When Frank McGuire, who had won the 1957 national basketball
championship at North Carolina with a team composed largely of
players from his native New York City, arrived as South
Carolina's coach in '65, he found a program lacking tradition,
fan support and talent. So he reopened his New York pipeline.
Two years later McGuire spotted 6'10" center Tom Owens at
Manhattan's La Salle Academy, and to help lure Owens he offered
a scholarship to his best friend, John Roche.
Owens once said that Roche had "more than the average Irish
temper," which is one reason Roche and the feisty McGuire
quickly built a winning rapport. Another was that the 6'3" Roche
turned out to be more than an average point guard: He won the
ACC player of the year award as a sophomore and as a junior. He
also made South Carolina the first school outside the state of
North Carolina to achieve sustained success in the conference.
"Roche is the best I've ever seen at controlling a game,"
McGuire said in 1971. "I wouldn't trade the dirt under his
fingernails for anyone else's soul." Says Roche of McGuire, who
died in 1994, "He allowed his players an enormous amount of
decision-making responsibility. I was trained to be self-reliant."
That training served Roche well in the fall of 1976 when, after
having averaged 12.6 points and 3.9 assists in 4 1/2 ABA seasons,
he was released by the Los Angeles Lakers. Roche spent the next
three years bouncing between a league in Italy and Whittier Law
School in L.A. He returned to the NBA in '79 and played three
years for the Denver Nuggets, during which time he earned his
law degree at the University of Denver. Roche retired from
basketball in '82 and has since worked as a trial lawyer in
Denver, where he lives with his wife, Jackie, and their three
children, Ryan, 19, and Maggie and Jennifer, both 16.
In anticipation of his 50th birthday next year, Roche is
training to run this fall's New York City Marathon. In one
sense, the race will enable Roche to turn back the clock: The
course runs north on First Avenue, right through Roche's old
neighborhood. "There's a park on 68th Street and First where I
grew up playing basketball," he says. Nearby is Roche's favorite
landmark, the tenement on East 66th Street where he shared a
room with his two sisters. "A lot of buildings where my
childhood friends grew up have been torn down and replaced by
high-rises," he says. "But my building still stands."
COLOR PHOTO: JAMES DRAKE [Cover of January 4, 1971 Sports Illustrated magazine featuring John Roche]
COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM R. SALLAZ [John Roche]
"He is the best I've ever seen at controlling a game," McGuire
said in '71.