Part I: South Carolina Gamecocks men's basketball great Jimmy Foster opens up about his life, career
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Part I: Jimmy Foster opens up about his life, career

Forty years ago, Jimmy Foster arrived on the campus of the University of South Carolina as perhaps the most intriguing member of head coach Bill Foster’s—no relation—first recruiting class.

Despite gaudy statistics—28 points and 19 rebounds per game—as a junior at Greenville’s Wade Hampton High School during the 1977-78 season, Foster was an unknown quantity, and conditioning was a concern after taking two years away from organized basketball.

But, with only three returning players from legendary coach Frank McGuire’s final squad, the new coach was in need of bodies. The only players left from the previous team were senior guards Kevin Dunleavy and Zam Fredrick along with sophomore forward Kevin Darmody.

A six-man freshmen class, plus a sophomore junior college transfer, would be an integral piece of what was widely acknowledged to be the youngest team in all of Division I basketball.

The 6-foot-8 Foster worked his way into the starting lineup prior to the opening game of the 1980-81 season, playing as an undersized center, along with Darmody and fellow freshman Brad Jergenson at forwards and seniors Fredrick and Dunleavy at guard.

The season opened on the road in Bowling Green, Kentucky, as the Gamecocks squared off against host school Western Kentucky in the Wendy’s Classic. Despite a 73-69 loss to open his tenure as Gamecock headman, Bill Foster liked the competitiveness of his young squad, which rallied from a 10-point deficit with six minutes remaining to close the gap in the game’s final minutes.

Foster led all players with 12 rebounds, finishing one assist shy shy of a double-double in his first college contest. It was the beginning of a legendary, if sometimes rocky, career.

Nearly four decades since leaving Columbia, Foster still haunts the record books of the Gamecock program. Consider the following:

• He finished his career as the third leading scorer in program history behind John Roche and Alex English. He currently ranks sixth.

• He ranks first in career field goal percentage, third in field goals made and fifth in both rebounding and free throws made.

• All four of his seasons rank in the top ten for field goal percentage by season. His junior season ranks first. No other Gamecock has multiple entries in that category.

• He is one of only two Gamecock players since freshmen became eligible for varsity play to lead South Carolina in rebounding during all four seasons of eligibility with Michael Carrera the other.

• Foster is the only player in program history to lead his team in both scoring and rebounding over three consecutive seasons, from 1982 to 1984.

• He is one of only five Gamecock lettermen to pull down 1,000 rebounds and is one of only two to reach both the 1,000-point (1,745) and 1,000-rebound (1,000) thresholds. Alex English is the other.

Foster undeniably ranks among the greatest players in program history from any era. The jerseys of three of his fellow top-six scorers are now retired—BJ McKie, Alex English and John Roche—and two others are almost certain to follow in Sindarius Thornwell and Devon Downey.

The list of his achievements is as impressive as anyone who has ever donned the garnet and black. Yet, his name remains conspicuously absent from the University of South Carolina’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

Is it an oversight? A slight? Punishment? Like many parts of Foster’s story, the answer is complicated.

Foster has progressed over the decades from big man on campus, to fugitive of justice, to an almost mythical figure; he’s become a mysterious and shadowy legend among Gamecock fans of a certain age who remember fondly his Tasmanian Devil-style of play.

Sportswriter Bob Gillespie once described him as the “captain of the elbows-hustle-and-floor burn brigade.” Despite all of this, many younger Gamecock fans, especially those born in the SEC era, know next to nothing of his legend.

After many years away from the limelight, he responded to a shot-in-the-dark email sent over a year ago and agreed to speak on the record, covering all manner of topics including his abiding love of Gamecock sports, his trial and conviction in absentia for breach of trust with fraudulent intent in 1986, also known as the Dick Dyer incident, and his role in the revelation of violations within the South Carolina men’s basketball program which led to NCAA sanctions.

Foster’s post-basketball life has been a complicated story, to be certain. He claims these will be the final interviews he conducts on the subject of Jimmy Foster, speaking in the third person, as if he himself is somewhat taken aback by the lore which has accumulated around that name.

Early life: A Gamecock from the start

James Calvin Foster was born on January 30, 1961 in Greensboro , North Carolina to parents Larry and Jewel. He was the youngest of three boys; brothers Johnny and Jeff were six and five years older respectively. The Fosters divorced when Foster was young, and when Larry found work as a draftsman at Carolina Steel in Greenville he and the boys relocated to the Palmetto State.

“My childhood was a good one”, Foster said.

He enjoyed loving relationships with both of his parents, as well as his older brothers, who encouraged his love of sports.

Family two-on-two basketball games growing up were a regular occurrence, and didn’t end well for Foster early on in life.

“The teams were my two brothers against me and dad,” he said. “They beat the crap out of us until my 12th birthday, when we finally beat Johnny and Jeff. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Foster says the only time he remembers crying as a kid was during the 1971 ACC Championship game in which the Gamecocks and Tar Heels squared off in a grudge match long in the making.

