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Orlando Woolridge, former Notre Dame and Bulls forward, dead at 52

By Fred Mitchell, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — He was known for his boundless enthusiasm, his infectious smile and his uncanny athletic ability to work the baseline and attack the basket with acrobatic dunks.

Orlando Woolridge, one of the prominent members of the Bulls in the early-to-mid 1980s, died Thursday night at his parents’ home in Mansfield, La. He was 52.

According to the DeSoto (La.) Parish chief deputy coroner, he had been under hospice care for a chronic heart condition.

“It’s tragic for a guy to die that young,” former Bulls general manager Rod Thorn said Friday via phone after watching pre-draft workouts in Minneapolis. Thorn is now president of the 76ers.

Thorn selected Woolridge sixth overall in the 1981 NBA draft out of Notre Dame. He played for the Bulls five seasons before moving on to the Nets, Lakers, Nuggets, Pistons, Bucks and 76ers during his 13-season career. Woolridge later served briefly as coach of the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks. He averaged 16 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists for his NBA career.

Woolridge was a svelte yet chiseled 6-foot-9, 215-pound forward. At Notre Dame he played as a freshman with Bill Laimbeer on a team that advanced to the 1978 NCAA tournament’s Final Four. He ranks 36th among Notre Dame career scorers with 1,160 points.

During the 1984-85 NBA season that featured Bulls rookie Michael Jordan, Woolridge averaged 22.9 points a game. Jordan averaged 28.2 points but the Bulls finished 38-44 under coach Kevin Loughery.

“He had some years that from a statistical standpoint were very good,” said Thorn, who had drafted Jordan and served as Bulls GM for seven years. “He was a talented guy, very athletic. But the thing I will remember about him is that he always had a smile on his face and he was a very pleasant guy to be around.”

Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore played briefly with Woolridge on the Bulls before being traded to the Spurs before the 1982-83 season.

“I think it is really tragic,” Gilmore said Friday from his home in Jacksonville, Fla. “The last time I spoke with him, he was working (for the Sparks in 1999). I am really surprised to hear this and saddened.”

Woolridge’s career and life wasn’t without trouble. The NBA suspended him for the last 63 games of the 1987-88 season because of substance abuse. On Feb. 24 of this year, Woolridge was arrested on a charge of stealing more than $1,500 worth of aluminum tubing at a drill site in in DeSoto Parish. He had been released after posting $2,000 bond.

Rod Higgins, president for Jordan’s Bobcats, arrived in Chicago in 1982-83, one year after Woolridge, and played three-plus seasons with him.

“(He was) graceful, athletic (and had) almost a perfect build for a basketball player,” Higgins said. “He had the ability to put the ball on the floor, finish above the rim.

“And he was an all-around nice guy. As a teammate, he was great. He was very jovial, very outgoing and outspoken, articulate. His personal issues, he had to deal with. But he had an awful lot of talent as a basketball player.

“We were just a bad team. We were all trying to figure things out and make the league. My rookie year, Paul Westhead was our coach. The following year, Kevin Loughery came in. So there was a lack of stability.

“Obviously, (his death is) shocking. He’s such a young guy in terms of a normal life span. He always seemed so full of life. It’s sad.”

Woolridge, who earned a degree in economics from Notre Dame, held out during training camp of his rookie year because of a contract dispute.

“He obviously was a very intelligent individual,” Gilmore said. “You have some athletes who are just athletes and don’t put too much thought into the game. But it is absolutely a thinking man’s game. If you are not focused, your success is minimized because of your thought process.”

Thorn, who became interim coach of the Bulls after he fired Jerry Sloan after a 19-32 start in the 1981-82 season, said Woolridge showed signs of becoming an exceptional pro as a rookie.

“Toward the end of the season, the last 30 games or so, he started playing more and I can recall a game in Atlanta when we beat the Hawks when they had Danny Roundfield (a three-time All-Star),” Thorn said. “He really played a good game and it was like, ‘Wow! The light has turned on for Orlando.’”

Woolridge is survived by his three children, Zachary, Renaldo and Tiana; his parents, Mattie and Larnceen; and his sister, Vanessa Woolridge Duplessis.

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