THE TOUGHEST KID ON ANYBODY'S BLOCK

John Roche is the best of some New York transplants who are mean enough to take South Carolina to the NCAA title
January 04, 1971

He is of another time—when hard, insolent white kids came off the streets of New York to control the game of basketball in Madison Square Garden. They had long Jewish names then—Kinsbruner, Tannenbaum, Rubinstein, Schechtman—and they were followed in later years by Irish toughs with St. Christopher medals around their necks and hearts on their sleeves. The McGuires and the McMahons, to mention a few, were harder, even cockier, and they won with their heads and their hands while serving notice that the "New York back-court man" was the one who counted.

He was a mean, nasty kid who could dribble, pass, shoot some, protect the ball, go without it, play defense, direct his own team, rough up the other people and control the tempo of any game. Above all, of course, the New York back-court man could win; he became a revered figure in recruiting circles both near and far away from the sidewalks of his home.

Now here he is again, 600 miles away in Columbia, S.C., where his picture appears billboard-size along the road, his name adorns outdoor movie marquees and his uniform number 11 sells out in sporting-goods stores. And where, too, on a recent occasion, Ann Mapp, a teenager playing for her Eastminster Presbyterian Church team, crossed herself at the foul line.

"What was that?" asked Bill Mapp, her father and coach.

"Well, he does it and it goes in," said Mary. Who does? "John Roche does," she said.

And so he does. After two years of leading the Gamecocks of South Carolina to the brink and enchanting the state, if not the entire region, with the precision of his style, John Roche (see cover) of 66th Street, a snarling alley guy the East Side is proud to call its own, is back again doing it all: scoring, ball handling, scrapping, recalling the past, outbrazening everybody and becoming—with all due respect to the present giants on campus—one of the most dominant players in the college game.

Two years ago Roche—along with three other sophomores, a junior and no bench to speak of—won the Quaker City Classic in Philadelphia, upset Duke twice, North Carolina once and became the surprise team of the season before expiring in the NIT when one of the Gamecock starters was injured in a revolving door and could not play. Last spring, after a performance that included the championship of the Sugar Bowl and a spotless 14-0 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference—a regular-season achievement that was unmatched anywhere for its domination of a neighborhood—South Carolina met a similar fate. In a semifinal game against Wake Forest in the conference tournament that determines the league representative to the NCAA playoffs, Roche tore ligaments in his left ankle. The next night he came off crutches to play against North Carolina State but was severely immobilized as South Carolina lost the championship in a slowdown, 42-39.

Despite the setback, Roche was the first player in ACC history to be named Player of the Year in both of his first two seasons. He also made All-America teams and he turned scouting reports that insisted on labeling him "slow—can be pressed" into so many pieces of trash. Just this week he was back in his home town leading undefeated South Carolina in New York's Holiday Festival. He was averaging 22.4 points a game and had already won his return match with the celebrated Austin Carr of Notre Dame. Moreover, Roche had done nothing to lessen the admiration of his coach, Frank McGuire, who says of him in a phrase and manner that their Irish forefathers would know and love: "I wouldn't trade the dirt under his fingernails for anyone else's soul."

It was impossible for McGuire or anybody else to foretell what John Roche would become for South Carolina when the scrawny, hawk-nosed youngster—"My uptown kid," as McGuire, a Greenwich Village guy, calls him—came out of high school in 1967. For one thing, he was a defensive player, not a shooter. For another, his teammate at La Salle Academy, tall Tom Owens, was a better prospect. Then, as now, Roche had that blank expression—a gaunt, sallow thing that looked like nothing so much as Julie Harris who, as little Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding, cried a streak when she could not go along on her brother's honeymoon.

Naturally, though referees might disagree, John Roche did not cry much on the basketball court. And, of course, if anyone ever suggested his resemblance to Julie Harris, the accuser would find himself flattened in a hurry. Instead, he and Owens took over the South Carolina offense and made it their own. With just five men who could play in that first year, it was a thinking man's operation, a slow, deliberate, calm and collected thing, with smooth cuts, firm screens, picks and rolls and all kinds of sliding, which they had learned from their La Salle coach, Dan Buckley.

"He told us the guard creates the switch," says Roche. "I would bob and weave. We called it 'jockeying.' " Bill Loving, an assistant coach at South Carolina, remembers the two as freshmen, getting the ball on the run, starting quickly, then all of a sudden Roche holding up. "We asked each other, 'Why don't they fast break?' " recalls Loving.

McGuire saw more to it than that after a preseason scrimmage against Georgia. "They can do it," he told assistant Don Walsh. "Roche is good enough to dominate." To this day, McGuire's decision to let Roche control every game—a judgment that enables the 6'3" star to have the ball as much as 75% of the time—has come under heavy criticism. It is argued that the strategy may have been good in Roche's sophomore year, but with all the height available last season—6'10" Tom Riker had joined the 6'10" Owens and John Ribock, a 6'8", 240-pound enforcer, underneath—South Carolina should have gone to the middle more. And with the addition of another brilliant guard this season in 6'3" sophomore Kevin Joyce, the Gamecocks still will never play to their full potential because of their reliance on Roche.

