Carey Rich is the mayor of Columbia basketball. On Monday, he’ll get to see both of his former constituencies on the same court.
Rich, South Carolina’s point guard from 1993-95, was the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year at Western Carolina in 1990-91. The Catamounts and Gamecocks clash Monday night at Colonial Life Arena, giving Rich a chance to view both of his former teams at once.
“Western Carolina was a big part of my development,” said Rich, who counts Catamounts assistant Anquell McCollum among his closest pals. “But outside of that, it’s basketball and I’m hoping South Carolina continues on the upward trend. I’ll maybe have a quick thought of appreciation for what Western Carolina did for me as a first-year guy, and I’ll also be watching one of my best friends coach.”
Rich was a homegrown talent in the late 1980s, a quick high-scoring guard who led C.A. Johnson High to a state championship. Many schools were interested, Clemson and USC among them, and Rich waited to choose until after his senior year.
“Eddie Payne was the lead recruiter,” Rich recalled of the Gamecocks’ offers. “He was honest that they’d love to have me, but they only had one scholarship available and I wouldn’t play until I was a junior. They already had Barry Manning and Jo Jo English. There wasn’t much room after those guys.”
So how’d a Columbia guy who grew up watching ACC basketball wind up at Western when a lot of other big schools were courting him?
“There was some influence out of my hands and my mother’s hands,” Rich said. “Because of that, Western Carolina was it my first year.”
Rich played well at Western, but was uncomfortable.
“I come from the inner city,” he said. “I go to an institution that’s in the mountains that has nothing consistent with what I grew up with. So that was a challenge.”
His game was flourishing, but he’d already decided Western wasn’t for him. He watched USC and kids he’d played with upset North Carolina in the 1990 Tournament of Champions, while he was in a Raleigh hotel about to play at N.C. State. Rich knew he was good enough to play at that level, and after the Catamounts played at Clemson later that season, his mind was made up.
“I’d already decided on Clemson as soon as the season was over,” Rich said. “I just wanted to get through the season, not say anything to anybody but my mother and maybe a couple of close friends, and then leave.”
Rich finished a strong season, earning WCU’s first SoCon Freshman of the Year prize, and came home for spring break. While there, he asked Western for his release.
A second hurdle arose. Western put restrictions on which schools he could transfer to, and Clemson was one of them.
Rich was stuck. He had thought of leaving Western during the season in favor of coming home, getting a job, enrolling at Midlands Tech and then going to junior college. Each time, he went back to Cullowhee.
Now he was in the same situation and didn’t want to go back to Western. His options were to go to junior college or pay his own way to a Division I school, which would have been next to impossible.
He still wanted to play in the ACC, and USC wasn’t really in the picture. Then, the Gamecocks were in the Metro Conference, yet to start competing in the SEC, and the coach who had recruited Rich, George Felton, was gone. Steve Newton had taken over.
Rich couldn’t do anything but wait.
“I went through the whole spring, the whole summer, and they still wouldn’t fully release me,” Rich said.
A lot of Columbia’s top hoops talent worked a camp at Newberry every summer. Newton was there with a tip from legendary coach George Glymph – watch the Rich kid.
Newton couldn’t talk to Rich one-on-one, but he saw enough to know he could be an impact player. Newton talked to Western, Western relented and told Rich he could transfer to USC.
And after sitting out the 1991-92 season, he would have three seasons of eligibility.
“I appreciate having the opportunity to play at Western as a freshman,” Rich said. “The one thing it did was it allowed me as a true freshman to grow up and play through my mistakes. I’ll always be indebted to Western Carolina for that.”
He was disappointed he wouldn’t get to play in the ACC but realized the SEC was pretty good, too. “What really hit home was when Shaquille O’Neal came to Columbia,” he chuckled. “I said, ‘You know what, playing in the SEC ain’t so bad after all!’”
Rich’s USC career spanned a quirky stretch. He was recruited by Felton, signed by Newton, thought he was going to play for Bobby Cremins and instead played for Eddie Fogler. Yet, it worked out.
“Eddie Fogler has become the most influential person in my life when it comes to basketball,” Rich said. “He’s the one guy I call outside of my pastor when I need advice or guidance. I graduated in 1995 and our relationship now is stronger than when I was his captain for two years.”
It’s been a rollercoaster but pleasant ride and Rich may think of all that went on when the two teams tip. “I think it was all meant to happen. I think of the opportunities that I wouldn’t have had,” he said.
“What if I would have gone to Midlands? What if they would have released me to Clemson? Even with all the things that took place before I got to USC, looking back on it, it couldn’t have worked out better.”
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WESTERN CAROLINA (2-3) at SOUTH CAROLINA (6-0)
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: SEC Network
Tickets: Available at the box office
Western Carolina’s probable starters: G Mike Brown 6-3 Sr. (19.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg); G Rhett Harrelson 5-10 Sr. (10.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg); G Haboubacar Mutombo 6-5 So. (4.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg); F Torrion Brummitt 6-7 Sr. (16.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg); F Justin Browning 6-4 Sr. (8.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 Fr. (7.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Jr. (11.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg); F Mindaugas Kacinas 6-7 Sr. (14.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg); F Michael Carrera 6-5 Sr. (10.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg); C Laimonas Chatkevicius 6-11 Sr. (16.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
Next game: The Gamecocks host USF at 4 p.m. on Saturday.