Perennial powerhouse college basketball programs like those of Kansas, Duke, and Syracuse may comprise the backbone of March Madness, but it’s the Cinderella stories that give the tournament its soul. This year’s big dance looks to be chock-full of soul with a bevy of upsets in the early rounds headlined by Harvard and Wichita State. However, for every inspirational Cinderella story there is a more sobering tale written in the subtext, and sometimes it’s worth considering those who get trampled and trounced on Cinderella’s unlikely road to triumph. Sometimes it’s worth considering someone like Tray Woodall.
After Pittsburgh’s shocking 55-73 defeat at the hands of Wichita State, Tray Woodall, a fifth-year guard for the Panthers, walked unsteadily off the court. His eyes were red, his head was hung, and his field goal percentage in the last college basketball game of his career was forever stuck at a nightmarish 8 percent.
Woodall averaged 11.5 points per game during the season.
He scored 2 in the loss to Wichita State.
After the game, the young guard broke down into tears in the post-game press conference.
“It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth,” responded Woodall when asked to explain his feelings about his last performance as a Pittsburgh Panther. “To end my career with one of the worst games I’ve played in the history of playing here….I’m sorry I let my team down…..It was one of the worst games I’ve ever played.”
It’s always heart wrenching to see someone pour so much of themselves into a pursuit, only to stumble and fall when the goal is finally in sight. And seeing a young man like Woodall, who is clearly in such a fragile state, needlessly coerced into tears by inane interview questions almost tempts my inner Mike Gundy into letting loose a fiery, good-old-fashioned “I’m 40” rant. But, of course the reporter didn’t actually do anything wrong. And, after all, the tears aren’t even what make Woodall’s meltdown so poignant. It’s everything that came before.
Woodall grew up in Brooklyn in a home with no father, an addict mother, and a sister with a daughter of her own to support. At the age of 12, he started selling drugs in order to make a living. His sister, Shataya, did likewise. If other avenues were available to them, Tray Woodall couldn’t fathom what they were or how he could find them. It wasn’t until he relocated to Paterson, New Jersey and moved in with a newly-made friend that he realized the other trajectories his life could follow. And so, with the help of his surrogate family, Woodall threw himself into his schoolwork and, even more so, he threw himself into basketball. Basketball which brought him to the University of Pittsburgh. Basketball which brought him a college degree and a hope for a brighter future.
So while this year’s Cinderella bandwagons (Wichita State, Florida Gulf Coast) start to rapidly pick up steam and new passengers, just keep an eye out for the teams, dreams, and narratives being left in their wakes. Because if Tray Woodall isn’t a true Cinderella story, I don’t know what is.