It’s 6 a.m. in Portland. A decade ago, Qyntel Woods might have just arrived home from a night of partying. Today, his brief, promising NBA days firmly in the rear view, he’s half a world away. Literally. “It’s 3 o’clock here—3 p.m.,” he says over the phone. “I’m in Poland.”
His Southern accent is less pronounced than it was when he last graced the pages of SLAM, but it flares up when he gets excited, like when he talks about his kids or the prospect of finally coming home for the summer at the conclusion of another seemingly interminable season abroad.
Since playing his last NBA game in 2006, Woods has quietly put together a prolific playing career overseas, with stops in Greece, Spain, Italy, Russia, Israel and Poland, where he’s known affectionately as “Polish LeBron.” But Qyntel’s long, winding journey to success as a professional basketball player has been far from the glamorous NBA career he seemed destined for as a rookie in 2002.
At 21 years old, Qyn was a 6-9, 230-pound monster from South Memphis who had NBA executives salivating over his blend of guard skills and raw power. So he passed on a scholarship offer from John Calipari at the University of Memphis and made the leap to the League straight out of tiny Northeast Mississippi Community College.
Portland selected Woods with the 21st pick in the first round. Bob Whitsitt, Portland’s GM at the time, says the Blazers had essentially narrowed the pick to two: Woods or Tayshaun Prince. “I think I liked Tayshaun better than Qyntel, but it was so close, and at that time I was running 14 companies including a football team in Seattle [the Seahawks] so I deferred to the scouts,” he says. “But I liked Qyntel a lot.” [Prince was picked two slots later by Detroit and started on the Pistons’ 2004 title team. Whitsitt resigned as Blazers GM after the 2002-03 season.]
Woods was hurt; he expected to go higher. After all, scouts lauded him as a Lottery pick leading up to the Draft. The Lakers were reported to be ready to trade into the top 10 to get him. The New York Times described him as “a little of Tracy McGrady, a little of Kobe Bryant” and “something of Paul Pierce.” At one point, ESPN’s Chad Ford suggested he might even go No. 1, ahead of Yao Ming and Jay Williams, the eventual top two picks.
Plus, the Blazers’ roster was stacked with vets. Rasheed Wallace, Derek Anderson, Bonzi Wells, Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, Ruben Patterson, Arvydas Sabonis, Dale Davis. Qyntel knew he’d never see any meaningful minutes. “I had zero expectation of him playing contributor’s minutes that first year,” says Whitsitt. “We had a lot of veteran guys who were fighting for minutes, let alone an unproven rookie. Qyntel’s first season, we still won 50 games.”
Arriving in Portland, Qyntel gravitated to Zach Randolph, the team’s first-round pick the previous season. Both came from humble beginnings and suddenly had more cash than they knew what to do with. Randolph had at least been exposed to the bright lights of DI basketball. Qyntel came from crowds as small as 150. He was in over his head.
“At the time, Zach Randolph was much different than he is now,” says Jason Quick, a senior writer at The Oregonian who covered the Blazers for 13 years. “He was young, he was making money, he was the focal point of the team and he had this renegade lifestyle because of it. He thought he was untouchable and took Qyntel along for the ride.”
Late nights. Women. Weed. Looking back, Woods says he knew he was acting out, but it didn’t matter. “At the time, me being so young, and being in the NBA and having money, I really didn’t care, to be honest. I was just like, It’ll be OK. Everything will be OK. Even though I knew I was doing bad shit, the mentality of an NBA player is like, You’re above everything. That’s how I felt when I was young—invincible. Like, I’m untouchable.”
The transgressions of that now-infamous “Jail Blazers” team are well documented. A few weeks into Qyntel’s rookie season, Wells was suspended for spitting on the Spurs’ Danny Ferry. Later that month, team co-captains Stoudamire and Wallace were pulled over and cited for marijuana possession on their way home from a game in Seattle. (“That was the thing when I was like, Fuck,” Qyntel says of that particular episode. “I was like, Oh my God, what have I got myself into?”) A few days later, Patterson was arrested for domestic abuse. In January, Sheed was suspended for threatening a ref outside the Rose Garden. In April, Randolph was suspended for fracturing Patterson’s eye socket in a practice fight—one that started as a beef between Woods and Patterson. And later that month, Qyntel was pulled over for speeding and had weed in the car; during the traffic stop he reportedly offered only his trading card and two credit cards as identification.
“I was put around the same guys that I was coming from being around. I don’t want to say thug—it sounds bad—but, guys from the neighborhood,” he says of trying to navigate his first NBA season. “Basically, thugs.”
On the court, Qyntel played just six minutes a game during a rookie year he describes as being in “shambles.” His second season brought more dysfunction. The Blazers were over the hill, and while Qyntel competed hard enough in practice to earn a few more minutes, when he wasn’t playing, he was lost.
Twelve-year vet Tracy Murray spent his final season in Portland, where his locker was next to Woods’. “Qyntel was always a real guy,” remembers Murray. “What you see is what you get. He wasn’t going to put on or be fake. He was always real, he was always honest.” But Murray says the team asked him to focus instead on mentoring Travis Outlaw, Portland’s first-round pick in 2003, who was fresh out of high school.
“There was no one that embraced me and taught me the rights and wrongs of what the NBA is about,” Woods says. “Everybody was doing their own thing, already had confidence. So I’m doing some of the things they were doing, thinking it’s OK. But in actuality, it wasn’t. I was doing everything wrong.”
