By JOEDY McCREARY
AP Sports Writer
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- When Tony Woods came off the court at the AAU tournament in Florida, the five-star recruit had an unsettling voicemail waiting for him.
The voice -- future Wake Forest teammate Ty Walker -- was familiar. The tone was not.
Skip Prosser, the beloved coach who had convinced Woods to commit to play for the Demon Deacons, was dead of an apparent heart attack. For Woods, the news simply couldn't be true. Just one day earlier Prosser was right there, in Orlando to scout him and AAU teammate and fellow blue chip big man Al-Farouq Aminu.
"Coach Prosser's last night alive, he was at my and Farouq's basketball game in Orlando," Woods said Thursday. "Seeing his last night on earth, and then the next day he died that morning. ... He was just at my game."
Indeed, Prosser's name will forever be linked to those three high-profile players he spent the final days of his life recruiting, the future stars that Wake Forest counted on to return the program to the lofty status it enjoyed with Chris Paul. And as the anniversary of Prosser's untimely death approaches Saturday, the three members of his final recruiting class have arrived on campus with a determination to honor the coach they never got to play for.
"I still feel as though I'm still playing for him," Walker said. "He's in my heart always."
Walker has a tattoo on his left arm that says, "R.I.P. Coach Prosser." That way, he always remembers the man whose death has been impossible to forget in this basketball-crazed state, where big-name coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams are larger-than-life deities.
The subtle reminders of Prosser are everywhere for Dino Gaudio, the longtime right-hand man and eventual successor.
He is uneasy about this year's trip to the Florida AAU tournament. He knows he'll become flooded by the memories of his final moments with his best friend.
"I don't want to stay in the same hotel that Skip and I stayed in when we were down there," Gaudio said. "... Two days after Skip passed, (Florida coach Billy Donovan) called me (and said), 'I can't believe it, we were just standing there talking recruiting, basketball and that was the last time I saw him."'
Prosser spent his last days at two tournaments, watching Walker play in Las Vegas and Aminu and Woods in Orlando before heading back to Winston-Salem last July 26. He went for a noon jog on the campus track and returned to his office, where was found collapsed and unresponsive on his couch and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The campus took his death hard, and so did the three young players who had given Prosser their word that they would play for him the following season.
Walker collapsed in tears upon hearing the news, then lost his appetite and barely slept while being "kind of depressed, in a slump" for a few days. Woods kept playing in his tournament, but had trouble keeping his mind on basketball, and Aminu found himself dealing with death for the first time.
"The thought of him not being here tomorrow or the next day hit me kind of hard," Aminu said.
Then came the phone calls and messages from other coaches, some calling to offer genuine condolences while others -- the players wouldn't name names -- subtly attempting to persuade them to reconsider their nonbinding verbal commitments to Wake Forest. Woods said soon after Prosser's death, he received roughly eight text messages each day.
"As soon as Coach died, my phone started blowing up again," Woods said. "When you commit, they kind of back off. But as soon as he died, my phone would blow up again, and I was getting text messages, calls. It was like my recruiting just opened up on its own all over again."
Added Aminu: "They weren't negative, but a coach just might say something like, 'Oh, I hope you get through it,' trying to be more like my friend in order to get me to roll to their team."
Ultimately, all three players remained committed to Wake Forest, signing their letters of intent in November. Walker -- a Wilmington native and North Carolina prep co-player of the year -- insisted he never wavered, and Georgia high school teammates Aminu and Woods kept in contact with assistant Pat Kelsey, who Woods said was referring to Gaudio when he assured them "the right guy was going to get the job."
Gaudio went on to propel Prosser's program forward last season by finishing 17-13, upsetting then-No. 2 Duke and not only keeping the Demon Deacons together but giving them reason to smile again.
Through it all, the late coach has never been -- and may never be -- far from anyone's mind.
"I wouldn't say (it's) bittersweet -- I am disappointed that I'm not getting to play for him," Woods said. "He was a great guy for the short time that I knew him."