I walked into the gymnasium at the Hammond School in Columbia, S.C., to watch a boys’ high school basketball game and, an hour before tipoff, the bleachers on both sides of the court were nearly full. By the baseline, standing-room-only space was already being staked out. It wasn’t a playoff game, Hammond’s not a big school, and it’s not the best team in the state. Instead, the crowd was there because of a YouTube video.
When that video was taken, two months earlier, Hammond was playing in a local tournament when the team’s point guard, Seventh Woods, received an outlet pass near midcourt. He turned and took three dribbles. A step past the foul line, he jumped, cocking the ball in his right arm — and sailing almost completely over an opponent who looked to be about six feet tall before hammering the ball through the rim. On YouTube the sound of the dunk is concussive, like a nail gun going off.
It was a preposterous athletic moment — the video was labeled “Dunk Of The Year,” and that might not be an exaggeration: It was ESPN’s #1 play of the day (ahead of a LeBron James evisceration of Ben McLemore) and it only added to Woods’s Internet fame. Earlier that year, HoopMixTape.com had posted a mashup of Woods’s highlights to YouTube that was viewed 5 million times within eight days, and is now up to 10 million views. Meanwhile, Woods is still a high-school sophomore — just fifteen years old. When you see the mixtape, it’s obvious why people have been so compelled to watch it — and watch it again, and again. “I have been doing this forever,” says Nils Wagner, who produced it. “I’ve never seen a kid that young jump and explode like that.”
But Woods’s weight as prep basketball’s premier Internet phenomenon — and how dominant he looks in his highlights — might give a false impression of his chances at future success. He is #14 on the Rivals 150 list of prospects from the high school class of 2016. That’s very good, of course, but over the last decade high school prospects who held the same ranking ended up with very different basketball fates: Some, like Keith Brumbaugh (class of 2005), washed out quietly; others, like Robert Swift (class of 2004) washed out spectacularly. Some, like Tony Wroten (2011) and Archie Goodwin (2012), became average players in the NBA; only one, Chris Paul (2003), became a bona fide star. In other words, it’s entirely possible Woods is at the height of his fame right now. I went to the Hammond School to see what that kind of uniquely modern sports celebrity felt like in person.
Seventh Woods — whose name refers to the seventh day of creation — joined the Hammond Skyhawks in 2011 as an eighth grader. The year before that the Skyhawks had won only eight games, but by 2014 they were real contenders. The game I attended was Hammond’s last regular season contest of the year, against Cardinal Newman, a nearby Catholic high school that had ousted Hammond from the South Carolina Independent School Association playoffs the year before en route to a championship of its own. The two teams had played four days earlier on Cardinal Newman’s home court. Woods had scored 28 and Hammond had prevailed in overtime to run its record to 21-5.
I found Jeff Barnes, a boyish former University of South Carolina football player and now the school’s athletic director, leaning against the wall behind the baseline. We talked as the girls’ varsity game thundered up and down the floor beside us. Barnes said there’d been a march of recruiters through Hammond over the last two years. Steve Wojciechowski from Duke has been by, as have coaches from Wake Forest, Ohio State, Baylor, and Clemson. That night, there were rumors (never confirmed) that former University of South Carolina head coach Eddie Fogler was in the building. The heaviest pursuit, though, has come from the University of North Carolina — Roy Williams has taken in several games.
Woods’s arrival coincided with the attraction of other local basketball talent. One recent addition to the school’s team is Xavier McDaniel, Jr., a wiry junior whose father, known as X-Man, logged a solid NBA career in the 1980s and ’90s. (Woods and McDaniel had known each other for years, but Barnes told me that, while two other players on the Hammond team came to the school specifically because of Woods, there was no direct connection between Woods’s presence and McDaniel’s enrollment.) I found X-Man sitting in the first row of the bleachers with his long legs stretched out in front of him. He had the bulk of an athlete whose playing days were behind him, and wore jeans and an untucked maroon polo shirt.
I introduced myself, and mentioned that as a kid growing up in Maine, I’d been excited when he’d joined the Celtics at the end of his career. Somewhat out of nowhere, as though it were the kind of thing that was always in the back of his mind, McDaniel brought up Reggie Lewis, and how sad it had been when the Celtics star had dropped dead on a practice court in 1993.
McDaniel said his son and Woods had been playing together since they were “six or seven,” and as we were talking, Woods walked by dressed in gray warmups. McDaniel waved him over. “I was just saying you were 10 when you dunked for the first time” McDaniel said.
Woods smiled. “Eleven,” he said. I introduced myself, we shook hands, and I told Woods I was looking forward to seeing him play that night. Woods is known as a quiet teammate, a lead-by-example kind of player. If he said anything in reply, it was softly, then he walked off toward the locker room. He had the unmistakable gait of a superior athlete — the loose-limbed, languid coordination of something powerful before it’s been turned on.
I asked McDaniel if Mark McClam, the head coach, was around, and he pointed across the gym to a man with a neat coif of silver hair and a sharp tie. As I approached McClam, whose day job is selling medical devices, he was working hard on a piece of gum and chatting with two well-dressed older men. They shared a joke about how the concession stand that night was stocked with cold beer and single malt.
McClam and I talked about Woods. He said he thought Woods needed to improve the “cerebral” side of his game — things like managing the clock in tight games. We talked about where Woods might sign in two years and he said Woods and his family were keeping that close, but then let on that Duke and UNC were the frontrunners. Then, as the girls’ game entered the fourth quarter, it was time to go, and McLam tossed his gum into a trash can and ducked back into the locker room to get ready for the game.
Hammond does starting lineups like an NBA team, with pulsing music, the lights down, and an announcer who calls each player’s name like he’s introducing a gladiator. The whole thing can be hokey even in an NBA arena, let alone on a Tuesday night at a small South Carolina private school.
