Before you learn anything about his parents’ visionary decision to challenge him academically as a youngster, and before you hear about the death of his grandparents in a house fire, or before you understand that his wearing of jersey No. 23 in high school goes beyond his adulation for Michael Jordan all the way to the Bible, you need to know about his name.
He is, after all, Seventh Day’Vonte Woods.
When Seventh was born the youngest of five children to Louis and Monica Woods, Dad did not want the apostrophe or the additional five letters on his middle name. Mom insisted that her son would not be named Seventh Day, even though both were in harmony about a lasting salute to Genesis 2:3:
“Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
From the time he entered this world it seemed as if Seventh Woods was a special kind of kid, whether on the basketball court where he once was named the nation’s best 14-year-old player, or in his bedroom where he posted self-written prayers on the walls, or with his decision to fulfill a childhood dream of playing collegiately at North Carolina.
Woods is a 6-foot-1, 185-pound guard who has carried four stars next to his name by most recruiting analysts. He generally has been listed among the top 50 incoming freshmen, mostly because of his explosiveness, both in moving the ball down the court with the dribble and in taking it to the basket against bigger opponents.
The on-court stories about Woods are legendary. He once suffered a concussion when his head banged against the rim while attempting to block an opponent’s shot. He dunked so hard in one game, a screw popped off the rim support. His thunderous dunk as a sophomore earned top play-of-the-day honors on ESPN’s SportsCenter, just ahead of one by LeBron James in a segment that was labeled “Kid vs. King.”
He was the youngest player – at age 14 – on the United States National Under-16 team that won gold at the 2013 FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Uruguay. The Hoopsmixtape video of Woods naming him the best 14-year-old player in the country has drawn more than 13 million views.
Despite the enormous recognition and adulation Woods has received since the eighth grade, his parents have attempted at every turn to keep him grounded. The family once declined invitations to appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Even the writing of this story was met with some resistance before his high school coach gave the family the OK to proceed.
Woods possesses a quiet confidence, on and off the basketball court. Despite being on the receiving end of trash talking in nearly every game he played during his high school career, his high school coach only recalls one time in which he returned the jawing in kind. “How do you like that?” Woods said off-handedly to an opponent after a dunk in the state championship game his junior year. That was it. Never before. Never since.
Woods speaks at such a low volume that it is difficult to discern what he is saying in a public setting, such as over lunch recently at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Columbia. His hushed tones should not be construed as an inability to communicate. He is bright and engaging, looks the listener directly in the eye and disarms that person with a charming smile and quick wit. His personality is clearly a combination of traits acquired from his parents, Dad being the soft-spoken one and Mom the more gregarious of the pair.
Monica and Louis Woods are Columbia natives, both graduating from inner-city high schools. Mom went into the printing business and Dad has most recently worked as a machine operator making earth-moving tires for Michelin Tire.
The Woods recognized at an early age that Seventh was a gifted athlete, and went about providing him with every necessary tool to succeed should an opportunity ever arise to compete at the highest level of play. They placed him on a recreation basketball team when he was 4, and it took the youngster one game of standing and observing to realize he was better than anyone on the court.
The Woods Rule
Finding that a higher level of play existed in the Harbison area of Columbia, the Woods moved Seventh to a recreation league there when he was 6. Unwilling to play against older kids, Seventh instead dominated games against children of the same age. Early that season, parents from opposing teams complained to recreation officials that the games were unfair with Woods on the court.
The league bowed to parents’ wishes and instituted the Seventh Woods Rule whereby no player could score more than 20 points in a game. Talk about unintended consequences. Woods proceeded to score his 20 points early in every game, then turned his attention to rebounding and passing, perhaps explaining why as a high school player he was considered an excellent distributor of the ball and could see the entire court.
He also excelled as a football and baseball player on youth fields. Once, as his parents arrived for a Dixie Youth League coaches-pitch baseball all-star tournament, they noticed that fans parked their cars directly behind the outfield fence in line with home run balls. Thinking that was odd, the Woods were informed that no player had ever hit an over-the-fence home run that landed on a parked car at that field. In his first at-bat, Woods hammered a ball over the cars and onto the concession stand roof.
