Indiana University introduces Mike Woodson as their new head coach on Monday, March 29, 2021.
INDIANAPOLIS — Two decades after the god of Indianapolis high school basketball Oscar Robertson made his mark, a 6-foot, 5-inch explosion of a player burst onto city courts.
Mike Woodson was intense, animated, serious and the nemesis of his opponents. As the city’s leading scorer and Broad Ripple High superstar, he was part of the heated rivalries played in packed gyms with some 3,500 fans crammed in and more pouring in the doors.
These were the spectators here for the show and this was Woodson’s stage. He dove over rivals, pulled down rebounds with his knuckles and, on a drive toward a basket, nearly used an opponent’s back as a step ladder.
The other teams knew they had to stop him. But they couldn’t.
His name was splashed almost daily in newspapers. And not just a mention. Woodson was the headline.
“Woodson leads 63-60 overtime upset… Woodson was nearly the entire story for the Rockets, scoring a game high 37 points…Mike Woodson’s 32-point gunning was just too much…Woodson bombs 38 points in overtime win…Woodson goes on a tear…Mike Woodson scores 6-8 final points for win”
“Playing with Mike, it was awesome, a lot of attention,” said his teammate Don Cox, who would often join Woodson in a 1-2 punch of 60-plus points in a game. “All of a sudden, we were famous. We had our names in the newspaper. And for me, that was something. For me, I was nobody.”
Mike Woodson, Broad Ripple, drives toward the basket over the back of Marshall’s Doug Whyde during a game in January of 1976. (Photo: IndyStar archives)
Woodson was nobody, too. Until he was Indianapolis’ basketball superstar, until he was among an elite group being talked about for Mr. Basketball. Until he was among an even more elite group being compared to that god of Indianapolis basketball.
“Broad Ripple’s Mike Woodson is being heralded in many circles as the best high school basketball talent to come out of Indianapolis since all-time great Oscar Robertson,” wrote IndyStar sports columnist Bob Collins in 1976.
When Woodson was announced as Indiana University’s new head coach this week, talk of his four years playing for Bob Knight swirled. Stories of his time as an NBA player and coach were repeated.
But, before all that, there was a tiny house with 12 children. There was a teacher who saw something in a boy who didn’t see it in himself. There was a kid trying to battle it out on cracked city courts and inside rec centers with guys six years older.
“It all started,” Woodson said, “in Indianapolis.”
‘That’s all I needed to hear’
Woodson was born in the spring of 1958, the second youngest of Chester Lee and Odessa Woodson’s children. His dad delivered pianos for a living, but was always taking on odd jobs to make ends meet. His mom was a private duty nurse.
Home wasn’t much, a few bedrooms for all of them. His sister Jan said they all had to learn how to get along, 14 people in a compact house. They didn’t have a lot, but they never realized it.
There was always food on the table. Maybe not the steaks Woodson, his two brothers and nine sisters longed for, but there was food. There were popsicles in the freezer.
After a long day playing in the hot afternoon sun, Woodson would always invite his friends back for a frozen treat. If the stash got low, Woodson was the first to offer to split one or forgo his altogether.
He was the Woodson kid with the biggest heart, his siblings always said. And his gentle ways caught the attention of a sixth-grade teacher. That’s when the basketball dream began.
Woodson couldn’t afford to go to Bob Knight’s basketball camp, but his teacher saw something in him that Woodson said he probably didn’t even see in himself. That teacher told Woodson he wanted to pay for him to go down to Bloomington.
Woodson ended up winning a 3-on-3 contest and Knight walked up to him.
“Coach gave me a T-shirt and told me he would follow me my senior year in high school,” Woodson, 63, said during his announcement Monday as IU’s new coach. “And that’s all I needed to hear.”
‘A little gunner’
Woodson was 12 when his dad died. That changed things. His mom was left with a lot of kids to support. The kids were left to do the right thing whether Odessa Woodson was watching or not.
For Woodson, that meant basketball. On those cracked city pickup courts, inside rec centers and everywhere in between, Woodson went searching for pickup games.
“There just wasn’t a place you couldn’t go to get a basketball game in Indianapolis,” Woodson said. “And the talent back then was just tremendous, man. I mean, I can go in every area of Indianapolis and play pickup basketball and play at a high level.”
By the time he was in high school, Woodson was spending a lot of time inside the gym at Douglass Park. He was playing with — and against — lauded names such as Roger Brown, George McGinnis, Freddie Lewis, Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky, Darnell Hillman, Billy Keller and Rick Mount.
And Billy Knight. Knight was beginning his pro career with the ABA Pacers when he met Woodson at Douglass Park. Knight was six years older.
“He was a little gunner, that’s all,” Knight told IndyStar in 2004 when Woodson got the head coaching job with the Atlanta Hawks. “He wanted to shoot the ball all the time instead of passing it off to the veteran guys. He didn’t want to take a backseat.”
