The first time I saw Brent Woods play basketball was at Burnett Park in Jacksonville, Florida on a sultry summer day in 1991.
I loved his game immediately.
At 6-foot-3, he was effective from both the post and perimeter with a pleasingly mellifluous style of play. He glided on the fast break and finished at the bucket like a condor in full flight.
As a former high school point guard at Fenwick and Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, I considered myself a pretty good player with a good eye for talent.
An introduction was inevitable.
He was wearing a University of Kentucky basketball t-shirt. As fate would have it, I grew up a huge University of Louisville hoops fanatic.
I had my in.
“UK, really? You gotta go with the ‘Ville, man,” I said to Brent that serendipitous day.
A backcourt of best friends was born.
For the next several years, we were essentially inseparable. It was a bromance years before the term became en vogue.
Basketball was our common denominator.
During the carefree days of our 20’s, we played in multiple leagues with successful results throughout Jacksonville.
Our best shot to win a title occurred in the Jacksonville Presbyterian Church League. We opened the season against a team called “H.” Their starters consisted of guys in their 50’s with assorted goggles, headbands, knee braces and they reeked of Bengay. They were like an uninspiring version of former Los Angeles Lakers forward Kurt Rambis.
Our team, License to Thrill, (unfortunately, humility was not a virtue among us) started the game on a 23-2 run. We never looked back from that 85-42 win en route to a 9-0 record during the regular season.
After dismantling H, Brent and myself drank beers in Brent’s jacuzzi later that night and recapped the victory.
“H, more like BS,” Brent proclaimed under the influence of Miller Genuine Draft beers. “Remember these times, Mart. This is so much fun. I think we can make a run at the title.”
Brent was close. We finished the season 10-1, losing in the championship game 85-73.
Despite the loss, I remember feeling so proud of all my teammates, but especially Brent. We shared so many emotions on the court: joy, competitiveness, laughter, adversity, anger and pride.
Like John Stockton to Karl Malone or Magic Johnson to James Worthy, we had a few pet plays. We would run a high ball screen pick-and-roll, but my favorite set was when he posted up smaller players and yelled to me, “Points Ahoy!”. That always cracked me up no matter how intense the score/situation of the game.
In a players’ vote, we were selected the best backcourt in the league. Brent averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds and I contributed 13 points and seven assists per game.
To this day, I’m most proud of that athletic accomplishment because we earned it together.
Off the court, we took trips to Miami, Tampa, Charleston, Savannah, New York and my hometown Chicago.
Born and raised in Mississippi and then Florida, Brent even left those sunny, warm climes to give the Second City a try. Although Brent loved the people, food, culture, architecture, sports and overall vibe of Chicago, winter was the dealbreaker that prevented a prolonged stay.
During the winter months, whenever I picked him up at his apartment for a night in the city, the first words uttered out of his mouth invariably would be, “It’s (insert a variety of expletives) cold, Mart.”
Nevertheless, I cherished his brief stay here between 2001-2004.
Conversationally, nothing was taboo. We would share our thoughts about sports, news, history, philosophy, women, dating, culture and religion.
Although we have stayed in touch, it’s become more difficult since we live in separate states with different lives.
A few weeks ago, his mom texted me with the news that Brent died on Dec. 8 (my birthday). I had to read the text over at least 10 times to process the message. A surreal period ensued with recurrent tears, occasional hyperventilation and an unshakeable sense of loss.
Brent told me several years ago that he had a health issue but implied he was getting treatment. I just assumed he would be fine. Other than his parents, he never let on to anybody about his declining health.
While I’m admittedly bewildered and hurt he never provided full disclosure, I can’t fathom how difficult his situation must have been. I just regret not saying goodbye and telling him how much he meant to me.
When my mom died in 1991, Brent was there for me more than anyone including my family. I shudder to think where I could have ended up without his support.
Diagnosed with kidney cancer three years ago, Brent battled the disease bravely with cross-country doctor visits, several chemotherapy treatments, and ultimately had one of his legs amputated.
Tragically, his sister Kelly (a divorced mom of three children) died six months before him in July- also of cancer.
Brent was 45, Kelly 48.
My heart goes out to their parents, Bill and Christina Woods. I recently called Mrs. Woods, who told me I was her “second son.” That’s a true honor for me. It’s a given I will keep in touch with Brent’s folks.
One of my favorite sportswriters, Chicagoan Rick Telander penned a wonderful book, “Heaven is a Playground” about a bunch of pickup basketball players at Brooklyn’s Foster Park.
I’ve always loved the imagery of that title.
In fact, playing basketball with Brent always felt like a slice of Heaven on earth to me.
Basketball was more than just a game for us; it was a celebration of our friendship, and life itself.