But basketball was Seventh’s game, and the Woods paved half of their backyard, put up a goal and became the neighborhood gathering place for pickup games. Most of the time the court was dotted with kids older than young Seventh, and he occasionally pouted to Mom about not being allowed to play.
“This is his yard!” Mom shouted out the back door, “Let him play!”
It was not the last time Seventh’s parents stepped in to make a decision for him.
Woods, like his older siblings before him, was enrolled in public schools. Seventh’s older brother, Eric, had graduated from a Columbia public high school and found he was ill-prepared to attend Francis Marion University. Louis and Monica wanted to make certain Seventh would be adequately equipped for the academic rigors of a four-year college.
The first option for talented basketball players these days is to attend one of the growing number of basketball factories around the country that sometimes masquerade as academic institutions. Those basketball schools provide the highest level of competition for the elite player as well as around-the-clock concentration on the game.
That environment did not interest the Woods family. Instead, Louis and Monica were intent on making certain young Seventh would be academically challenged and would have no admissions issues should a basketball scholarship offer some day come his way. They began scouting Columbia area private schools and approached Hammond School about their son’s possible enrollment there.
Should anyone question the Woods’ motive in enrolling Seventh at Hammond, a predominantly white private school in Columbia, they need know that the boys’ basketball program had won 10 games total the previous two seasons. The Woods were willing to sacrifice any possible lack of basketball competition for academic advancement. They also figured he could get stiffer competition and the exposure he needed while playing the summer travel ball circuit.
“I think it took a lot of courage for them to do that,” said Mark McClam, who was beginning his first season as the varsity boys’ basketball coach at the time.
He’s such an understated kid. You would think he would walk around this campus like he owns the place, and he very well could, but he doesn’t. He’s very humble. He’s been like that from day one.
Laura Riley, Seventh Woods’ eighth-grade teacher
Woods likely would have migrated in the Columbia public school system from Alcorn Middle School to Eau Claire High School, where the graduation rate is 66 percent with a college readiness index of 4.7 percent, according to a 2016 report by U.S. News and World Report magazine. By comparison, Hammond graduates every student, and every one attends a four-year college, according to Chris Angel, the school’s headmaster.
“You can’t graduate from Hammond and not be prepared for any four-year university in the world,” Angel said. “It’s helpful to be in an environment where that is the expectation that everyone is going to college.”
Woods’ transition was not easy. In fact, he hated his new home. After the first week of school, Woods wrote a note on the top of a shoebox and gave it to his mother.
“PLEASE God PLEASE take me out of private school,” the note read. “If I can survive this I can survive anything.”
Woods had some catching up to do academically, particularly in math. Where previously he was an above-average student who did little work to pass courses, Woods now needed daily tutoring just to keep up in classes. Socially, he was a stranger in a strange land. By his estimate, there were seven other minorities in his eighth-grade class. He was not accustomed to seeing BMWs and Volvos in the parking lot at his previous school like he was at Hammond.
Woods had worked out with the varsity basketball team during the summer prior to his eighth-grade year, but being three and four years younger than his teammates did not allow for an acceptance into their social circles. Then when school started, he was shuffled off to the middle school, which has a separate campus from the high school, where he was expected to make all new friends.
The new kid
McClam called a sit-down meeting with Woods early that school year.
“You’re a new kid at a new school with kids who are really smart and ambitious,” McClam recalled telling Woods. “They want to be doctors and attorneys, and they know they have to get really good grades in high school to get to a good college to get to a really good medical school or law school.”
McClam challenged Woods to be just as competitive in the classroom as on the basketball floor. A long-standing tradition at Hammond is for an eighth-grade teacher to present every student with a six-word memoir the way novelist Ernest Hemingway once was challenged to write a six-word novel.
Laura Riley, his teacher that year, gave Woods the words: “He’s more than a basketball player.” Woods then went about living up to his memoir. Riley said he worked “twice as hard” as any of her other students in the classroom. He developed from a shy and introverted youngster to a confident and still humble young adult, never crossing the headmaster in the hall without stopping to shake his hand, looking him square in the eye and thanking him for the Hammond experience.
