Midway through the second quarter of the Washington Bullets' 87-86 loss to the Houston Rockets Saturday night -- shortly after he entered the game for the first time as a member of the team -- Leon Wood received instructions he hadn't heard for longer than he cared to remember.
He was told to just go out and play basketball.
Simple instructions, but words that for two years had not been said to the 6-foot-3 guard, whom the Bullets had acquired only the day before from Philadelphia in exchange for 1985 first-round draft pick Kenny Green.
"The last time someone told me to just go, to just be -- the last time . . . " said Wood, his brow furrowing. "Well, maybe in practices, because when you're going against the first team, it doesn't matter what you do.
"But in a game, it had to be in the Olympics -- no, not with (Bob) Knight. I guess it had to be back at Fullerton."
Back at Fullerton State in California, back in the days when Leon Wood was decidedly first team. After a year at Arizona State, Wood quickly went from being just another transfer student to what Sport magazine called the best unknown player in the country.
In his senior year, Wood averaged 24 points and 10 assists per game and was named all-America. A short time after that, he made the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, and many feared his free-wheeling style would clash with Knight. But once again Wood starred, controlling the gold medal-winning team's offense.
In the 1984 draft, the 76ers selected Wood with the 10th pick of the first round, but considering the playing time he received his rookie year, he might as well have been a free agent.
"I wasn't asking for 48 minutes a game. In fact, I sort of knew how it would be my rookie year," Wood said. "You never know when you might be called on -- if you might be called on. Then if you did get to play, it could have been for 40 minutes or 10 minutes or two minutes."
Wood, playing behind such talents as Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney, appeared in only 38 games and averaged seven minutes. He averaged only 3.2 points and 1.1 assists per game. Although he was ranked second in the league in three-point field goal accuracy, his playing time hadn't noticeably increased this season.
Leon Wood definitely was not first team.
"The way I played tonight was how I thought I was capable of playing last year," he said after the Houston game, in which he scored 17 points and had three assists in 23 minutes of play. "I knew that I wasn't going to be (Olympic teammate) Michael Jordan, someone who was going to come to a team and get 40 minutes and score 28 points a night with everyone looking at him in the spotlight."
"A lot of it depends on who you go to when you're drafted," said Houston Coach Bill Fitch. "Take the guy we took this year (Steve Harris from Tulsa). He's a hell of a player. If he were on a team where he could be the third guard, just play and not have to worry about contributing to a big winner, he'd be just like Jeff Malone.
"Instead, he comes here or goes to a Boston or where his playing time is limited, and he can't shoot, because every shot has to be a good one."
That was the scenario that Wood found with the 76ers. "In Philly, it seemed like the plays were being run away from me," he said. "There were things for Moses (Malone), Charley (Barkley) and Doc (Julius Erving). When I was out there I was the last option, only when you threw it inside and they kicked it back out. And then you had to hit the shot because you didn't get that many opportunities."
Still, Wood was not embittered by his experience -- or lack of it -- with the 76ers. After all, it wasn't exactly like being Vern Fleming, another teammate from the Olympics who had to endure a 22-60 season with the Indiana Pacers. There was winning and the esprit de corps that often accompanies it. Wood frequently could be found with a smile on his face, one oftentimes brought by his friend Barkley, who Wood said "cried like a baby" when he heard about Wood's trade to Washington.
Just how much Wood has learned since his days at Fullerton and on the playgrounds of Los Angeles and how much hope he harbors were brought home against the Rockets.
"I was sitting in the hotel and thinking that I've seen a lot for such a young player," Wood said. "Getting drafted high, sitting on the bench, getting traded. Then I remembered that Philly was just here last week.
"Then I thought, if we could upset them and if I could get some playing time and be a part of that upset, after the Bullets not beating them and Wood not playing with Philly, man, that would be something."
Something like Leon Wood always thought it would be. Jazz 106, Spurs 102
Thurl Bailey scored 20 points as Utah, playing without league-leading scorer Adrian Dantley, ended a five-game losing streak with the victory in San Antonio. The Jazz erased an early deficit and slowly pulled away from the Spurs in the second half.
Dantley, who has a hip pointer, did not accompany the Jazz on their four-game road trip.