Roche makes much anticipated return to USC

Former basketball great John Roche made a much celebrated return to Columbia for the kickoff to USC's 100 Years of Basketball Celebration on Tuesday morning.

At the Colonial Center Tuesday morning, the Carolina faithful gathered to watch the start of the 100 Years of Basketball Celebration. Every few minutes, the door would open and a tall man would walk in. As he made his way toward the stage, where the former Gamecocks were gathered, he would receive a few handshakes, a pat on the back, or a high-five from Cocky. The players were easy to spot as they rose above the crowd. With most of the players already present, the door opened again. The crowd broke into a round of applause. From the other side of the room, the slender man with silver hair was hidden by the crowd, but everyone knew the identity of the mysterious stranger.

John Roche is one of the most celebrated athletes in South Carolina history. Roche was the leader of Frank McGuire's powerhouse teams of the late 1960s and spent eleven years playing professional basketball. However, in recent years, Roche has gained a reputation as someone who, for any number of reasons, has a strained relationship with the University and the state where he rose to prominence. Despite his claims to the contrary, the visit still marked Roche's first appearance in Columbia since the mid-90s.

Roche had only a brief stay in Columbia, but for a few hours he was once again the Big Man on Campus. He was the only player to speak to the fans. Later, when the media had a chance to interview the players in attendance, Roche was still doing interviews after most of the other attendees had finished answering questions, eaten brunch, and left. Now a lawyer by trade, Roche was at ease fielding questions on every topic imaginable.

An NBA referee is accused of gambling on games, did you ever think maybe a dishonest referee called a game you played?

"Absolutely. Every time they called a foul on me," Roche joked.

You came here from Las Vegas, will the city get an NBA team?

"The head of the Mirage said, ‘In Las Vegas, we do an unbelievable job of regulating gambling. I'm not sure we want the NBA in Las Vegas if they can't regulate their officials.'"

What are your thoughts on being here in Columbia today?

"I notice many of you still speak with that funny accent."

How did you find time to play in the NBA and go to law school?

"My next to last year in pro basketball I broke my ankle very early in the year."

Roche saved his best story to explain to the crowd why he and friend and teammate Tommy Owens came to Carolina? The pair was being recruited by Virginia, and had been invited to Madison Square Garden to watch a game.

"We were sitting in about the third row, and the Virginia team had just stepped out of the locker-room. Tommy leaned over to me and said, "It's over, we're not going there." I said, "Gee, it's a good school. They're in the ACC. Why aren't we going there?" He said, "They wear black sneakers. Black sneakers make big guys' feet look funny. I'm not wearing black sneakers."

Roche brought Owens' name up in another capacity. He used the his speech to the fans as an opportunity to champion Owens' candidacy to have his jersey retired.

"As a lawyer for 25 years, I can't give any speech without advocating some position," Roche joked. "The position I would like to advocate today is for the University to consider adding my teammate Tommy Owens' name to players whose jerseys have been retired. I have a regret: my jersey was retired right after I ended my college basketball career. If I had to do it over again, I would have insisted Tommy's number be retired along with mine.

"He made me appear to be a much better player than I was. I think that a received at times more credit than I deserved for the success of our teams. I played with some terrific players, and by the nature of the way we played, much of the focus came to me. Tom Owens was certainly our most valuable player on the team."

Roche conceded that the biggest obstacle toward getting Owens' jersey retired might be the man himself. "If you do retire his number, it will be very difficult to get Tommy to come back to South Carolina to accept that award. Tommy lives a very private life in Portland and rarely goes to events such as that."

Later, talking to reporters, Roche argued that the University should retire Owens' jersey whether or not he attends the ceremony. "I think the chances that anyone could convince Tommy to participate in an event like that are quite slim. But I encourage you to give it a try. You retire numbers based on the performance of a player and if they merit that honor, not on if they are willing to come back and participate. I would suggest that you... honor him for his accomplishment."

Roche stressed repeatedly that his distance from the University was a matter of circumstance, not the product of some displeasure on his part. Roche finished his NBA career in 1982 with the Denver Nuggets, and worked as a lawyer in Denver for the past 25 years. He said constantly how excited he was to be back at USC.

"I have been geographically removed from the state of South Carolina," he explained. "I've been removed from the world of athletics. By nature I tend to be a little bit private and stay close to home. I do not get the opportunity to come back to South Carolina or the south very often. It really is a pleasure for me to be here."

Despite his continual assertion that he harbored no ill-will toward South Carolina, it was clear in Roche's comments that he is disappointed the Gamecocks are no long a national power on the hardwood. He talked about the era after Carolina left the ACC and before it joined the SEC as vagabond years. He added, perhaps being brutally honest, that when the program struggles, there is less incentive to maintain close ties.

"You have some years over the past many years since I graduated where the program is in rebuilding mode," he said. "That doesn't lend itself to people coming back and being involved."

However, Roche expressed confidence in Odom and the current direction of the program, and implored fans to support the team.

"It is very easy, of course, to support the program if you're in the top 5 or top 10. For the future of the program, it is most important that the team receive the support of the community and the students during years when the team may not be in the top 20, or in some rebuilding years, because that kind of support enhances the recruiting effort and enhances the prospect that in the future you will have teams that are competing at the highest level of college basketball. The basketball program is certainly capable of coming back and being a consistent force in college basketball. It just needs the support of the community and the fans to support basketball as they today support football. When I played, they supported both football and basketball."

Roche seemed to enjoy his return to Carolina. He made no promise about when he would be back again, but said he does not intend to wait another quarter-century.

"Kevin [Joyce] made reference to the fact that life goes on, and people go on to other things and other interests. It has been the case."

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