“He’s such an understated kid,” said Riley, who continues to teach at the school. “You would think he would walk around this campus like he owns the place, and he very well could, but he doesn’t. He’s very humble. He’s been like that from day one.”
Woods took a public speaking course as an elective during his senior year at Hammond. His final speech to the class spoke to the spiritual influence of his late grandparents on his life. Religion has played a vital role in Seventh’s life, passed down from his grandparents through his parents from an early age.
His grandparents, Ned and Helen, were long-time members of the Greater Faith United Missionary Baptist Church. In recent years, Ned had become a pastor at the church and occasionally preached on Sundays. Helen organized all prayer sessions for her grandchildren’s well-being, and more than occasional special prayer for Seventh to perform well on the basketball floor.
In the early morning of Dec. 13, 2014, Ned and Helen Woods died in their sleep when a fire caused by space heaters raged through their home on Flora Street. Five blocks away, the Woods family and Seventh awoke to the tragic news.
“It was just so surreal at the time,” Seventh said. “I kept thinking I would wake up and it would be different.”
There was some debate about whether Woods would play that night’s game for Hammond against Spring Valley in what was billed by the media as the “Game of the Century” in area high school basketball. Two powerful teams were matched as was Woods against P.J. Dozier, who later took his game to South Carolina, and 3,000 tickets were pre-sold in two days.
Woods, who later changed his Twitter account to #makethemproud, laced up his shoes for the game and wrote the date of his grandparents’ death – “12-13-14” – on the shoes, which he continues to do. Then he pulled out his cellphone and called up the prayer he had written and reads before every game he plays:
“Lord, please clear my head of all distractions, and my heart of all burdens I may bear, so I may perform my very best, knowing that you’ll always be there.
“Please lift me up before the moment, so through your eyes I may see, have a clear understanding of this game you unfold before me.
“With great courage I will meet this challenge, as you would have me do, but keep me humble and remind me, that my strength comes from knowing you.
“Then when all eyes are upon me, at the end of this game, I will turn their eyes to you.
“O Lord, and glory of your name. In Jesus name I play . . . Amen.”
What happened on the court that night surprised no one who knows Woods. He scored 30 points, including 16 in the second quarter, and grabbed 17 rebounds in Hammond’s 94-78 victory.
“There was something spiritual about that game,” McClam said. “He couldn’t miss. Couldn’t make mistakes. Something strange about that game. He played with such calmness and passion. He showed some rare, real excitement. Most ever.”
From the first time McClam saw Woods on a basketball floor, he recognized a quiet confidence about the player in addition to advanced skills. McClam’s son, Daniel, was playing a middle school game for Crayton against Woods’ Alcorn team. From the stands, McClam was in awe when he watched a skinny, 5-foot-9 Woods attempt – and miss – three dunk attempts during the game. Woods was 12.
Another of McClam’s sons, Andrew, was a senior on the Hammond varsity a year later when Woods came aboard as an eighth-grade teammate. The team was practicing a particular offensive set that called for Woods to get the ball to Andrew on the low post. Three times Woods’ passes smacked an unsuspecting Andrew in the face. “If I were you, I’d keep your hands up,” the coach scolded his son.
In the opening game of Woods’ first varsity season, Hammond was clearly overmatched against public-school opponent A.C. Flora. On the game’s first play, against fierce full-court pressure, Woods maneuvered his way through four A.C. Flora defenders, utilizing his full arsenal of spin moves, behind-the-back and crossover dribbles, then was challenged at the rim before scoring.
The packed house at Hammond’s gym got a glimpse of what they were in store for over the next five seasons at Hammond. Another time that season, an opponent pushed Woods out of bounds on a breakaway layup attempt. Not to be denied, Woods lofted the ball from behind the backboard and into the basket before he landed out of bounds. The spectacular play is worth watching on YouTube.
As a freshman, Woods scored a school-record 49 points in a game. Then there was his coming out party nationally as a sophomore in Raleigh during the sold out HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational against N.C. State-bound Dennis Smith and Trinity Christian School of Fayetteville. Down 25 points, Woods attempted to single-handedly bring Hammond back by scoring 25 points in the fourth quarter. Only a dunk stood in the way of Woods making seven consecutive 3-pointers in the quarter. Hammond – rather Woods – got within six points but lost by 14. He finished with 42 points on 14-of-23 shooting, including 7-of-11 on 3-pointers.