Woods was introduced last. He wore #23, and beneath his jersey he had on a Superman compression shirt — the product of a three-year sponsorship agreement Hammond had signed with Under Armour soon after the HoopMixTape went viral. On a stage behind the baseline, the Hammond student section, which featured one kid in a plaid bathrobe, another in a lime-green blazer, and a third wearing a football helmet, went crazy.
The game tipped off and Woods’s place in it became clear quickly. Hammond played zone and Woods hawked the perimeter passing lanes. His length and athleticism made it hard for the Cardinal Newman guards to swing the ball, and each time they tried, the crowd held its breath, anticipating a steal and a breakaway dunk. With less than a minute left in the first quarter, Woods delivered. He intercepted a pass by the far sideline, raced up the court, doubled-pumped with his right hand, and ripped the ball through the hoop as he flew by.
Despite that play, and another transition basket where Woods threw an alley-oop over his head to a streaking Xavier McDaniel Jr. for an easy layup, Cardinal Newman kept the game close. They got a few bruising baskets in the paint and several buckets from senior Charles Smith, who’d transferred to the school that fall, and had scored 32 points in Cardinal Newman’s previous loss to Hammond.
Like Hammond, Cardinal Newman played zone in the halfcourt, and Woods couldn’t do much against it. He seemed reluctant to take a jump shot — a part of his game he’s said to be working on — and the Cardinal Newman zone collapsed on him as soon as he started to drive. At halftime Hammond was up seven.
While we waited for the second half to start, I talked with a local reporter who’d covered a lot of Hammond games that year. He said he thought Woods became too passive at times — that he’d assert himself with a play that no one else on the court could make, and then settle too easily back into just running the plays.
Hearing this, it struck me that Woods is in a tough position. His highlights suggest a fully developed player who’s arrived years ahead of his time. In reality, though, he’s an exceptionally athletic young teenager with a tremendous amount of basketball potential, a developing jumper, and a long way still to go. If he tries to dominate each game, he’ll be one of those me-first AAU kids who doesn’t realize that basketball is a team game. But, if he defers too much, critics will start questioning his heart. This is a dilemma that a lot of talented players face, of course — but very few of them have ever faced it at this young an age.
Nils Wagner, who runs HoopMixTape.com, told me he hesitated before posting any Woods highlights online specifically because Woods was so young. “I don’t like usually messing with kids who are 14, 15,” he says. “They’re not always ready for that type of attention and exposure, you have to wait. But [Woods] had a lot of talent.”
In late 2012, Wagner had first gotten wind of Woods when he heard rumors about a kid who’d dunked in a game when he was 11 years old. Woods was a freshman by the time the rumor got to Wagner, who searched online and found that there were only a handful of barely-viewed Woods highlights circulating.
“We had to keep Seventh a secret,” Wagner told me. “If anyone found out about him, everybody would have filmed him, and the mix wouldn’t have been that big.” So Wagner kept his mouth shut and dispatched his cousin, John Cookman, and a freelance videographer named Kyle Stanton to record every game of Woods’s 2012-2013 freshman season. From that footage they pulled fast-break dunks, weak-side blocks, acrobatic drives, and the occasional jump shot, stitched it all together to a hype soundtrack, and put it online. Within days the video had racked up those five million views; today it’s second most-viewed mix tape Wagner has ever made — just behind a short clip of Michael Jordan Jr., dunking, and three million ahead of a mashup of John Wall highlights recorded when Wall was in high school at Word of God Christian Academy.
Wagner talked with Woods and his parents before going ahead with the mixtape, and he says they were excited about the project. Viral fame creates a lot of pressure and tremendous possibility for disappointment, but it also opens doors. “If I didn’t do that mix,” Wagner says, “[Hammond] wouldn’t have gotten that Under Armour sponsorship. They also got a national schedule, national events that fly out the whole team. The mix just gave them a lot more opportunities, put them on a national scale.”
With 6:22 left in the third quarter, to the great delight of the small Cardinal Newman cheering section, Woods shot an airball from near the three-point line. But then a few possessions later he made a perfectly controlled upfake on the perimeter and, in a blur that confirmed everything I’d heard about him, took one dribble and dunked with two hands.
In the fourth quarter the score got tight and for a few minutes, the audience was reminded that watching a competitive game is more exciting than waiting for a single player to dunk. Cardinal Newman coach David Ross made a few savvy offense-defense substitutions, a short sharpshooter hit an outside jumper off the bench, and we had a one-possession game. The people around me leaned forward in their bleacher seats.
Then the spell broke. Xavier McDaniel Jr. curled into a pass at the elbow and knocked down a jumper. Woods knifed into the lane and hit a floating six-footer, which came so easily it made you think he could have been doing it all game had he wanted to. With the game slipping away, a Cardinal Newman player got called for foul on Woods out on the perimeter. Ross, who’d been on the officials all game, threw up his hands in exasperation. “One player and every referee in the state is afraid of him,” he yelled. And that was it. With less than 20 seconds left, Cardinal Newman fell back, the intensity in the gym deflated and, once again, watching Seventh Woods — and examining his every action for what it might say about his future, whether as an NBA star or a coulda-been footnote — became the most interesting story on the court.
With five seconds left Woods received a pass at halfcourt. There were no defenders between him and the hoop, and rather than run out the clock, he yielded to the temptation of his ability. A wave of anticipation went through the crowd. Woods dribbled casually down the court, took off a few feet from the hoop, and began to bring the ball around like a haymaker. But then he missed and the crowd let out its breath in disappointment.
As the ball clanged off the back of the rim and bounced back down the court, my throat seized for a moment, perhaps in empathy for this teenager who I’d barely even met. Was the missed dunk an omen? Or did it mean nothing at all?