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.