Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

TAMPA — I was one cranky creature of habit that early-January evening.

About an hour remained before the USF men’s basketball team — still more plodding than fascinating at the time — tipped off against Temple in its American Athletic Conference opener. I climbed the Yuengling Center steps toward the press area in one of the arena’s upper corners. Though seats aren’t assigned, my perch had remained the same for years: highest level of press row, far-left seat.

Right next to my buddy Russ Wood.

The veteran managing editor of BullsInsider.com (part of the Rivals Network), Russ usually arrived before me, chatting up coaches, staffers and even ushers. He’d then set up his laptop and try arranging his unwieldy assortment of notebooks and news releases in some semblance of order. In the process, he’d politely shoo away anyone who tried to occupy my place.

On this night, Russ wasn’t there. Two others occupied our spots. At that moment of selfish rancor, it didn’t dawn on me something might be amiss. Russ never, ever missed a Bulls home game, which made him a veritable scholar of substandard basketball. Aside from a 24-14 season five years before, the Bulls had languished somewhere between pedestrian and putrid during his tenure.

“He loved it,” said Kelly Quinlan, publisher of BullsInsider.com, who hired Russ roughly 10 years ago. “He loved covering the team. When Brian Gregory was the coach, he used to let (Russ) come to practice and hang out; he would go watch them practice during the week. He knew everyone in the building.”

After finding another seat and simmering down, I shot Russ a direct message, asking if he was OK. No response.

Six days later, we got the word he had passed away, alone at his home on Polk County’s northeastern fringe, at age 62.

Turns out, Russ had been battling health issues — including heart problems — for at least a couple of years. Because he was unmarried with no children, no one was made immediately known of his death. In November, Quinlan had asked police to do a wellness check on Russ when he failed to show up for a Bulls game. He answered his door, but was visibly groggy.

Some time later, a cousin requested a similar checkup, at which time Russ’ body was found. The Polk County Medical Examiner lists his date of death as Dec. 5, 2023.

“I didn’t think enough of it at the time to tell him to go get checked out or whatever,” Quinlan said of his final conversation with Russ. “And I think he was just fading.”

As I write this, I’m still unsure if the words provide catharsis or a cautionary tale — maybe both. Clearly, Russ’ death serves as a grim admonition to check on those around us who live alone, particularly those of advanced age or compromised health.

And maybe, befriend them in the process.

As I coped with this news, I sadly realized that Russ and I never talked at length about any topic beyond Bulls hoops. We never had a meal together outside the Yuengling Center. We conversed without ever confiding. From a press-row perspective, we were neighbors who liked to chat, but never developed a genuine friendship.

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Terps lover, Heels hater

Russ Wood spent nearly a decade covering USF men's basketball for BullsInsider.com, part of the Rivals network.Russ Wood spent nearly a decade covering USF men’s basketball for BullsInsider.com, part of the Rivals network. [ Photo provided by Kelly Quinlan ]

Had I struck up even one at-length discussion instead of keeping a single-minded focus on the next deadline, I might have learned that Russell Alan Wood hailed from Maryland and had graduated from the University of Maryland, thereby developing a naturally-spawned hatred of North Carolina and Duke basketball. I might have found out his birthday — June 20 — was a day before my son’s.

I probably would have discovered he was a shameless Star Wars geek who could proudly pontificate on any film in the sprawling, uber-successful franchise. He may have even talked about his previous life as a radio DJ, which took him to a diverse array of markets from San Francisco to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Chronicling basketball, first as a recruiting analyst and later a Bulls beat reporter for Rivals, was basically a post-retirement gig — and a passion. Oh sure, he also covered USF’s football team, but only because it came with the job. His true home was the gym, be it inside a sleek arena or stuffy bandbox.

Russ immersed himself in college and grass-roots hoops, developing a keen IQ for the sport and a robust network of contacts. “It wasn’t about the money and stuff like that, he loved what he did,” said Dwayne Wise, director of recruiting for Team Durant, an elite travel-ball program based in Maryland.

“He really, really, really understood the game. He definitely was reserved with his opinions, but to me, he was definitely to the point. If it was a player, I’d say, ‘Take a look at him for me Russ. What do you think?’ He’d be like, ‘Dwayne I like him, but I’d like to see more of this or I’d like to see more of that.’ He was a guy that was very fair.”

That fervor manifested itself in miles. Russ commuted 60 miles one-way from his Davenport home to USF for games, practices and media availabilities. His diligence didn’t wane, even when the program was foundering. Russ chronicled his fair share of foundering.

Betrothed to his beat

“He was always around,” said former Bulls player Chad Dollar, a USF assistant during the 2017-18 season who now serves as associate head coach at Cincinnati.

“I think somebody said it online, but to have someone at South Florida that’s invested like him into the program during the time that it’s been difficult at certain points, that just shows a lot about him and about his commitment to doing what he does when it comes to the beat writing.”

Occasionally, Russ blurred boundaries by openly lauding a breathtaking Bulls play or bemoaning a blown call. Russ was unfazed; he had always been more hoops junkie than journalist.

And in time, he so endeared himself to Gregory and his assistants — who saw him not only on-campus but on the recruiting circuit — that he received unfettered access to USF’s program.

“He would come in and go to practice pretty much any time that he wanted,” said Jay D’Abramo, USF’s men’s basketball sports-information director from 2018-2021. “The coaching staff really trusted him to not really put anything out there, obviously, so he kind of had free reign to come and go as he wanted with practice.”

Russ’ final assignment came at a gig he annually worked — the ESPN Events Invitational, an eight-team college tournament staged every Thanksgiving weekend at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Less than a week later, on Nov. 30, he sent his final post on X (formerly Twitter) hyping a USF game at Hofstra.

Since his death, the Bulls (13-5, 6-1 American Athletic Conference) have won 11 of 12 contests.

“That’s what started driving me crazy about all this, because we’d talk all the time about how lousy the basketball team was the entire time he was covering them,” Quinlan said. “And now they’re starting to win and it’s like, he would love this. He watched so many bad basketball games for so long.”

The dastardly timing of it all remains but one regret. Had I chosen to take our relationship beyond a superficial level, I would’ve spoken with Russ far more frequently, might have seen the signs of his fading health, and likely would’ve felt comfortable urging him — maybe even demanding for him — to get to a doctor.

Now, a sense of urgency has taken hold, along with a stern moral directive: to befriend the unknown neighbor who lives 50 yards away, to chat up the supermarket cashier I’ve never bothered to know beyond the name tag, to converse more deeply with colleagues.

I missed my chance with Russ, who could have regaled me on a smorgasbord of subjects from Han Solo to high screens. Life is full of fascinating characters like that.

If we only get to know them.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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