Afterward, Woods fielded a line of autograph seekers. His on-court performances, coupled with his flashy name, had gained him rock-star status. Nearly every game during his high school career, home or away, was played to a packed house. Hammond took to selling advance tickets to home games, and tickets were scalped outside games played on public-school courts. McClam occasionally gave Woods the option of exiting out the back door of gyms to duck admirers.
Hammond improved from 14 wins during Woods’ eighth-grade season to 21, 22, 26 and 23 the remainder of his career, which included losing in the state independent schools championship game as a 10th-grader and capturing the title as a junior. Having Woods on the roster helped Hammond attract other top-level talent, including Chevez Goodwin, who is headed to College of Charleston, and Xavier McDaniel Jr., who will attend Texas Rio Grande Valley. At one point the trio led tiny Hammond to a No. 10 national ranking and 36 consecutive victories.
Throughout his high school career, the question lingered about where Woods would play collegiately. A young Woods announced games to himself in the family’s backyard while impersonating and wearing the jerseys of NBA stars James, Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. Then he became attached to a No. 23 Michael Jordan UNC jersey. When it came to choosing a jersey number at Hammond, Woods liked the idea of wearing Jordan’s No. 23, but also made the choice in deference to Genesis 2:3 from the Bible.
McClam knew of Woods’ affection for UNC. Immediately following Woods’ eighth-grade season, McClam called Roy Williams and arranged a visit to Chapel Hill. One of the reasons for the visit at such a young age was for McClam to impress on the Woods’ family that colleges would take note of Seventh because of his basketball abilities, regardless of whether he played at a public school or a small, private school like Hammond.
Williams took note, immediately.
Williams promised Woods that he would personally see the player more than any other coach. No UNC coach made a visit to see Woods play without Williams over a four-year period. So, on the in-home recruiting visit Williams looked Woods dead in the eye and said, “I’ve worked longer, if not harder, to recruit you than any player I’ve ever recruited.”
Williams arrived at that visit to the Woods’ home at precisely 4 p.m. on Sept. 9, 2015. South Carolina coaches followed at 6 p.m. Williams came toting a plastic bag full of goodies, including pralines and crème candy that he purchased in Charleston.
Early in the meeting in the Woods’ living room, McClam was wearing his team’s state championship ring and motioned for Seventh to get his from his bedroom and wear it.
“Mark, I know you were a point guard for John Kresse,” Williams said of McClam’s playing days at College of Charleston. “That’s too much of an assist, I’m going to have to take advantage of it.”
Pushing the ball
Williams then reached into his bag and pulled out a glass-topped wooden box that held all of his championship rings from the Big 12 Conference when he coached at Kansas to ACC championships, Final Fours and national championships at UNC. Williams then pulled out an NBA MVP ring that Michael Jordan had given to Williams, and let Woods handle it.
Finally, Williams handed Woods a package that included a custom-fitted UNC uniform, complete with properly sized Air Jordan shoes. When he returned to the living room for pictures with the family, there was no doubting where he was going to attend school, choosing UNC over Georgetown and a late push from South Carolina.
Williams is convinced that Woods’ game that features an explosiveness in pushing the ball down the court is a perfect fit for UNC’s style of play, in much the same manner of former UNC guard Ty Lawson.
Those skills were immediately noticeable to Marseilles Brown when Woods was in the eighth grade. Brown, who runs Hoops and Life Basketball Training in Columbia, was hired by the Woods family to privately tutor Seventh. Brown detected early on that Woods possessed ball-handling and passing skills like no one he had worked with or seen since playing high school basketball against Iverson in Hampton, Va.
Brown first tagged the nickname “Pyscho” on Woods because he was fearless on the basketball floor, then went to calling his pupil “Alien” because his skills were from another planet.
Woods will not need a nickname at UNC. By the time Seventh Woods slips on his No. 21 jersey for the first time in November, he will immediately join UNC’s Hall of Fame list of great names, right there with Hook Dillon, Timo Makkonen, York Larese, Bones McKinney, Yogi Poteet, Ranzino Smith and Serge Zwikker.