RALEIGH — Once upon a time, many years ago, their story began at a Pizza Hut on Western Boulevard.
Two freshmen. One sprung from SEC soil. The other straight out of Hoosiers. One a relentless rebounder. The other the kind of sublime jump shooter for whom rebounding is rarely necessary. They ate slices and they talked. Well, one of them talked.
By all accounts, beyond choosing his toppings, Richard Howell barely spoke that night in August of 2009. Scott Wood and his parents tried to engage the shy kid from Georgia who they were meeting for the first time, but Howell set a monosyllabic screen that could not be breached.
Howell and Wood laugh when they rewind to that evening, both wondering what the other must have thought about Howell’s conspicuous silence.
Like so many seniors, Howell and Wood say that dinner four years ago feels like it happened yesterday, which is surprising in their case considering the breadth of their journey, the many highs and lowes they have endured together.
The Wolfpack lost 22 ACC games during their first two seasons, prompting the dismissal of coach Sidney Lowe in 2011. Fellow recruits in their class of 2009, Josh Davis and DeShawn Painter, transferred to Tulane and Old Dominion, respectively.
Julius Mays left N.C. State for Wright State. Ryan Harrow showed up in Raleigh, played one season, then resurfaced at Kentucky. Jaqawn Raymond fled to Middle Tennessee State, Tyler Harris to Providence and Thomas de Thaey just went home to Belgium.
Howell and Wood couldn’t help but think, should I be leaving, too?
“I can’t even count how many times it ran through my mind how badly I wanted to get out of here,” Howell says. “But I talked to people I trusted who told me I had to be patient until my time came.”
Howell and Wood have leaned on each other through all the drama, building as much a bond as a friendship, a mutual respect for each other’s resiliency.
“Our relationship has grown over the years to where he actually talks to me,” Wood says. “Rich and I have been through a lot of good times and bad times. We lost games and teammates and coaches and we were always the ones still here.”
During Wednesday’s senior night victory against Wake Forest, Howell played in his 127th game for N.C. State. Wood played in his 133rd and will tie the school record in the regular-season finale at Florida State.
Howell and Wood have been around so long that they played with Dennis Horner and Farnold Degand. They are both 22 years old, senior citizens in a sport trending younger every year.
“Rich and I have joked recently about how ancient we are and how they’re getting ready to kick us out of here,” Wood says. “I see these young guys running around with all this excess energy and I don’t have that in me anymore. I’m too old for that.”
Moments after the conclusion of Wednesday’s game, Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried pulled Howell and Wood aside in the tunnel to personally thank them.
“I just told them that I appreciate the kind of people they are more than anything,” Gottfried says. “We’re trying to turn an ocean liner here and you need your older players to help you do it. The words that keep coming to mind are reliable and dependable.
“We live in a world where young people always want to go find a new home. Those guys chose to stay the course. They’re the cornerstone guys.”
When Howell and Wood are asked about their favorite memory so far at N.C. State, neither hesitates for an instant. For both it was Selection Sunday last March when the team gathered on campus to watch the NCAA tournament brackets announced.
The players saw 67 schools chosen without hearing their own. Then, after a pregnant pause, N.C. State appeared on the screen – the final team revealed – and a raucous celebration ensued.
“I just remember that everybody in the room was pretty downcast thinking we were going to be left out again,” Wood said. “Then we saw our name pop up and we knew we’d really accomplished something.”
Says Howell, “That’s one of those moments you never forget. Talk about joy and excitement. Now we know that feeling and we want that feeling back. This year we’re trying to not make it as scary as it was last year.”
While N.C. State has not lived up to its preseason hype thus far, the 2012-13 season is clearly another step forward for the program.
“It’s been a drastic turn,” Howell says. “I came here with big hopes and dreams and then I got hit with reality. It’s definitely been like two different careers, but I’m definitely happy how well it’s all ending up.”
Exiting PNC Arena on Wednesday night, Howell and Wood found themselves together again. The buzz cut and the beard. A group of fans waited for them by the door, so the two seniors began posing for photos, signing autographs, bidding farewell to security guards, anything to keep from leaving.
Wood carried his locker nameplate as a souvenir. Howell carried his young daughter, Milani. The last two players in the arena, they stayed and stayed and stayed past midnight.
In this era of NBA early entry when senior night is often reserved for short, chubby guys who stand still in practice pretending to be the next opponent, part of being a senior is how it humbles you. It’s that nagging feeling that everybody else has left for a party to which you weren’t invited.
Before this season, Howell and Wood were never courted by the NBA, but now both have a shot. Howell is projected as a second-round pick. Wood will get a look as a free agent. They are two tweeners, accustomed to the idea that happily-ever-afters aren’t guaranteed.
No matter what paths their careers follow, Howell and Wood will never, ever, hear another crowd roar for them the way Wolfpack fans did Wednesday night when they left the floor side-by-side for the final time.
The two seniors received that ovation because in this college basketball world where everybody wants to go, go, go, they always stayed.
They heard that kind of roar because it’s been nearly four years now since two rookies ate pizza together on Western Boulevard and they are still on Tobacco Road.