To counter this, McGuire has merely to point out that South Carolina's only two regular-season losses last season (to Tennessee and Davidson) were hardly the fault of Roche; in those games he scored a total of 55 points. "John is so unselfish and tries to set up everybody else so often we don't mind him having the ball all the time," says Owens.

Still, though the Gamecocks doubtless will be running more (they are probably the only team in the country that can play fast and slow equally well), McGuire is driving some pro scouts to the fringes of lunacy because they never get a chance to see how good Owens is, or Riker, or Joyce or even—in the case of football scouts—Ribock.

"I'm not Jesus," says McGuire. "Roche is the best I've ever seen at controlling a game. While I have him, we have to take advantage of that." It is also a fact that in South Carolina's intrasquad games, the first team wins by 20 with Roche and loses by 20 when he switches sides.

The professionals, of course, do see enough of him. "If you compare Roche with Carr, he comes out a bad second," says Red Auerbach, "but against others, he is probably the best all-round player." Auerbach's opinion came before South Carolina's 85-82 victory at Notre Dame in which Roche outscored Carr 32-27, making 16 of 16 from the foul line. "Head to head in that one," says Jerry Krause of the Chicago Bulls, "Roche came out much the better. He dominated the game. I'd say he is the most natural true guard in the country. He sees people. He is quick enough and he penetrates. Carr or Mike Newlin [of Utah] may go ahead of him in the draft because of their shooting, but John puts it on the floor better, he's smoother and he can play defense on anybody. Someone can turn a pro offense over to Roche next year and say, 'Here, run it,' and he could do it easy."

John Roche grew up as the only son (he has two sisters) of an examiner for The Chase Manhattan Bank. He played Softball and roller hockey on the streets and got into "no more fights than anybody else on the block." That, of course, was a lot. His interest in basketball was nurtured by shooting at a cardboard box that the kids hung on the spiked bars of a trade school across the street. Roche was always smaller than the older boys he played with and, after building his game around inanimate picks set by a concrete pole in the playground, he played on CYO league teams and earned a scholarship to La Salle, where he found a human pick in Owens.

The two would ride the subway to and from school (Owens lived in the Bronx), and their friendship survived those occasions when his bigger classmate would playfully hinder Roche from getting off the train at the correct stop and then release him just in time to get trampled by the rush hour mob. In their senior year La Salle defeated Rice High School and Dean Meminger, who now plays for Marquette, three times, including a victory in the city finals when Roche held Meminger to one basket.

But recruiters were more interested in Owens. "They won't admit it here," says Roche today, "but even Coach McGuire really wanted Tommy, not me. I kid them about it sometimes, but they didn't need me." Though Roche was somewhat of a forlorn figure his first year in Columbia, feeling a certain homesickness for, among other things, the delights offered by Gus, the Sabrett hot dog man on his block, he polished his game—the one he and Owens were planning to play.

The sophomores everyone was waiting for in the ACC the next year were Randy Denton and Dick DeVenzio of Duke. Not many people knew who John Roche was until one February night in Durham when, with their teammates clearing out the side, Roche scored 37 points and Owens 26 while giving a lesson in New York basketball to Duke 82-72. Six nights later at Charlotte, Roche introduced his "throw shot"—an infuriating little maneuver that looked like it was coming from the hip. All he did with "the throw" was foul out three men, score 38 points and whip the Gamecocks past North Carolina, 68-66. The ACC had a new personality.

That week spent coming of age in the North Carolina pines seems to be the point at which the league's deep hatred for the Gamecocks—engendered by South Carolina's emergence as a power, by Roche's ability and attitude, and by the long-simmering dislike for McGuire around the ACC—came to full bloom. Total bitterness remains.

Both of Roche's Player of the Year awards are still contested by people in North Carolina who claim that "racism" on the part of ACC writers kept the Tar Heels' Charlie Scott from his due. Scott publicly agrees. Last season Roche's injury in the ACC tournament following on the heels of his remark that "it is all over for the North Carolina schools" brought forth dozens of late night crank phone calls and letters.

"I love it," says Roche. "The people must be maniacs, but they just make me play harder. This league is a bloodbath. That's what makes it so great. Nobody around the country ever heard of the ACC awards until Charlie complained. It just gave us more publicity."

Already this season Duke cheerleaders, after watching their team get mauled 98-78 in Columbia, have appealed to their own students for an extra effort against the Gamecocks when next their teams meet. Also, Roche has received a warning letter from a "George Karl" to the effect that "I am waiting for you." George Karl is a sophomore guard at North Carolina and a kamikaze of a defender. He denies knowledge of the letter, says it may be the work of friends and calls Roche "a great player." But at Columbia, they are waiting for Karl.

