Howard Wood to Be Named SEC Legend

Howard Wood recently saw his all-Skyline Conference second team protégée, Kaelyn Ward, a Farmingdale State senior now, capture a career-high 24 rebounds (while scoring 17 points) in a first-round conference tournament win over St. Joseph’s-Brooklyn. She led the team in field goal percentage, steals, and blocks this season. Jack Graves

Howard Wood, known as the Dancing Bear in his University of Tennessee playing days, is to be named as an SEC Legend Wednesday during halftime of his alma mater’s first-round conference tournament game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

A second-team all-American and first-team all-SEC selection in 1981, his senior year, Wood, who went on to a successful decade-long career in Spain after playing briefly in the N.B.A. with the Utah Jazz, will join three of his teammates from the early Don DeVoe years — Reggie Johnson, Dale Ellis, and Johnny Darden — on the elite Legends list.

The honoree had piqued Tennessee’s interest at a closed-to-the-public scrimmage between East Hampton High School and Long Island Lutheran in his senior year here, but said this week that he’d heard later in life that a University of Connecticut scout had predicted that he’d never play at Tennessee. “Not because of sour grapes,” he added.

“I wasn’t on Tennessee’s list initially. They were there to see Wayne McCoy, the best high school player in the nation at the time. He was big, 6-9 — I was 6-6 at the time — but I had a good scrimmage. He ended up going to St. John’s and I went to Tennessee.”

His parents had wanted him to stay closer to home — UConn, Iona, and Hofstra were other suitors — so they could see him play, but Wood, with his high school coach Ed Petrie’s blessing, went for it. “I never regretted that I went that far away from home — you go where your heart takes you.” 

“Don DeVoe had just taken over as the coach there. He’d coached with Bobby Knight, so you can imagine. I was overweight, and so he had me run up and down the football stadium’s steps 20 times a day, beginning at 6 a.m.”

“I cursed him every step of the way,” he said with a broad smile. “But, oh man, did it make such a difference. I had never been in shape like that. I was so much quicker and stronger, and a lot lighter. I had explosive moves.”

Scott Rubenstein, now the managing partner at East Hampton Indoor/Outdoor Tennis, and a teammate of Wood’s on East Hampton’s 1977 state-championship team, had also contributed greatly to the furtherance of his playing career, Wood said.

“Scott was a terrific defender. When he scored his 100th point, they gave him the ball, which said, ‘100  points scored, 900 points saved.’ He was so good that he’d piss people off. I kept asking myself when we played one-on-one why I couldn’t score on him. Then I realized — he was making me go left! I wanted to spin back, but he knew what was coming. Learning to go left was the best thing ever. Then he had me play tennis with him, and made me move, hitting balls to the baseline and then dropping them over the net.”

“My right hand was wrecked in the first week of practice in my freshman year. It’s still misshapen. For a while, I had to wear something that looked like a boxing glove on it. That’s how I learned to shoot with my left hand. That saved me. I was like Michael Beasley with the Knicks. My left-hand shot got to be as good as my right.”

“I came off the bench as a freshman and made the all-SEC freshman team. I started sometimes as a sophomore. Kevin Nash was playing then — you know, the W.W.E. [World Wrestling Entertainment] guy. He was a 6-11 power forward. I started, I was the center, in my junior and senior years.”

“I had decent stats,” he said. “I don’t remember them. I think I scored 14, 15, or 16 points on average.” He’s 35th on the Volunteers’ all-time scoring list with 1,201. “Seven rebounds, a good free throw shooter, only a few assists. . . . I did not pass,” he said with a smile.

One of Wood’s great games was the N.C.A.A. Sweet 16 matchup between Tennessee and the University of Virginia in ’81. The Vols were to lose 62-48, but Wood defended the 7-4 three-time national player of the year, and future pro, Ralph Sampson, very well. The Hall of Fame plaque’s photo in East Hampton High School shows Wood boxing Sampson out. 

“When you’re smaller, you can use that to your advantage by getting low,” he said. “There’s no trick to it, really — you put your butt in his gut and box him out. Yes, that was Ralph in the picture. The idea is to block the other guy out and get the rebound, or not to let him get the rebound. I got that rebound!” 

He hadn’t exactly shut Sampson down in the Sweet 16 game, he said. “But he only had 7 or 8 points. We did a good job on him as a group. He swatted my first shot into the second row! His first shot was a pull-up jumper from the top of the key, coming off a pick. Oh my God, I didn’t expect it! Our team was small — I was one of the tallest at 6-7 — but we were close-knit, which helped us win. We were always together, which makes it easier when you play . . . nothing negative. . . . I had a good college career. We made it to the N.C.A.A.’s in three of my four years. We made it to the Sweet 16, we won the [1979] SEC tournament, beating Kentucky in the finals, in overtime. . . .” 

That conference championship was Tennessee’s first since 1943.

Wood’s daughter, Luz, who will turn 17 on Monday and is going to Temple University in the fall, is flying over from Spain to attend the ceremony with her father, who became fluent in Spanish while playing professional basketball in that country and became a familiar voice on the radio, broadcasting sporting events, including the Super Bowl. He and his wife, Maria, who lives in Monzon, “a small town two and a half hours outside of Barcelona, my second-favorite city,” are also the parents of a 24-year-old son, Dennis. Wood is an assistant J.V. basketball coach at East Hampton High School and travels to Spain on most school breaks. 

“The tournament is from March 6th to the 11th. Every team in the SEC sends one player.”

Yes, he was in good company, Wood agreed. Reggie Johnson was the first of Tennessee’s SEC Legends, in 1999. Wood, the 20th, joins a list that includes Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Allan Houston, and the aforementioned Dale Ellis, Johnny Darden, and Don DeVoe.

“It’s humbling,” he said, “considering all the players who have played there.”