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Morris: Strange road led Dunleavy to USC

WHEN MIKE DUNLEAVY was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame on Monday, it gave him pause to think about the strange-but-true tale that got him to this state in the first place.

He found his way to Columbia after first believing he was headed to Duke. USC eventually landed the 6-foot-2 guard despite a mix-up in which assistant coaches scouted another player believing he was Dunleavy. On top of that, Dunleavy went against the wishes of his parents who wanted him to stay close to his Brooklyn, N.Y., home, and attend Penn.

Oh, and one more thing about Dunleavy coming to USC prior to the 1972-73 season: He thought the Gamecocks still competed in the ACC. Apparently word of USC’s escape from the ACC two years earlier had not filtered through the recruiting ranks.

Dunleavy was a standout at Nazareth High in Brooklyn and received scholarship offers to play basketball from 150 schools across the country. He cottoned to the idea of playing at USC under Frank McGuire but did not have enough confidence in his game to believe he could play at that level.

McGuire’s teams had played in the previous two NCAA tournaments. His program was at its peak and was considered among the elite in the country.

McGuire had long ago established a pipeline of talent from New York City to Columbia, and so he dispatched a couple of assistant coaches to take a look at Dunleavy during summer competition. Thinking they were watching Dunleavy, the coaches actually watched Rich Dunphy, a guard from Holy Cross High in Queens, N.Y.

“He was kind of an in-between player, and wasn’t a good fit for them,” Dunleavy says of Dunphy and USC.

Duke apparently scouted the real Dunleavy and liked what it saw. The Blue Devils were coached by Bucky Waters, but a young assistant coach named Hubie Brown did all the recruiting of Dunleavy.

Following his official visit to Duke, Dunleavy was escorted to the airport by Brown.

“Well, what do you think?” Dunleavy recalls Brown asking.

“Coach, I’m going to sign on the dotted line the first day I can,” Dunleavy remembers saying.

“Well, I thought you might say that, and I’ve got to tell you I’m leaving to go to the pros.”

“Well, I’m not coming to Duke then.”

Brown was off to the Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant coach in a move that jump-started his long career as an NBA head coach and now as a TV commentator. Before he dropped Dunleavy at the airport, Brown told the recruit that he was good enough to play anywhere he attended school.

By then, McGuire had asked his New York City scouting connections, Harry Gotkin and Jack LaRocca, to take a look at Dunleavy. They reported back to assistant coach Donnie Walsh that USC should go hard after Dunleavy.

Dunleavy already knew McGuire had landed an outstanding recruiting class, one that included Alex English and Bobby Mathias. Even so, with the words of Brown still resonating that he could play on any team, Dunleavy was set to attend USC.

Then Dunleavy had to sell USC on his parents, who wanted him to attend Penn because of its proximity to Brooklyn and its outstanding academic reputation.

“You know what, if you want me to go there, I’ll go there,” Dunleavy recalls telling his parents, “but I just want to tell you, that my goal is to play in the NBA. I think South Carolina is the best chance to do it, and I think I can get a great education whichever school I go to. If I go to the University of Pennsylvania and I don’t make it to the pros, I’m going to blame you for the rest of my life.”

“Well, you know what, OK, go to South Carolina,” Dunleavy recalls his parents saying.

Dunleavy and English started as freshmen in 1972-73, the first year freshmen were eligible to compete on the varsity. They led USC to the NCAA tournament, and played in an East Regional consolation victory against Southwestern Louisiana — the last NCAA tournament win for USC.

Dunleavy was a USC captain his junior and senior seasons and concluded his career as the third (now fifth) leading scorer in school history with 1,586 points. He was known as a fierce competitor who was just as likely to draw a charge from an opponent as shoot an open jump shot.

While in Columbia he met a student from Texas who later became his wife. Mike and Emily have been married 31 years and have three sons, including Mike Jr., a standout forward for the Indiana Pacers.

Dunleavy played 11 seasons in the NBA and has since served as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers and the past five seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers.

There are no guarantees his career in basketball would have followed that same path if USC had not had a mix up in scouting, if Hubie Brown had remained at Duke and if his parents had insisted he attend school close to home.