As Foster and Larry watched the game on TV, it became clear that UNC would win the title with Dean Smith’s Tar Heels carrying a slim 51-50 lead into the final moments of regulation.

South Carolina’s Kevin Joyce, who’s 6-foot-3, tied up 6-foot-10 Lee Dedmon under the UNC basket with six seconds remaining, leading to a jump ball in a time before the alternating possession rule. The much taller Dedmon simply needed to control the tip, which he was almost surely would.

Jimmy cried, Larry prayed.

After a timeout, during which McGuire told Joyce to, “jump to the moon, kid,” Foster’s tears turned from despair to joy in a flash, as Joyce somehow managed to out-jump the taller Dedmon, tapping the ball to a waiting Tom Owens, who laid in the winning shot for an unlikely 52-51 win, and South Carolina’s only ACC tournament championship.

Pandemonium ensued among Gamecock faithful in Greensboro, and in the living room of the Foster home on Hawthorne Lane in Greenville.

Just days later the University of South Carolina would announce its departure from the ACC, and in August of that year the exit became official. Foster was ten years old.

Though he says he was probably a better baseball player, growing up Foster developed a zeal for the game of basketball, realizing early on that he possessed an innate gift for rebounding, with an instinct for the way a missed shot might carom off the rim, giving him a split-second advantage in positioning.

Though he grew up in what he describes as a very religious Southern Baptist family, he recalls performing the sign of the cross before shooting free throws, mimicking the Gamecock great John Roche, a Catholic and product of Frank McGuire’s New York City pipeline.

Foster split time between his parents as a kid, going to school in Greenville and spending summers in Greensboro.

As he continued to grow and develop his game it became obvious that he might have a future in basketball beyond high school. Through ninth grade, Foster attended private Christian schools: Shannon Forest and Hampton Park in Greenville.

He grew into a physically dominant player, stuffing stat sheets, but toiling in anonymity, off the radar of Division I recruiters. Larry realized that if he didn’t enroll Foster in public school, he would never receive the attention he needed to take his game to the next level. Prior to his sophomore year, Foster enrolled at Wade Hampton, which gave him exposure to a wider audience, elevated competition and college coaches.

The move paid off as Foster emerged as one of the preeminent front court players in the state.

Foster dominated as a sophomore and junior, earning All-Conference and All-State honors in consecutive seasons while being named to Basketball Weekly’s All-American team for averaging 28 points and 19 rebounds as a junior.

Now 6-foot-8, college scouts were taking notice, including McGuire and Smith.

However, when Foster dropped out of school prior to his senior season due to poor grades, a lack of focus and what he calls “stupid, immature decisions,” His stock in recruiting circles plummeted.

He eventually completed a high school equivalency exam, enrolling for a time at South Carolina prior to the 1979-80 season, McGuire’s final in Columbia.

Hoping to work into a better place academically with an eye toward joining the team, Foster says now the idea was doomed from the start. Going to school without playing basketball, or even a guaranteed spot on the team was a non-starter in his mind and he soon returned to Greenville.

Though he still calls Frank McGuire his idol, it wasn’t in the cards for Foster to play for the Gamecock legend.

McGuire retired after 16 seasons as Gamecock coach following the 1979-80 campaign, and South Carolina lured Bill Foster away from Duke to revitalize the South Carolina program.

Bill Foster || Denver Post via Getty Images
Bill Foster || Denver Post via Getty Images

A new coach and a second chance

Bill Foster had earned a reputation throughout college basketball as a builder of programs, doing so at previous stops at Rutgers and Utah before reviving a Duke program on hard times in the post-Vic-Bubas era. Foster’s best season at Duke, 1977-78, resulted in a national championship appearance with the Blue Devils coming up short against Kentucky. Foster won two ACC tournament titles and one regular season conference championship while at Duke, putting the program back on solid ground and paving the way for his successor, Mike Krzyzewski.

Once in Columbia Foster went to work quickly, signing a class of six freshmen, including 6-foot-7 forward Brad Jergenson from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 6-foot-3 guard Scott Sanderson from Tuscaloosa, Alabama and 6-foot-6 small forward Kenny Holmes of Savannah, Georgia, in addition to Foster

Another integral signee was a junior college transfer guard, 6-foot Gerald Peacock of Raleigh, North Carolina, by way of Brevard Junior College in Florida. This group of newcomers joined the returning McGuire-era holdovers in Dunleavy, Darmody and Fredrick to form the nucleus of Foster’s first team in Columbia.

Despite a 0-3 start, South Carolina’s young Gamecock squad gelled and won 17 of its following 24 contests, paced by Fredrick’s sensational 28.9 points per game. The young Gamecocks far exceeded expectations and achieved the program’s 15th consecutive winning season.

The season was highlighted by wins over Texas, two wins over Florida State, a road upset over traditional power Marquette on national television and a three-overtime win versus The Citadel – the longest game in program history.

