Jim Dey: One man's roundball reflections

Jim Dey: One man's roundball reflections

There's more to life than basketball, as retired teacher and university professor Mike Woods discovered when his youthful passion gave way to adult realities.

And there's more to writing a book about one's life than putting words on paper, as Woods similarly learned when he began to solicit advice about how to package and publish his story.

But Woods, now 77, eventually figured it out, and the result is a 384-page large-sized paperback entitled, "The Game: The Way We Were to the Way We Are."

As a teacher and coach in the public schools and a University of Illinois faculty member, he spent nearly 50 years in education. In that time, Woods served 16 years as president of the Champaign district teachers union, and briefly, during the tenure of former Superintendent James Mahan in the 1980s, in an administrative post overseeing controversial school-desegregation efforts.

He described the chapters in his life as akin to ages of innocence, enlightenment and disillusionment, an evolution in which youthful ideals give way to broader education ultimately marked by life's grim realities.

The idea for the book came from a visit with some of the grandchildren in his large family.

"It dawned on me that they didn't know anything about their family" history, Woods said.

So he decided to write a book for them, one about growing up in the basketball-mad Mississippi River town of Fulton, located in Whiteside County just across the river from Clinton.

From there, the book took on a life of its own, broadening as Woods discovered "more opportunities to build more into" his story.

Indeed, its subjects include how life in small towns changed with the passage of time, corruption in competitive college sports, public education, teachers union activism and racial prejudice and its consequences.

But it all starts with hoops mania in Fulton, where Woods and his brothers were high school team members for 17 consecutive years.

"You couldn't grow up in the Woods family in the 1950s without being inundated with basketball. You ate and slept basketball. Basketball was every day," he recalled.

During that time, the Fulton High School Steamers were a local powerhouse, and Woods was a big reason for its success. Tall and rangy with a good shooting touch, he was a key member of winning teams and much sought-after by college coaches, including the UI's Harry Combes.

In 1958, Woods was a member of The News-Gazette's All-State team that included future UI star Dave Downey, future Iowa Hawkeye and NBA lifer Don Nelson and Chicago Marshall star George Wilson, another future pro.

'Young, eager and naive'

Woods eventually accepted what passed as a scholarship to play for Iowa. One highlight of his time there was playing in a high-profile tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

He describes his experience at that basketball mecca as "overwhelming," one highlighted by his efforts to stop Oscar Robertson in the tournament championship against Cincinnati.

"That's when the Big O (Robertson's nickname) got 50," Woods said. "He was the Michael Jordan of his time."

But there were disappointments as well. Woods said he was angered when Iowa played a road game at Texas Tech and the team was forced to stay at a faraway hotel because closer ones wouldn't provide his black teammates a room.

"The race issue has been very salient to me over the years, and it started at Texas Tech," he said.

Even though he took them, Woods was disillusioned by the under-the-table payments Big Ten coaches embraced to overcome conference rules that put them at a competitive disadvantage with non-Big Ten schools that could offer full scholarships.

Woods' career at Iowa was cut short by health and academic woes. He confesses to being an indifferent student there, even though he later earned a doctorate at the UI. He started over in both education and basketball at Western Illinois, eventually graduating to become a teacher and coach at a Catholic school where he was expected to teach eight classes a day and coach after school ended.

"It was the best two years I had because I was doing everything," he said, acknowledging that he also was "young, eager and naive."

Woods eventually made his way to Champaign, raising a family of five children with his wife while pursuing graduate degrees and teaching at University High School and in the Champaign schools.

'They love the reminiscing'

His reflections, both on his experience here and in Fulton and the times in which they occurred, make up the bulk of "The Game."

As one son of a small-town Catholic drug store owner, Woods comments on how the once-strong religious prejudice of the 1950s has waned. At the same time, he observes, once-thriving small-town businesses have been hit hard by bigger competitors that have changed the nature of community.

Woods has visited his hometown to discuss his book and sign copies and plans to go back. He has found older residents there enjoy his observations of times now long gone.

"The thing I hear is that they love the reminiscing," he said.

Woods also said he's interested in appearing locally to discuss events he observed and participated in. He said that, having "made my positions clear on any number" of issues, he'd be interested in hearing others' perceptions.

Woods retired from Champaign schools in 1999 and the UI in 2012. He and his wife once devoted much of their down time to boating on the Mississippi. Now, they have a 25-foot van they use to travel to wide-open places, many out west.

"Everything I have at home, I have in the van. I can go and stay anyplace, " he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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