As the UVU men’s basketball team made their way to the Great West Conference Tournament on Chicago State’s home floor, senior guards Isiah Williams and Kevin Woods remember other nearby courts they made their own.
Before the NCAA arenas, the Wolverine duo started on Chicago’s inner city playgrounds, each establishing a style and identity of his own. For Woods, it happened at Marquette Park, a player’s dream of street ball skills on display for any and all passerby.
Before the nagging, on-and-off injuries Woods has dealt with in college, the former Chicago Leo Catholic High standout thrived on the hard cement courts just off 71st Street.
“I was very athletic back then before the injuries and stuff,” Woods recalled. “Just playing at the parks and dunking, everybody gathering around the parks. Everyone starts watching and you’ve got a crowd going. The trash talk and everything, those are fond memories that I love and always will keep.”
It was at Marquette that Woods learned not the oft-criticized habits of the playground, but the tricks of the trade some college athletes never learn in the first place.
“Street ball is not what everybody thinks it is,” Woods said. “There’s things you can learn playing park ball, street ball, that you really can’t pick up playing organized ball and just picking up those kinds of habits. You learn little things like cuffing the ball, going between the lanes, because you know in street ball there’s no fouls. You just get used to the contact and finish. I think picking up those habits helped transfer over to organized basketball.”
Williams made that transition sooner, but not before picking up the basics at Franklin Park;
three courts, side-by-side-by-side, where Williams played with several up-and-comers that – coincidentally – now play for GWC rival and tournament host Chicago State.
“When we play [Chicago State] and I go home, it reminds me of the place that I started at,” Williams said. “Franklin Park was where I really started, really playing and people noticing who I was.”
From parks to preps
Woods and Williams met later, two inner city products playing for renowned high school programs. Details as to how the meeting went, however, are debated between the two.
“We played them twice, but there was somebody older starting in front of him,” Woods recalled. “I really didn’t play against him too much, but I played against his school.”
“I wasn’t coming off the bench,” Williams contested. “I started all four years in high school.”
One thing both agree on – Woods had game, but Williams’ team came out on top.
“His team beat us,” Woods admitted. “The only ammo I got is I got 30 [points] or something like that against them, but they still won the game. That’s all I can really say against him.”
Williams remembered Woods’ performance and – more importantly – how dangerous his former opponent and current teammate was before injuries affected his career.
“He wasn’t hurt like he’s been, he was a lot more athletic,” Williams said. “He could do a lot of things that most people could see when he got in games earlier this year. But I’ve seen Kevin when he was real healthy. He was real good.”
As good as Woods was, Williams’ team at Farrugut High proved to be better, ousting not only Woods’ Leo Catholic team but reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose’s Simeon high school squad as well – before Rose evened the score and then some.
“It was my junior year,” Williams recalled. “We were the only team in Chicago to beat them that year. We played them three times, we beat them the first one. The second time we lost kind of bad. The third time we lost by two or three. It was crazy to see him [a couple years later] going to the NBA, ‘cause I had just played against him.”
Opponents turned teammates
Two years later, Williams saw Woods during his official campus visit to UVU. By then Williams’ game and reputation had seen him to the College of Eastern Utah, making him a local recruiting target for the Wolverines. The 6-1 scoring machine admitted seeing Woods, another Chicagoan, already there was a “big reason why I came here.”
Two years later and 39 wins later, the pair is hoping their home-grown talents will get them a few more looks and wins, and not necessarily in that order.
“It’s a good thing to go back home and play my last couple of games,” Williams said. “My family’s going to be able to see me play college ball back home and that feeling is good, but mostly I’ve just been thinking about winning the tournament.”
For Woods, the homecoming provides extra motivation and relief after a trying four years.
“I’m pretty much just excited to end my college career at home in front of my family and all my friends,” Woods said. “To me, that’s just capping off a good college career. Maybe not as far as health-wise, but to end my college career at home is the best feeling.”
Even if it’s not on concrete.