The season ended on Feb. 23 with a dominant 106-69 victory over outmatched Georgia Southern in front of near-sellout crowd of 10,477 fans at Frank McGuire Arena, one of the largest crowds of the season. Fredrick scored a season-high 43 points to secure the national scoring championship, and Foster hauled in a season-high 20 rebounds.

While Bill Foster and many pundits thought the Gamecocks deserved a bid to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), it never materialized and the season came to an unceremonious end.

“We way overachieved: 17-10. We were way better than anyone expected. We beat Marquette at their place, among other big wins. That first year was probably my favorite. It was, you know, fun,” Foster said. “We were competitive because we didn’t know any better. That’s what I enjoyed about it. We didn’t know that we weren’t supposed to be doing this. We were just playing and having fun. Even more than my junior season we were just a team, you know? It wasn’t just me; everybody contributed.”

Foster started 26 of 27 games on the season and led the team in rebounding with an average of 11 per game, good for 20th nationally. He was the second leading scorer behind Fredrick with 14.2 points per game.

His .580 field goal percentage was the fourth highest in program history. Teammate Darmody’s .592 was second highest in program history, and those marks both remain in the top ten for field goal percentage by season.

It was an impressive debut season by any measure. Moreover, his freewheeling, aggressive style of play made him an instant fan favorite, and he soon earned him the nickname “Truck.”

“I don’t know who gave me that nickname, but yeah, I’d much rather go through you than around you,” Foster said. “There was no doubt about that.”

Foster is effusive in his praise of teammate Zam Fredrick, calling him a tremendous influence and a great leader.

“That man could score 31 points in a night, but that was the most unselfish 31 points I’ve ever seen. He could have averaged 40 points easy. Easy,” Foster said. “He was a great captain and leader and that’s why he is such a great coach. He coaches the way he played.”

Fredrick is the long-time head basketball coach at Calhoun County High School in his native St. Matthews, South Carolina, where he has won five State Championships. Foster further credits Fredrick for bringing him to the new head coach’s attention upon Bill Foster’s arrival in Columbia.

Trouble out of the gates as a sophomore

On Sept. 22, just prior to the start of pre-season practice for the 1981-82 season, Bill Foster announced the suspension of his sophomore battler, the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder until Nov. 1.

The tipping point occurred when Foster skipped a preseason practice for a weekend trip to the beach. The suspension, Bill Foster explained to media members, would give Foster time to get his “personal affairs in order.”

When sufficient progress was not evident, however, Bill Foster extended the suspension to Jan. 1. He missed a total of eight games, including a two game tournament in Honolulu, which included an embarrassing 74-66 setback to tiny Chaminade University and a listless performance against the University of Hawaii in a 94-70 loss.

South Carolina struggled to a 3-5 record during Foster’s absence. It was another young team, with five freshmen, four scholarship sophomores including Foster, two juniors and no seniors.

Between the departure of the previous season’s seniors, Fredrick and Dunleavy, and Foster’s suspension, the Gamecocks found themselves without the 47 combined points per game those three players averaged in 1980-81.

In an interview with The State’s Bob Gillespie prior to his return to action in a Jan. 2 matchup against Iowa, Foster reflected on the events, which led to his suspension.

“I lost interest. I was with friends, doing what I wanted. Long weekends at the beach. I’d had a good (freshman) season, proved I could play,” Foster said. “I missed the freedom an ordinary student has.”

Sitting out the exhibition game against Marathon Oil in mid-November seemed to re-awaken his desire to play again, however. From that point on, Bill Foster described Foster as engaged and focused on doing what he needed to do to return to the team. He practiced with the team, sitting on the bench in street clothes during home games keeping stats.

By Jan. 1, Foster was as eager to return as his coaches and Gamecock fans were to have him back.

“He’s a crowd pleaser, the way he plays he’s like Evel Knievel out there,” Bill Foster said.

Foster’s return provided an immediate infusion of toughness and leadership to the young team, but the Gamecocks would go on to finish the 1981-82 season 14-15, the program’s first losing season since 1965-66, McGuire’s second in Columbia.

Foster led the team in scoring, averaging 15.4 points per game, and once again led in rebounding, at 8.4 per game. His .592 field goal percentage for the season tied teammate Darmody’s mark for second-best in program history set the previous year.

Despite the losing mark, there was reason for optimism for the young team, as they won seven of their final ten games, including wins over Clemson, Florida State and UNLV.

With no seniors, the entire squad would return for the following season, and expectations were high. Indeed, 1982-83 would prove to be the high-water mark of Foster’s career and of Bill Foster’s tenure in Columbia.

But it would not be without plenty of drama, including a heart attack and 17-game absence for Bill Foster, dramatic wins on last-second buckets, an NIT bid and a record-breaking season for Foster.

In the next installment, Foster finishes a sparkling career in Columbia, turns pro in Australia, and soon finds trouble waiting back in South Carolina.