Teammates, friends head into HOF together
From 1965-68, Jack Thompson and Skip Harlicka were pretty much inseparable on a South Carolina basketball court. The passer-scorer combo was labeled by numerous coaches as the best backcourt duo in the ACC and possibly in the country. But the amazing play on the court almost didn't happen.
Early in his career, Thompson got into a bit of a war of words with coach Frank McGuire who appeared to be on the path of dismissing the young player from New York. Enter fellow New York native and former Gamecock football player Dom Fusci, who on Thompson's behalf appealed to McGuire for one more chance. McGuire consented and the rest is history.
"He got mad at him and told him: 'You're off the team and need to get out of here, and I want you out of here by morning.' And I intervened for Jack at the time, and I said: ‘Coach, why don't you give him another chance? I think the kid's a pretty good basketball player and I think we need him. I know he's sorry,'" Fusci said. "Frank went ahead and gave him another break, and look what has happened to him. He's became a first class basketball player and today he's being honored as a member of the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. I'm glad that happened."
Thompson, whose career average of 4.67 assists per game is still third in USC history, joins his running mate Harlicka as two of the eight person class that were inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame on Monday night at the Columbia Convention Center.
During their senior seasons, Harlicka averaged 21.8 points per game and was named to the All-ACC Tournament team and a Chuck Taylor Converse All-American. Likewise, Thompson earned All-ACC Tournament team honors in 1968. Their play earned them selections as two of the top five guards in the NBA draft in 1968. Both players are already members of the University's athletic hall of fame.
"The way I look at it, we were so lucky that we met at the same time. It was sort of like Camelot. It was just one great shining moment. Everything came together, everybody wanted it," Thompson said. "We were so intuitively compatible on the court that rarely in the history of basketball will you find that compatibility."
Their connection ran well beyond just two players on a court as the pair was brought in to Columbia as part of McGuire's famous northern pipeline of talent. Thompson and Harlicka were from Brooklyn and New Jersey respectively and their arrival to South Carolina heralded a new chapter in Gamecock basketball.
After a season together on the freshman squad, both players moved up to varsity basketball and became the duo they've become known for. Harlicka cited his background in baseball as one reason he was able to snare Thompson's passes from out-of-nowhere on the court. At least, that's one reason.
"If that wasn't it, the other part was fear because if you didn't have your hands up you were going to be hit in the chest, you were going to get hit in the head or hit somewhere. So you better get ready," Harlicka said.
The passing of Thompson and the scoring of Harlicka helped create the success of Carolina as the old Fieldhouse became a place opposing teams didn't want to come into. Hostile crowds and great play resulted in multiple upset wins over top 10 teams like North Carolina and Duke.
Thompson cites USC's win over Duke in 1966 as what McGuire called the reason the school needed to upgrade the basketball facilities.
"Frank McGuire often said that our first major victory as sophomores... was against Duke which was third ranked in the nation. Their first seven players upon graduation played professional basketball. We were unranked and we were unthought of. It was our first ACC game ever and we beat them 73-71," Thompson said. "The bottom line was, Frank would say for years after that that game was the beginning of the appropriation of the moneys for the Coliseum which was 12,500 seats, four times what we were able to seat at the old field house."
While the success on the court was great, there were plenty of transition pains for the pair in their move from the Northeast to the South. And though things are different in the two regions, both still reside in the south and say they wouldn't have traded the experience for anything.
"I always felt like I was so thankful to get out of Brooklyn. I never thought that there was a cold day you could ever spend in South Carolina until my first year about November walking across campus and I was freezing and I said, 'What is going on here?' I thought this was the sunny South?," Thompson said with a laugh. "Nobody wanted me, nobody was offering any scholarships to me, I had fallen totally through the cracks. I went into that old field house and thought I was looking at the Taj Mahal. I thought it was the best edifice I'd ever seen in my life. Now in retrospect with the Colonial Life Arena and Coliseum maybe I hadn't set my sights high enough."
The pair point to their induction into the hall of fame as proud moments not because of their individual accomplishments but as a way of honoring what the teams they played on were able to achieve during their time in Columbia. "It's an honor to be going into the hall of fame. It's kind of a double honor to be going in with Jack and a triple honor maybe to me because it represents the team that we became as compared to just individual statistics along the way. So I'm deeply honored that we're going in together," Harlicka said.
For Fusci, who is a fellow hall of fame inductee and member of the organization's board, putting the pair in together was a no-brainer. After all, when the two are together, good things seem to happen.
"It was real easy. It was like bread and butter. It was a combination that they both should get in together," Fusci said.
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