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

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

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"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.

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