Mike Dunleavy nearly didn’t make it into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame. Not because he wasn’t good enough but because he almost didn’t make it to South Carolina at all.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native wanted to play for Frank McGuire’s powerhouse program in 1972, but he wasn’t sure if he was good enough.
He decided to go to Duke on his official visit there, but as coach Hubie Brown was driving Dunleavy back to the airport, he told the young player that he was leaving for the NBA as an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Dunleavy instantly crossed Duke off his list and listened as Brown told him that he had the ability to play anywhere.
Never miss a local story.
“I immediately said to him, ‘I’m going to South Carolina.’ ”
The 6-foot-2 guard arrived in Columbia as part of a strong recruiting class that included Alex English, Bob Mathias and Mark Greiner. He would go on to score 1,586 points in his career, sixth on USC’s all-time list, and appear in 111 consecutive games, starting his final 105.
His induction ceremony into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame on Thursday night at The Zone in Williams-Brice Stadium – along with six other former USC greats – put the capper on his decision not to head to Durham.
“It’s very special. I had such a great four years here,” Dunleavy said. “I had great teammates and made great friends. I met my wife (Emily) here. It prepared me tremendously to go to the next level as an NBA player offensively and defensively, and my psychology degree helped me along the way in coaching.”
A terrific long-range shooter, Dunleavy played 11 seasons in the NBA after being drafted in the sixth round by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976. He averaged 8 points and 3.9 assists in 438 games with Philadelphia, Houston, San Antonio, and Milwaukee. During the 1980-81 season, he averaged a career-best 10.5 points as a starting guard for a Rockets team that reached the NBA Finals.
After his retirement due to a bad back, he spent a few years as a trader on Wall Street with Merrill Lynch. But the game called him back when Del Harris asked him to be an assistant coach in Milwaukee.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m probably not going to run Merrill Lynch, although I can make a lot of money there. So I think I’m going to try this coaching stuff.’ ”
Dunleavy, 60, would later serve as a head coach for 17 seasons, winning 613 games while coaching the Los Angeles Lakers (1990-92), Milwaukee (1992-96), Portland (1997-2001) and Los Angeles Clippers (2003-10). He went 38-33 in seven playoff appearances and earned the 1998-99 NBA Coach of the Year honors.
He fondly remembers his time in Columbia playing for McGuire and assistant coaches Donnie Walsh and Ben Jobe, crediting them for forging him into the player and person he became. One of his best memories involved his first practice at Carolina Coliseum in 1972, when McGuire had the highly-touted freshmen play the returning players before a packed house, as was common in those days.
With about a minute remaining, the veterans, led by Kevin Joyce and Brian Winters, were tied at 100-all with the freshmen. McGuire came out on the court and stopped the game.
“The fans were going crazy, the players were going crazy,” Dunleavy said. “We said, ‘You can’t stop it.’ But there was no way he could let the freshmen beat the varsity.”
In his freshman season, he would start on the last USC team to win an NCAA tournament game. He finished with a career scoring average of 14.3 and a reputation as a classic McGuire player – a tough Catholic kid from New York. He was named to the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.
Greiner saw it all up-close as Dunleavy’s roommate for four years.
“This (honor) is long overdue,” Greiner said. “I’ve seen a lot of basketball guys come and go, but he was a consummate everything. He did the dirty work, he could shoot it, he could play defense, he would refuse to lose. He had something in his DNA that separated him.”
The two were having a great time this week as they recounted their glory days.
“We swapped a lot of lies last night, and we swapped more of them today on the golf course. And we’ll swap more tomorrow,” Greiner said. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. We’ve had a blast, and I’m excited for him.”
Dunleavy passed along his love of basketball to his three sons, who all played college basketball. Mike Jr. helped lead Duke to a national championship and begins his 13th season in the NBA. Baker played at Villanova and now serves as the school’s associate head coach. James played at Southern Cal and now works as a sports agent.
Dunleavy, who interviewed this spring for the Lakers’ coaching job that went to Byron Scott, wants to return to coaching either in the NBA or the collegiate level. He’s keeping his eyes open.
Greiner has little doubt that his Hall of Fame teammate still can do whatever he chooses.
“We always knew there was no way that he wasn’t going to be successful,” Greiner said.