"We have our own animals," says South Carolina's Riker. "How about Ribock? He's insane."

The son of a retired Army mess sergeant and a onetime altar boy, Ribock has become the league's reigning butcher due largely to the efforts of Roche and Owens. On first meeting the New Yorkers as freshmen, Ribock, a Georgia native, said, "You know what I like to do when I go home? I like to sit in front of my TV with a big gallon of water and drink it all down." The Dead End sophisticates, Roche and Owens, went wild. They said to each other "Instant Savage" and proceeded to, in their words, "psych Ribock up for blasting guys" by telling him how tough his opponents were supposed to be.

Ribock once took on nine men in a local beer parlor, reducing it to "the bar-room in Shane," according to one witness. He also cleaned out an entire men's dormitory floor whose members had yelled obscenities at his girl friend. It was only later that he found out he had erased the wrong people.

Ribock's most fervid adventure came two weeks ago during a spectacular mass brawl that prematurely ended the South Carolina-Maryland game with 4:52 remaining. Early in the evening Maryland's Sparky Still had—injudiciously—punched Ribock in the back. No retaliation was forthcoming at that point, but when the fight broke out—involving both benches, spectators and numerous state and local police—Ribock pummeled another Terp player. Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell attempted to mediate, unwisely shouting at Ribock, "You're crazy, you're crazy." Ribock connected twice on Driesell's face, bruising his lip and cheek. After the game Driesell threatened retaliation when the teams meet at College Park and said that McGuire was "crazy" if his team "even sets foot in our state."

As ferocious as Ribock is, his teammates still consider Roche the meanest among them. "Let's step outside," is his standard line. "He has more than the average Irish temper," says Owens, remembering the time when Roche, a freshman, decked a classmate in the student union, whereupon his adversary pulled a gun. "You should have seen Owens scatter," laughs Roche. "I just told the guy, 'Well, O.K.' We didn't get along very well."

Another time Roche was reaching over a counter at The Big Bird, a campus eatery, to get some nuts for his ice-cream sundae when the counterman grabbed his arm. Roche spun, unloaded a beauty of a left hand and, says Owens, "gave the guy an unbelievably black eye. Opened up his face pretty good, too, I recall."

On the court Roche is only a fraction tamer. The creativity and imagination of his game are things to behold. Still, they always seem accompanied by a certain contempt. His arrogance is overwhelming; Roche levels most opposing players not so much with a fist as with a sneer. He did take a swing at Auburn's John Mengelt in the opening game of the season, however, and in the Duke game, frustrated by a charging foul called on him, he kicked the fallen DeVenzio in the foot and drew a technical foul.

"He goes crazy sometimes," says Owens. "He's so intense, wants to win so badly. He has that look, like he's asking for trouble—an amazing hothead. Ask him."

"I think generally our team is a bunch of hotheads," says Roche, with vast understatement. "We have to get on Ribock to get him mad before the game. But Owens doesn't have to tell me anything. I'm immediately teed off the minute I hit the floor."

In quieter moments, Roche relaxes at Don's, a local pizza and beer paradise, studies his business courses—a B-plus student, he made several academic All-America teams—and goes out with Sally Helbig, his blonde girl friend from Scarsdale, N.Y. Sally says, "My mother thought I'd be Scarlett O'Hara and live on a plantation after I came to school here. So I wind up with a kid from the streets. They're the best kind anyway."

Last season many experts believed South Carolina's street kids were the only team with an even chance to defeat UCLA in the final playoffs, and the Gamecocks are one of few with that potential this year. Often Roche, Owens and the rest of McGuire's sons of the old sod by way of New York asphalt consider that thought, mull over their three-year record (52-10 to date) and admit that, although they may be the best ACC team ever, they have yet to win anything.

"It depends on your evaluation of yourself," says Roche. "Last year we felt we were good enough to win the NCAA. So it didn't make much difference losing when we did, or later. If we lost at all, the season was not a success. It's the same this time."

"We're tired of all the hatred," says Owens. "I came here to play basketball, not to grow to hate people. If we win the national championship, I just want to ride around the state of North Carolina with a megaphone, yelling at everybody, 'Drop dead.' Among other things."

Last summer Owens took a trip across the country, On a stopover in Los Angeles he walked into UCLA's Pauley Pavilion and talked with Henry Bibby, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. He told the Bruins he would see them at Houston, in the Astrodome, in the final game of the NCAA playoffs. If that meeting occurs, Owens will undoubtedly bring a little friend along with him.

PHOTOJAMES DRAKERoche, a perfectionist, works out alone in the South Carolina arena before regular practice.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)