The first time I saw Brent Woods play basketball was at Burnett Park in Jacksonville, Florida on a sultry summer day in 1991.
I loved his game immediately.
At 6-foot-3, he was effective from both the post and perimeter with a mellifluous style of play. He glided on the fast break and finished at the bucket like a condor in full flight.
As a former high school point guard at Fenwick and Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, I considered myself a pretty good player with a good eye for talent.
An introduction was inevitable.
He was wearing a University of Kentucky basketball T-shirt. As fate would have it, I grew up a huge University of Louisville hoops fanatic.
I had my in.
“UK, really? You gotta go with the ‘Ville, man,” I said to Brent that serendipitous day at Burnett Park.
A backcourt of best friends was born.
For the next several years, we were essentially inseparable. It was a bromance years before the term came in vogue.
Basketball was our common denominator.
During the carefree days of our 20s, we played in multiple leagues with solid results throughout Jacksonville.
Our best shot to win a title occurred in the Jacksonville Presbyterian Church League. We opened the season against a team called “H.” Their starters consisted of guys in their 50s with assorted goggles, headbands, knee braces who reeked of Bengay.
They resembled an uninspiring version of former Los Angeles Lakers forward Kurt Rambis.
Our team, License to Thrill (unfortunately, humility was not a virtue among us), started the game on a 23-2 run. We never looked back from that 85-42 win en route to a 9-0 record during the regular season.
After dismantling H, Brent and I drank beers in his parents jacuzzi later that night and recapped the victory.
“H, more like BS,” Brent proclaimed under the influence of Miller Genuine Draft. “Remember these times, Mart. This is so much fun. I think we can make a run at the title.”
Brent was close. We finished the season 10-1, losing in the championship game 85-73.
Despite the loss, I remember feeling so close to all my teammates, but especially Brent. We shared so many emotions on the court: joy, competitiveness, laughter, adversity, anger and pride.
In a players’ vote, we were selected the best backcourt in the league. Brent averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds and I contributed 13 points and seven assists per game.
Off the court, we took trips to Miami, Tampa, Charleston, Savannah, New York and my hometown, Chicago. Conversationally, nothing was taboo. We would share our thoughts about sports, news, history, philosophy, women, dating, culture and religion.
Although we’ve stayed in touch, it’s become more difficult since we live in separate states with different lives.
About a month ago, his mom texted me with the news that Brent died on Dec. 8 (my birthday). I had to read the text over at least 10 times to process the message. A surreal period ensued with recurrent tears and an unshakeable sense of loss.
Brent told me several years ago that he had a health issue but implied he was getting treatment. I just assumed he would be fine. Other than his parents, he never let on to anybody about his declining health. While I’m admittedly bewildered and hurt that he never provided full disclosure, I can’t fathom how difficult his situation must have been.
Diagnosed with kidney cancer three years ago, he battled the disease bravely with cross-country doctor visits, several chemotherapy treatments and ultimately he had one of his legs amputated.
Tragically, his sister Kelly (a divorced mom of three children) died six months before him in July.
Brent was 45, Kelly 48.
My heart goes out to their parents, Bill and Christina Woods.
One of my favorite sportswriters, Chicagoan Rick Telander penned a wonderful book, “Heaven is a Playground” about a bunch of pickup basketball players at Brooklyn’s Foster Park.
I’ve always loved the imagery of that title.
I experienced Heaven on earth when I played hoops with Brent.
Basketball was always more than just a game for us; it was a celebration of our friendship and life itself.