Sept. 10, 2010
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, features a familiar face who has unexpectedly returned to Villanova and the men's basketball program.
In the last two weeks Russell Wooten has received his share of double-takes while walking across the Villanova campus. Those who recognize him from the two seasons when he was a part of the men's basketball aren't quite sure what to make of his continued presence here.
"People have been very nice," he says with a laugh, "but they do seem a little puzzled to see me."
That is understandable.
When last seen by the Nova Nation on the Pavilion court, Wooten was being feted with Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding on Senior Night last February. A few months later, he took part in commencement ceremonies and then returned to his home near San Diego.
"I thought my basketball career was over," he says. "I was just trying to get a regular job."
Fate, however, intervened.
Wooten did not land any of the positions he interviewed for after returning to Southern California. As he mulled the next step word arrived that, in the wake of the departure of Taylor King and injury to James Bell, his beloved former program could use a proven reinforcement, one who understood what it means to contribute in ways not often viewed by the public. With two seasons of eligibility remaining - he did not join the team officially until 2008-09 - and the chance to enhance his future career by earning a master's degree in businesss administration, Wooten didn't hesitate to return.
"I was proud to be a part of the `Nation'," he states, "and when the chance came to be a part of this again, I couldn't wait to get back."
Wooten saw action in 22 games over his two years in a Villanova uniform, averaging 1.5 minutes per game. But his contributions internally were of far greater import than the raw numbers portray. His relentless enthusiasm and energy helped set a tone and made him a worthy heir to the Villanova walk-on tradition.
"Russell is a dedicated young man who has been an asset to this program," notes Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
That was apparent during the 2009 NCAA East Regional, when Wooten had the misfortune to be felled by a stomach virus. Confined to his Boston hotel room, Wooten had to watch on television as the Wildcats upended Duke in the regional semi-final and then claimed an epic victory over Pitt which was capped by Reynolds' length of the court dash for the game-winning basket.
As soon as the Wildcats returned to their hotel, they made a point to take the elevator to Wooten's room to be sure that he understood he too was a part of this triumph.
Wooten ended his career with no regrets. He had become a team member through sheer persistence and commitment, serving the 2007-08 as a practice player who never dressed on game night. In two subsequent seasons, he had been a fully vested member of a program that reached a Final Four and spent the entirety of his senior season in the top 10 of both national polls.
It culminated for him that morning prior to the commencement ceremonies in Villanova Stadium. It is then that the basketball staff gathers with its senior players, managers and their families for a salute to their contributions to the program. Wooten, Redding, Reynolds and 40 others were on hand for a continental breakfast and series of photographs.
"That was probably the most important part of the day to me," states Wooten. "Just to be there with Scottie and Reggie, after all they have done for this program, was an honor."
A few short days later, Wooten was in his native Chula Vista, Cal. He spent much of June re-gaining his bearings while plotting his next career step. There were several job interviews, including one in sales, but nothing materialized in this difficult economic environment.
Wooten stayed away from basketball too. It was, he reasoned, time for something else. Little did he realize that he would be transported back to his home away from home at Villanova.
"I have heard from a lot of people that a graduate school degree can only help you in the real world," he notes. "Since this opportunity has presented itself, I feel like it's a natural step to where I would like to go with my career."
Of course, Wooten's transition back to Villanova has been something of a whirlwind. There was much paperwork to be completed on short notice and the small matter of trying to get back into basketball shape. However, Wooten's work ethic has allowed him to get up to speed in relatively short order.
"It felt weird coming back in some ways," he says. "You feel kind of old at times. All I know is that it feels right to be here again. It's a feeling I can't describe other than to say this is the program I love and I'm excited to have another year on this team.
"I want to help our seniors (Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, and Antonio Pena) in any way I can. They have all grown into leaders who know what it takes. I'm here to back them up. If I can be a mentor to any of the younger guys, I'm happy to do that. We all know how talented these young guys are - we want them to be the best."
Of all the odd feelings, the strangest may come in November when Wooten once again dons his blue and white warm-up togs for the run down the Pavilion steps through the student section.
"It will feel weird I'm sure - I thought I had done that for the last time," he says. "But hopefully the Nova Nation will welcome me back. So far, people have been glad to see me."