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The original USC 'gym rat'

THE REPLICA OF a giant bass that serves as his mailbox tells so much about Henry Martin in his retirement years.

“He spends all his time on the pond,” daughter Carmella Roche says and laughs.

That is Henry Martin now, at age 83. Once upon a time, however, a basketball goal would have been his calling card — a fact that will be remembered tonight.

In celebrating its 100 basketball seasons, the University of South Carolina will honor a too-small-for-football athlete who belonged on the roster of “gym rats,” those youngsters who spend their spare time honing their skills on any available court.

Martin had three at his disposal. He grew up within shouting distance of the USC campus and played at the old Field House or University High or the campus gym “in the middle of Sumter Street.”

“I loved the game,” he says. “I always had a place to play. (Officials) told them to leave me alone, that I knew where to put the balls and how to lock up the place.”

The practice time paid dividends. He sparkled in recreational leagues, in high school and in the military. He could have played college basketball almost anywhere.

Although he had scholarship offers from Duke, Virginia and other schools, he stayed close to home, and the Gamecocks are glad he did. The gym rat from next door became Carolina’s first 1,000-point scorer.

Tough on the Tigers. Martin introduced Henry Jr. (Hank), now a Columbia-area physician, to the game, and the pair became one of the school’s few father-son combinations in basketball.

“I still have the goal in my backyard I put up for him,” Martin says. “Hank, our grandchildren, everybody have played in my coliseum on Trenholm Road.”

Henry led the Gamecocks in scoring three of his four seasons, and Hank played a reserve role on the early Frank McGuire teams. Both made their mark against Clemson.

“All during my career, Clemson was my ‘country cousin’ because I had my best games against them,” Henry says. “My senior year, I scored 32 points before they took me out. I had about as many points as the whole Clemson team at the time. It was a game (in which) I couldn’t miss.”

A look in the archives of the Gamecocks’ 82-49 victory confirms his memory. Martin made 14 of 20 field-goal attempts in fueling the runaway win.

“Henry Martin Brilliant ...” the headline in The State read in 1949.

A generation later, in 1968, Hank earned the big type with his defense in a Carolina win against the Tigers. “Martin Quiets Clemson Automatic Weapon ...” the headline shouted.

“I was a scorer in high school (at Cardinal Newman),” Hank says. “We had better scorers (Skip Harlicka, Gary Gregor, et al) at Carolina, but our guards didn’t play that great on defense.”

Enter Hank Martin in the second half with a mandate from McGuire to slow Clemson scoring machine Butch Zatezalo, who had punished the Gamecocks with 27 first-half points.

“He couldn’t have kept that up,” Hank says all too modestly.

Just like his dad’s team, the Gamecocks marched to an impressive victory.

Boyhood dream comes true. Like his dad, Hank loved the game. “We spent so much time playing that people said he would be born at the Field House,” Henry says and laughs.

Henry remembers his son’s long sessions on the backyard court, and Hank says, “He didn’t have to drag me out to play.”

Like his dad, Hank started with a two-handed shot that changed with maturity and as the game evolved into a faster pace.

After college, Henry played in semi-pro leagues and officiated, and Hank often tagged along

Henry played at Columbia High and at the YMCA, and fraternities slipped the neighborhood kid into intramural games. At Carolina, he averaged 12.2 points per game for his career during an era when points did not come easily.

Henry played his freshman year (1942-43), then joined the Navy for World War II. After military service, he played three more college seasons and averaged 16 points his senior year.

“Playing at the university was my boyhood dream,” he says. “I enjoyed it very much. It was fun. I wasn’t the biggest guy, but, thank goodness, I could shoot.”

He worked at his shooting skills. He used the backboard, a lost art today, and his speed led the Gamecocks on fast breaks.

After college, he and wife Carmella helped operate the family restaurant, Villa Tronco. The clientele included basketball luminaries Al McGuire (Marquette) and Rollie Massimino (Villanova), who dropped in every time their teams came to town for games.

“I had officiated Al McGuire’s team when he coached at Belmont Abbey,” Henry says.

Although he often drops by, his daughter and son-in-law now operate the restaurant where reminders of the family’s athletic heritage have prominent places on one wall.

Carolina fans will have the opportunity to share those memories at tonight’s game against Florida. For one day, at least, the bass at his favorite fishing hole will get a reprieve.

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