Woodson was skinny and awkward. From his eighth to ninth grade year, he grew from 5-9 to 6-1. By his sophomore year, he was 6-5.
Still, he wasn’t the first guy picked by the older and bigger kids and men. Sometimes, he just had to sit and watch.
“I had to wait my turn,” Woodson said. “Then, when I got my chance, I had to make the best of it or I wouldn’t get an opportunity to play again.”
That persistence and fire translated onto the high school court — in a big way.
‘Michael is a backbone person’
He was a sophomore when he started playing varsity at Broad Ripple. Despite Woodson’s standout play and eye-popping scoring, he never let up or got comfortable with the idea he’d always have a starting spot.
Woodson’s high school coach, the late Bill Smith pointed to Woodson’s relentless work ethic, never being satisfied and always willing to learn more, once saying, “Coaching Mike, I learned from him.”
“You knew you were going to get 150% each and every time he stepped on the practice floor,” Smith told IndyStar in 1987 when Woodson was playing for the Clippers. “(And) each and every time he stepped on the game floor and each and every time he went in the classroom.”
As a junior at Broad Ripple, Woodson averaged 20.1 points and then, his senior season, came that explosion.
“Playing with Mike, it was awesome,” said Cox. “Mike did unbelievable things.”
Woodson’s nephew, Bill Woodson, Jr., remembers his dad taking him to all of his uncle’s games. He was 10, watching magic on the court.
“People talk about idols. … Mike’s been my idol since I was little,” said Bill Woodson. “When Mike played in high school, I fell in love with basketball. I fell in love with watching him play. Dr. K? Magic? Bird? No Mike Woodson was my idol.”
Bill Woodson said his uncle is the reason he went on to play and coach. He recently took the job as assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Saint Mary-Of-The-Woods College in Terre Haute.
“Mike, when it came to basketball, Mike was serious,” said Bill Woodson. “He plays basketball the right way.”
And in many ways, Woodson strives for perfection.
His senior year, Woodson led the city and county in scoring with 28.6, paving the way for Broad Ripple’s 20-4 record. The team was ranked fourth in the state going into the sectional but lost to Marion County champion Lawrence Central.
Woodson, who lost the Indiana Mr. Basketball title to Marion’s Dave Colescott, set records for career points (1,063) and season points (630). He was named all-state and to the Indiana All-Stars team where he was the state’s leading scorer.
“I’ve learned there are all kinds of people in life, those who are jawbones, those who are wishbones and those who are backbones,” Smith said. “Michael is a backbone person. He didn’t talk about it. He didn’t wish about it. He did it.”
‘I have a story to tell’
As Woodson reminisced Monday about his days playing pickup in Indianapolis, he talked about what those games meant and where he hoped they would lead him.
“Everybody who played basketball, they always had their eyes on Indiana University, or Purdue, or Notre Dame, but I always had my eyes on Indiana University and the basketball program,” he said. “Because it was so powerful at that time, and every year you knew that Indiana was in position to do something special, and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”
That promise Knight made to Woodson at his sixth-grade camp came true. Knight did follow him during high school.
“And I had a great senior year,” Woodson said, “and he came knocking.”
In Bloomington, the Broad Ripple star turned into an IU star. Woodson led the team in scoring all four years and finished as one of the best players in the program’s history, scoring 2,061 career points. Woodson averaged 19.8 points and 5.6 rebounds for his career, was two-time All American and Big Ten MVP his senior year.
“(Coach Knight) took a chance on a kid out of Indianapolis many years ago,” Woodson said, “to come here and play basketball.”
Knight released a statement this week on Woodson’s hiring that read, in part: “He will do an excellent job. He will be an outstanding disciplinarian and teacher working with his team. I’ve never known a better person than Mike. He is just a great man.”
While Woodson’s ties to IU will be key in his new coaching job, his ties to the city could prove invaluable, said Jack Hogan, who played at Broad Ripple in the early 1960s, and has followed Woodson’s career.
“I think his Indy roots will help him recruit within the state,” he said. “And he will have a great deal of help from former IU players. His NBA experience should be attractive to national recruits who have NBA aspirations.”
As questions arose Monday about Woodson’s ability to recruit high school players, given his career spent in the NBA, Woodson circled back to Indianapolis.
“I honestly believe I can go in a kid’s home and be able to relate because of what I’ve gone through in my career,” he said. “And I have a story to tell, I do.”
A story of a kid from Indianapolis who lost a father, whose teacher took a chance on him, who learned basketball playing on the rundown courts of Indianapolis with some of the greats — and a kid who went on to be a high school superstar.
“And if that kid’s willing to listen and he buys into my story,” Woodson said, “I think I can get them to come to Indiana University.”
Indiana. Woodson is finally back. He said it’s always been in his heart, a place he wanted to return.
“It’s been a nice run in the NBA,” Woodson said. “But to be able to circle back and come back home…”
That’s where Woodson wants to be.
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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