South Carolina basketball’s had its share of issues this year. Injuries, suspensions and losses have wounded the Gamecocks, but they’ve found a way to overcome for the first 3-0 SEC start in 20 years.
Frank Martin is proud of his team for its perseverance, and of its No. 1 fan for his.
Jory Fleming, a USC senior with autism who carries a perfect grade-point average in a double-major in geography and marine science with a minor in geophysics, embodies overcoming a daily struggle to succeed. He was recently named a winner of the Rhodes Scholarship, given to just 32 college students nationwide.
Martin, who taught 15 years of high-school math, was impressed with Fleming’s academic accomplishments. He’s always been impressed with how Fleming supported his first teams at USC. The Rhodes announcement triggered an idea – why not give back to a young man who really knows about beating adversity?
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“Lot of us try to hide our issues. That doesn’t allow us to overcome them,” Martin said. “He has embraced his issues and he’s taken that challenge head-on and figured out how to become great regardless of that.”
Fleming – and his service dog, Daisy – are honorary captains for Saturday’s game hosting Ole Miss. They’ll be in the Gamecocks’ locker room before the game and recognized on the court at halftime.
“I’ve never been on half court before, so it will be a neat experience,” Fleming said. “I’ve been to the stadium so many times that I think I’ll be comfortable there and I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Fleming had complications at birth and his development was slowed as a child. He was diagnosed with autism at age 5 and he has a genetic abnormality that requires him to wear a medical feeding pump.
Yet Daisy helps him get around campus and to every sporting event he can, and his condition hasn’t limited his skill in the classroom, or in comedy. He traded one-liners with Martin, joking that when he won the Rhodes, he first texted his mother that interviews were over before he texted that he got it.
“That’s an example of a communications issue that I have as a result of autism,” he grinned, “where perhaps Mom would like to know the fact I won first, rather than second.”
“He’s pursuing a double major. Heck, it took me 10 years to get one major,” Martin quipped.
Martin found Fleming four years ago, when attendance at Colonial Life Arena was so sparse that Martin could hear phone conversations during a game.
“Obviously if he was standing by himself or walking in by himself, no one really notices him. But when someone has the dog with them, you try to figure out who he is, ask him why he’s here all the time,” Martin said. “He’s been unbelievable my time here the way he’s supported our program. I don’t think a game goes by I don’t see him out there with us, and we had some lean moments when I got here.”
“A few years ago I did notice the student body wasn’t as excited about basketball, but that’s changed,” he said. “As soon as the fans start to see a coach and a team moving forward toward a common goal like that, students can get excited.”
Martin’s team has overcome several challenges, with several more to go. Fleming faces the same.
Although seeing what Fleming deals with daily weights much more than lamenting a missed free throw.
“He’s a great representation of what life is really about,” Martin said. “And how not to use a sprained ankle or a bad shoulder or a bad night to dwell on the negative.”
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