Adds Murray: “Everybody knows NBA players go out, but if you do that at night, you’ve got to be the first one in the next morning before practice to get your work in. And he wasn’t doing those type of things.”
After getting booked alongside teammate Darius Miles for his part in a strip club parking lot brawl in April 2004, Woods vowed to get his shit together. He showed up at Summer League with 15 extra pounds of muscle and without his signature braids. He even went to rehab to try to kick his weed habit.
But following the best camp of his career, Qyntel was investigated for dogfighting and failed a League-mandated drug test. The Blazers suspended him indefinitely without pay, and he pleaded guilty to first-degree misdemeanor animal abuse. He didn’t play a single game in ’04-05 for the team.
In the wake of his disastrous flameout, the Blazers installed a Director of Player Programs (a position held by the late Jerome Kersey for several years) to guide the franchise’s young players. “In retrospect, Qyntel had a lasting impression on the Blazers franchise, because he became the poster child of what was wrong with the NBA at that time. After Qyntel left, the Blazers discovered that they had a need, they had a void from a management standpoint, as far as mentoring and monitoring and helping these kids out,” recalls Quick. “That was all because of Qyntel. No matter what happens to Qyntel, that will be what he’s always remembered for in Portland, is having burning marijuana in his car and giving a cop his trading card. It’s sad because there was so much more to the kid than that.
“But he was never vilified the way Darius Miles was, or even Zach Randolph. You could see he was a good kid, so naïve. He just didn’t know better.”
The Blazers waived Qyntel in ’05 and he signed in Miami, playing sparingly for a team that lost in the Eastern Conference finals to Prince and the defending champion Pistons, led by coach Larry Brown. Miami then dealt Qyn to Boston as part of a blockbuster trade that brought Antoine Walker to the Heat. The Celtics waived him in the preseason, and he signed with the Knicks in December of ’05.
New Yorkers won’t remember Woods’ stint in a Knicks uniform fondly, but it was easily the best year of his NBA career. As the Knicks coach, Brown took a liking to Qyntel, who averaged career highs in nearly every category, including points (6.7 per game), rebounds (3.9), field-goal percentage (51 percent) and minutes (20.7) in 49 games, starting 16. To this day, Woods says Brown is the only person he ever trusted to look out for his best interests in the NBA, and considers him more a father figure than a coach.
The Knicks got rid of both Brown and Woods after one season. “I definitely think things would have been different for me if he didn’t get fired,” Qyntel says. “He was my guy. I was his guy, he was my guy. I think I would have been there. Wherever he was at, I think I would have been there as well.
“Other than Larry Brown, I can’t really say that anybody had my best interest,” Woods adds. “Not the way Larry Brown did. Some people say they did, but I don’t think so.”
Qyntel was invited to a handful of training camps before the ’06-07 season and spent a month in the D-League, but no NBA offers materialized. Brown counseled him to go overseas, so Woods packed his bags for Greece, where he joined Euroleague powerhouse Olympiacos.
Upon arrival, he was an emotional wreck. “When I was first got there, I was ready to come home,” he says of the rough transition to life overseas. “I was sick.”
But in the years since, Qyntel has been one of the most successful Americans playing in Europe. And though he’s barnstormed through a half-dozen countries, including earning All-Star honors in the tough Greek League, he’s found the most success in Poland, where he’s won three Polish League titles. In 2010, he won the Polish League MVP and led Asseco Prokom to the Euroleague quarterfinals—deeper than any Polish team in history. Eurobasket.com even named him to the All-Euroleague First Team.
After some time away, the 34-year-old returned to Poland this past season and led AZS Koszalin in scoring (19.3 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg). His ability to run the floor, finish and make plays off the dribble combined with his overwhelming physical dominance (he is often the largest player on the floor) led to the “Polish LeBron” nickname. “I’m a superstar here,” Qyn says.
For a long time, he was angry he wasn’t in the NBA. He cursed his situation, and allowed his mind to wander—imagining what might have been. Five years ago, Woods was still eyeing a return, with teams like Cleveland and Washington rumored to be interested.
“My first two or three seasons [in Europe], that was my plan: to get back in the NBA. But then after that, I just saw how well I was doing over here and how much the fans love me,” he says. “So I was like, I’m good here. Like, go back to the NBA and be a bench player or barely play? I was like, Nah I don’t want that. I’m good over here.”
By his own admission, he’s matured considerably. He takes the time to counsel young players he comes in contact with nowadays on the perils and pitfalls that disrupted his own NBA career, and he takes full responsibility for the mistakes he’s made. Finally, Woods is at peace. He plans to play two or three more seasons abroad before calling it a career and coming home to be with his children; Qyntel has a 6-year-old daughter who lives in Maryland and a 3-year-old son who lives in Atlanta.
“I’m really happy. The NBA isn’t everything,” he says. “Everybody wants to be in the NBA, everybody wants to be a star. But everybody can’t.”
In fact, Woods says he doesn’t keep up with the NBA during his time away from basketball, preferring instead to decompress by reading, watching movies or exploring the long list of foreign cities in which he’s played over the past eight years.
“If you’re not a star like LeBron or KD, if it’s a younger guy in the League, I don’t even know who they are,” he admits. Of course, it’s highly unlikely those younger guys know who Qyntel Woods is, either. But they should.