USC Men's Basketball

From Iceland to Columbia, Frank Booker’s story is ‘an amazing journey’

Frank Booker thanks Gamecock nation for continued support

The South Carolina Gamecocks loss to Florida 65-41 at Colonial Life Arena on February 10, 2018, in Columbia, SC.
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The South Carolina Gamecocks loss to Florida 65-41 at Colonial Life Arena on February 10, 2018, in Columbia, SC.

Frank Booker, South Carolina’s senior guard and second-leading scorer, is pursuing his master’s degree in journalism. A regular subject at press conferences this season, Booker has studied the actions of those directing questions at him. What angle are they going for? What answers are they seeking?

“Seeing how y’all do things is very good for me and my future,” Booker said, “what I want to do with my life.”

Booker’s reporting career is still very much in the making. He’s got a basketball career to finish, including Wednesday’s USC-LSU game, his last scheduled contest at Colonial Life Arena.

On this brink of Senior Night, though, Booker has probably piled up enough chapters to pen an autobiography.

“It’s just been an amazing journey,” Booker said.

The scooter ride that wasn’t

Let’s start with his failed scooter ride to a barber shop in Norman, Oklahoma, a literal journey.

Booker was a three-star recruit out of Westside High School in Augusta, an all-state performer for coach Marvin Fields who chose the Sooners over Tennessee, Texas A&M and Georgia.

Playing behind a developing program legend in Buddy Hield, Booker averaged just over five points a game as a freshman as the Sooners advanced to the NCAA Tournament. That following summer, Booker had to halt his participation in a pickup game due to a scheduled hair appointment.

Without a car of his own, Booker reached out to Hield.

“Buddy had a scooter,” Booker said. “I’m like, ‘Yo, Buddy, let me get your scooter. I got to get a haircut real quick, I’ll be back.’ The pickup was winding down, it was like the last game, so I was like, ‘Yo, let me go do this real quick and I’ll be back.’”

Hield granted permission. Booker took off. And then Booker went down.

“I hadn’t even gone on the road to go towards the haircut place yet and I hit a bump,” he recalled. “And the scooter threw me off. I was going like 30. I was going pretty fast. And I just landed wrong.”

When Frank Booker Sr. got the call, he was skeptical of the details. He was told his son had a broken wrist, sure, but he did it how, again?

“Frank doesn’t ride no scooter,” Booker Sr. said. “I was like, ‘Get off that scooter.’ He said he was going to get a haircut and I said, ‘Yeah, what’s her name? What’s the haircut name? It ain’t no damn haircut.’

“He said, ‘Pop, I ain’t never thought I was going to stop rolling.’ ”

Booker’s barber shop no-show was foreshadowing for a trying season with the Sooners. He was the sixth man for a Sweet 16 team – his 12 points were key to OU getting past Dayton in the second round – but he did it at less than 100 percent.

The scooter fall triggered other medical concerns, including back tightness.

“I think I injured it and didn’t really know it until the latter part of the season,” Booker said, “when I had to deal with the back injury and having to get epidural shots and things like that just to get me through.”

Added Frank Booker Sr.: “It’s amazing that he played his sophomore year at all because his left leg was numb the whole season. I think he still had 40 3s with a numb left leg.”

Booker connected on 36 3-pointers in 2014-15, his last at Oklahoma. In the release that announced his transfer, Booker went public with his desire to be closer to home and receive more playing time. Hield would go on to win national player of the year in 2015-16 while Booker sat at Florida Atlantic.

The scooter became a symbol of his fight.

“That’s a freak accident that happened,” Booker said Monday. “Do I wish it ever happened? No, but at the same time, I felt like the surgery and the struggle I had to go through just made me better.”

From Iceland to Columbia

Coach Fields retired last spring after 40 seasons on a high school sideline, including two stints at Westside. He counts both Bookers among the best 10 players he’s ever coached.

“His dad was an outstanding athlete,” Fields said, “but Little Frank shoots the ball better than Big Frank.”

Booker Sr. was Westside’s quarterback and two-guard in the early 1980s. He played four years at Bowling Green in Ohio before being a seventh round selection of the New Jersey Nets in the 1987 NBA Draft.

“He went to try out for them and he was one of the last players cut that year and wound up going overseas,” Fields said.

Iceland not only became the site of Big Frank’s decorated professional career – see three scoring titles and four all-star appearances – it’s where Little Frank was born. Booker didn’t fully learn English until he was 6 or 7, after a move to his father’s hometown.

“My sister and niece talk so much,” Booker Sr. said, “they taught him.”

But Dad could take credit for the athleticism.

Booker gave Fields nearly 28 points a game as a senior, polishing his reputation as one of Georgia’s most lethal shooters.

“I can remember the first round of the state playoffs one year,” Fields said. “We were on the road, in a real hostile environment, and he pulled up from about half-court court and made it – and silenced the crowd. I mean, they didn’t expect it.”

Booker’s one active season at FAU – he had to sit 2015-16 per NCAA transfer rules – was underwhelming. He averaged under 17 minutes a game, scoring 5.7 points for a 10-20 team.

He was about done with college basketball. Duplicating images from his Westside days – the fearless shot attempts that both quieted and erupted student sections – seemed impossible. The plan was to head overseas to begin a pro career.

But both Booker Sr. and Fields wanted the college door to stay open. Little Frank still had a year of eligibility remaining.

“I actually asked his dad if he had considered perhaps making contact with some schools that may have lost some key players and may have been looking for his skill set,” Fields said. “And Carolina was one of the names that I told his dad. They lost (Sindarius) Thornwell and (P.J.) Dozier. So I just that threw that out there.”

USC coach Frank Martin had interest – but a crowded recruiting class – when Booker was starring at Westside. Five years later – and faced with a backcourt need – he pushed harder for the semi-local talent.

“More than anything,” Martin said, “the only thing I asked of him when I recruited him was, ‘You’re going to have an opportunity, it’s there for you. But I have a young team, I need a guy that’s older. I need a guy that’s gonna accept coaching, a guy that’s not gonna walk in here moping because he didn’t play as much as he wants to play because we lost a game or whatever it may be, or because he missed nine shots.’

“I said I need a guy that gets it and he’s gonna be able to come in here every day and accept coaching and bring that positive demeanor day in and day out.”

‘An amazing story’

Fields and Booker Sr. sit together in section 116 of CLA. They’ve made the easy drive up I-20 for each USC home game this season.

They were there when Booker’s 18 points helped the Gamecocks beat Kentucky on Jan. 16. They were there when his four 3s sparked the upset of No. 10 Auburn a month later.

The familiar sights and sounds have returned.

“Every time he shoots the ball, you see the crowd get up and go crazy,” Booker Sr. said. “Everybody jumps up every time he shoots it because you expect it to go in.”

Booker, who’s averaging double figures (11.5 ppg) for the first time since he was at Westside, said Monday “it’s funny how this is the best year of basketball that I’ve played in college. It’s one of those things.”

Pressed for a reason why, he smiled.

“It’s my mentality, I think,” Booker said. “It’s totally different. I’m mentally stronger now, especially having to deal with Coach Frank and his ways sometimes, how he gets on us and stuff like that. You just have to take what he says and use it to the best of your ability.”

Iceland, Westside, Oklahoma, Florida Atlantic, South Carolina, Buddy Hield’s scooter, Frank Martin’s prodding. All topics for the Frank Booker Feature.

“It’s an amazing story,” he said.