story by Scott Duke Harris '79
photos courtesy of the National Basketball Association

His palms were sweaty, the way they always felt before game time. Looking across the basketball court, Leon Wood watched Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls enter the arena. When their eyes met, Jordan blinked, and smiled a bemused smile that seemed to say: "Leon? In a ref's uniform?"

That was nine years ago, when former Titan All-American Leon Wood '84 (B.A. physical education) started his first season in the National Basketball Association--his first season, that is, of his second NBA career. Wood played in the NBA for six years, then returned as a replacement official during a labor dispute in which the owners had locked out the referees. Jordan knew Leon Wood well: They won gold medals together as teammates in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Leon Wood nurtures rare memories and moments. In professional sports, it's extremely unusual for an athlete to return as a game official. Even now, Wood occasionally has the opportunity to call fouls on players he competed against. Fans at courtside remember him too, giving him grief if they don't like a call. "They'll say, 'Oh, you should know better than that! You played the game. Let 'em play, Leon.' "

Wood, now 42, is explaining what it's like to be Leon Wood in an Oakland hotel room, just another stop during a season in which he'll hopscotch the country, officiating about 70 games. During the season, Wood is on the road usually 20 to 22 days per month. Inside his hotel room, a college game plays on ESPN-TV, and his laptop is loaded with video files of NBA play--a referee's homework that fans never see.

"It's just for the love of the game," explains Wood. Now a south Orange County resident, he lives with his wife, 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son in Ladera Ranch. "When that runs out, it will be time to think about something else."

For love of the game. To some, the words may seem a worn cliché. Another Titan alumnus, Kevin Costner '78 (B.A. business administration-marketing), made a film with that title. But if anybody has lived the words, it is Leon Wood. As a teenager he was a local legend in West Los Angeles, so good that NBA pros welcomed him into their off-season pickup games at UCLA.

But ask him for his career highlights and he'll start with team honors, not individual stardom. He mentions the championship his team won at Santa Monica's Crossroads High School, not the fact that he led all preps in scoring. He singles out Titan upset victories over No. 1-ranked Nevada Las Vegas and a highly ranked Fresno State team. He makes no mention of his own glittering stats. (He holds the Titan records for scoring, averaging 24 points per game and assists at 11 points per game.) The Olympics were a crowning achievement. And when the Philadelphia 76ers made him the10th player selected in the 1984 draft, his teammates included the legendary Julius Erving and fellow rookie Charles Barkley.

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