, mostly because of the 16 or so schools to offer him a scholarship, ETSU was the closest to home and he wanted his parents to be able to see him play. Once he got here, Woods soon found out the local students and fans weren’t ready for integration and that he wasn’t quite ready for what he had gotten himself into.

“I got booed when I scored two points and I got booed when I got a rebound,” Woods said, talking about the home fans. “If I’d run down the side of the student section, they’d throw popcorn and ice on the floor.”

ETSU assistant coach Jack Maxey told Woods to run down the court on the side away from the students, but sometimes he’d forget in the heat of the battle.

“You’d get involved in the game and you’d forget about that,” he said. “I’d want to be that wing man and I’d be running and then I’d slip. It was very, very hard.”

As his career wore on, the fans began to warm to Woods, maybe because attitudes were beginning to change, but more likely because he had become a star player.

By the time Woods’ senior year was ending in 1967, the home crowd gave him a long and loud standing ovation before his final home game.

“It started changing going into my senior year,” he said. “I’d make two points and everybody was happy. They weren’t booing me. They were booing the opposite team. I was part of East Tennessee State.

“The same people booing me my freshman year, many of those were the same people that gave me that standing ovation my last game. It brought tears to my eyes. I said ‘I made it.’ ”

Woods’ accomplishments on the court made him easy to like. He was a two-time All-Ohio Valley Conference selection and had a school-record 38 rebounds in a game against Middle Tennessee State on March 1, 1965.

That effort is still tied for the ninth-best rebounding performance by a major college player and more than Wilt Chamberlain or Elgin Baylor — two players who combined for more than 35,000 rebounds in the NBA — ever had in a collegiate game.

Woods says although the game has changed since he laced up his sneakers, the art of rebounding hasn’t, saying it’s mostly an instinctual thing.

“The key is to watch the ball in flight and normally it’s an instinct to know where it’s going,” Woods said. “You know what side it’s going off of just by looking at the ball. And I would position myself there, where I thought the ball would be.

“I was taught that by my high school coach and it really works. You just have to glance at the ball and if you play around that rim enough, you know what side it’s going to come off.”

Woods averaged 16.2 rebounds per game during his three years on the varsity team, including 19.6 one season. His 1,034 career rebounds still stand as the school record.

Every ETSU player who walks into their locker room steps next to Woods’ name. In 2012, the locker room was renovated and the new digs were named after Woods.

“That was awesome, but I tell people ‘Don’t look at that like the Tommy Woods locker room,’ ” he said. “If it wasn’t for the rest of the guys, my name wouldn’t be up there. I appreciate that name being up there, but Tommy didn’t do that by himself. You see so many guys say ‘I did this, I did that.’ That’s not me.”

It’s in Woods’ DNA to share any credit. He credits his teammates for blocking out so he could get all the rebounds. He also credits his friends for getting him through the difficult times early in his career.

“When I went to school up there, the way I was treated was tough,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for my friends, my white friends … they’re the ones that helped me. I know they got just as much flack as I got.

“I was being called the ‘N’ name. They were being called that ‘N’ lover name. But if I had to do that with the same guys, I would do it all over again.”

Woods, who was inducted into the ETSU Hall of Fame in 1996, said he didn’t come to college to be a pioneer.

“I had no idea that the rest of this was going to materialize,” he said.

Woods played one year for the Kentucky Colonels in the American Basketball Association and for a bit overseas before settling down in Louisville. He says his friends occasionally ask if he hates the people who mistreated him early in his career.

“I tell them I don’t hate anybody,” he said. “I didn’t hate anybody in the ’60s like I don’t hate anybody in 2018. My parents didn’t raise us like that. Not one bit.”

It took a lot more strength to have that attitude than it did to pull in more than 1,000 rebounds. Woods will be remembered for all the rebounds and for being a pioneer, but he really wants to be remembered for one simple adage by which he has lived his life.

“It’s not the color of your skin,” he says. “It’s what’s in your heart.”

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