It’s not a leap to assume that the children of a standout basketball player would gravitate to the same sport as their father. For superstar East Hampton alum Kenny Wood, that was the case with his first two children, daughters Kayla and Sydney — they were both standout hoops players in high school, and Sydney is now on the team at Northwestern, while Kayla is the manager for the women’s basketball team at Notre Dame.
James Wood, the youngest of the siblings, was blessed with the kind of size and athleticism that made him a natural fit for basketball stardom as well. But his heart was always leading him in a different direction.
“It was never really a question with him between baseball and basketball,” his mother, Paula Wood, said while sitting alongside her husband and son during a Zoom call from the family’s home in Maryland in late November. “He always loved baseball.”
Ms. Wood smiled as she recalled how, from a very young age, her son had an obsession with baseball bats. When shopping for a new one, he would flick the bat with his fingers, she said, drawn to the satisfying “clink” produced by making contact with aluminum. Baseball always seems to be on James Wood’s mind no matter what sport the athletically-inclined family was playing on any given day.
“We would go and play tennis with the girls, and he’d be swinging the tennis racket like it was a baseball bat,” Mr. Wood said, smiling. James said he still remembers one Wiffle ball bat he was fond of when he was just 5 or 6 years old.
“I would always use it when I was playing in the front yard,” he said, smiling. “I called it the Barry Bonds bat, because I felt like Barry Bonds when I swung it.”
James Wood inherited the same relaxed and low-key demeanor that is the hallmark of his father’s personality, Ms. Wood said, while adding that “his passion for baseball runs really deep.”
That passion has paid off. Wood transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, in January 2019 to take the next step in his burgeoning career, and on November 11, he signed his letter of intent to play baseball at Division I Mississippi State next year. Wood, an outfielder and lefty hitter, is currently ranked third nationally among outfield prospects in their senior year of high school, and is the eighth-ranked senior baseball prospect overall, according to perfectgame.org. He’s also projected to be chosen early in the 2021 MLB Amateur Draft. His strong outings at showcase events put on by Perfect Game during the summer helped propel him to the vaulted status.
Wood is peaking at the right time, and according to him, it’s largely because of the guidance and freedom his parents have provided throughout his athletic career. It’s a testament not only to their parenting style, but also can be traced to the fact that the elder Wood knows better than anyone what the journey from high school athletic success to collegiate stardom is like. Wood was one of the most talented high school basketball players in East Hampton and Long Island history, leading the Bonackers to a state championship in 1989 before going on to an All-Star career at the University of Richmond and, later, several successful years playing professionally overseas and in South America.
He scored 2,613 points as a Bonacker, a Long Island record that stood for 20 years before Greenport’s Ryan Creighton broke it in 2009. Wood became the 12th leading scorer in Richmond history, and was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2011.
As a father, Wood has been involved in the athletic pursuits of his children, helping coach their basketball teams and ferrying them to and from games and practices. But both Mr. and Ms. Wood let their children take the wheel when it came to determining their athletic fates. James Wood played basketball as a high school student at St. John’s College High School in Washington D.C., and, unsurprisingly, was a strong player. But giving it up to attend IMG and follow his baseball dreams wasn’t an agonizing choice, for him or his father.
“They never forced anything on me,” Wood said of his parents. “Whatever I chose, they supported me as much as they could.”
The Woods also managed to do something that proves hard for parents of obviously talented athletes — they made sure their son didn’t burn out. While other standout baseball players were seeing private pitching and hitting coaches before or after regular practices and workouts, Wood was still playing basketball rather than intensely focusing on just one sport, something he said helped him.
“My parents didn’t really want anybody trying to change me,” Wood said. “Eventually, when you’re hearing so many different things from so many different people, it can get in your head and you start thinking too much and it gets too serious. I think the most important thing for them was making sure I was still having fun and keeping the pressure as low as possible.”
Basketball helped achieve that goal, providing the kind of fun and diversion from his main sport that helped him keep things light. Ms. Wood described her son’s basketball teammates as a close-knit group.
“James played with the same group of boys for eight years; they were like a family,” Ms. Wood said. She recalled how most of those players were standouts on the baseball field as well, which sometimes was evident on the hardwood. “The crosscourt in-bounds throw was always good,” she said with a laugh, but added that each year, come January and February, he was always eager to get back on the baseball field.
In choosing baseball over basketball, Wood may have surprised plenty of people, including those who had seen him dunk the ball with ease multiple times in certain games, perhaps thinking he’d be drawn in by the allure of a loud, raucous crowd over the relative quiet of a baseball stadium. But Ms. Wood said she remembers one conversation she had with her son after he’d struggled in a basketball game when he was in fourth grade, and feeling the weight of expectations.
“They were playing another top team, and James must have overheard somebody say, ‘If we want to have a chance of winning, James has to have a good game,’” Ms. Wood recalled. “It made him uncomfortable. It was unwelcome pressure. He played uncomfortable and unhappy for a few games, and he wasn’t having fun out there. It was frustrating to watch.”
Ms. Wood reminded her son that he’d been in plenty of high-stakes situations in baseball games before, and hadn’t felt the same kind of pressure. His answer provided a moment of clarity.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Mom, unless you’re the pitcher, no one player can dictate how the game goes, but one basketball player can,’” she said. “That’s when it clicked for me, that there was no comparison in his mind between the two sports. There’s one he does, and there’s one he loves.”
Wood hopes to continue his love affair with the sport at Mississippi State and beyond, seeking out the siren call of aluminum connecting with that round leather ball that has had him spellbound for most of his life. He said he’s trying not to think too much about his draft prospects, but added that his ultimate goal — one he’s had since he watched Major League stars like Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols play on TV — has remained the same.
“Playing in the MLB and winning a World Series and all that stuff would be great,” Wood said. “You watch them and want to be like them when you grow up. It’s hard to explain, but you just always tell yourself that you can be like that, too.”