This is part of an occasional series.
When Stanley Roberts travels home, he prefers the more time-consuming route.
“I usually like to drive,” Roberts said, “clear my head.”
It takes him 10 hours to get from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Hopkins, South Carolina. He said he hasn’t made this drive — his preference over a three-hour flight — in a couple of years, but when he returns to a place where he once dominated on the basketball court, the 7-footer can feel like a stranger.
“I’ve been gone for so long,” Roberts said, “only the big basketball people recognize me.”
It’s been three decades since one of the greatest high school players in South Carolina history chose to play collegiately at LSU. It was a decision surrounded by complications and real-life issues. It drew local scrutiny and left the backyard Gamecocks without a vital piece to what could have been a run of unprecedented success.
Roberts still acknowledges all of the above. And when he has to time to think — say, on a 10-hour drive — he takes himself back.
“If I had to do it all over again — and that’s without the stuff with my family and everything — I probably would have went to South Carolina,” he said.
‘One of the best basketball players I’ve ever seen’
Long before Zion Williamson, there was Stanley Roberts. He was the can’t-miss prospect putting a national spotlight on the state of South Carolina basketball.
Back when big men ruled the sport, Roberts was the center on Lower Richland High School’s back-to-back state title teams from 1986-88. He averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds as a senior. Those 1988 Diamonds were recognized by The State in 2002 as the greatest South Carolina boys basketball team of all time.
“I wouldn’t trade Stanley for anybody at that time, because he was a force,” said Jim Childers, Roberts’ coach at LR, “a really dominant player. I didn’t see anybody else better than Stanley.
“He was 285 pounds, about 7-foot, so when he got in the post, he had a great drop-step move and a great skill set inside. There’s not a whole lot you can do against him unless you want to double-team him and he’d pass it back out. But we had some things for that because he had some plays where we could isolate him or we’d swing the ball.
“I’d like to think that a lot of our offense went through Stanley because if you’ve got somebody shooting 70 percent inside, you better let him touch it, better get the ball to him.”
During those summers, Roberts was the star of a Columbia-based AAU team that featured future Gamecocks Jo Jo English and Joe Rhett. It finished as national runner-up one year and as champions the next.
“Our offense was this: No. 1 option was Stanley, No. 2 option was Joe Rhett, No. 3 option was Stanley, the fourth option was Joe Rhett,” said English, who also paired with Roberts at LR. “And if they didn’t decide to shoot it, then we could shoot. That was our offense.
“Me and Anton Brown and all those guys, we went out and ran. We tried to get the early baskets and dunks because once big Stanley came down in the half-court, our job was to get the ball to him.”
“He was one of the best basketball players I’ve ever seen,” said George Glymph, Stanley’s AAU coach.
Roberts was twice named Parade All-American, naturally drawing a who’s who of college coaches to the Midlands. USC’s George Felton had company when he entered local gyms to watch Roberts.
“When we used to practice, Dale Brown from LSU, Bobby Cremins from Georgia Tech and George Felton, they were in the gym every single day, almost,” English said. “It almost felt like they were part of Lower Richland, to a certain degree.”
English and Roberts have known each other since kindergarten. He still has visions of a somewhat uncoordinated Roberts trying his best playing man-in-the-middle, kickball and tag football at recess.
When Roberts began his rise as a basketball player, the relationship remained tight. English, like most of his Lower Richland teammates, grew curious about Roberts’ next step.
“We were all close,” English said. “We didn’t separate. We would leave practice and pile up in the car and go to Caughman Road Park and play until the lights came on. We didn’t separate, we didn’t go in different directions and stuff. We always were together.
“Our point guard — Charles Jacobs — was the vocal one. When everything was quiet, he’d bust out and ask a question. ‘Stan, man, why don’t you stay home?’ ”
Had Stanley Roberts come to South Carolina …
“I’d say we could have competed for a national championship or we would have went really, really deep in the national tournament,” English said.
“It would have brought longevity to the program,” Rhett said. “We had some good teams, but he was a 7-footer at that time who was close to 300 pounds. He had the footwork, he had the soft touch and was the key. He would have changed the whole landscape of South Carolina because we would have been on the map. George Felton would probably still be at South Carolina.”
“There wasn’t going to be anybody that would touch us,” Roberts said. “Me, Jo Jo, Joe Rhett, Barry Manning, we would have crushed it.”
When Roberts committed to LSU — over USC and Georgia Tech — on Sept. 29, 1987, Childers was already heading there as an assistant on Brown’s staff.
Brown had previously made this move — hiring the high school coach of a player he was recruiting — four times. The now-retired Childers, who won three state titles over a six-year stretch at Lower Richland, happened to be next.
“I know it sounds a little fishy,” Childers said at the time. “But unlike a lot of people say, it was not predicated on a package deal.”
Roberts, speaking with The State last week, confirmed as much.
“When coach Childers got the job, he never really mentioned me coming to LSU,” Roberts said. “He made the statement that, ‘Whatever you decide, you decide.’ He already had the job, and he was going anyway.
“The issue with South Carolina and my brother and all that stuff, that kind of just pushed me away from the university.”
In spring of Roberts’ junior year, Wayne Roberts, Stanley’s brother, shot and killed an 18-year-old and wounded two others in self-defense. The legal proceedings played out during the final stages of Roberts’ recruitment.
“The judge who’d conducted Wayne’s preliminary hearing called the Roberts family to say that Stanley should play for the Gamecocks,” Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price reported in a lengthy 2002 feature on Roberts. “Anonymous calls threatened Wayne with hard time if Stanley didn’t go to South Carolina.”
“It was coming from so many different ways,” English recalled. “And we didn’t have social media back then. It was the word of mouth. We had the Columbia Record and The State newspaper. The newspaper was our Twitter back in the day. … Some people didn’t care what they said in public to a 17-, 18-year-old kid. But you got 30-, 40-year-olds saying, ‘Oh, well, if he doesn’t come to South Carolina, I’m going to try to make your brother do life or go to the electric chair.’ All kinds of crazy stuff.”
Roberts signed with LSU, and Wayne was eventually cleared of all charges. But the negative backlash surrounding his decision created deep scars.
English was reminded of those times this past January when Spartanburg’s Williamson heard from USC and Clemson fans after picking Duke.
“As soon as he decided to go to Duke, it went from love to hate,” English said. “And I think the same thing happened (with Roberts), but people did it in a different way. People were like, ‘OK, if you’re going to go to LSU, we’re going to try to send your brother to jail,’ or ‘We hope your brother goes to jail.’
“They didn’t come after Stanley for his decision, they went more so after his brother. “
“It was tough,” Roberts said. “I didn’t want to disappoint my family or my friends at my home, but I was always taught that I had to make the best choice for me. And at that time, the best choice was to go to LSU.
“Not to get into all the other stuff that happened, but the situation with my brother and all that, that kind of twisted me away from the University of South Carolina.”
For the next four years at USC, English heard a variety of “what-if” scenarios from teammates younger and older. The Gamecocks appeared in one NCAA Tournament from 1988-92, but what if Roberts was on any of those teams?
Conference titles? Final Four? National championship?
English, though, has his own “what-if” when it comes to Roberts. What if he had a chance to be around him in college? Could he have helped him prevent some of the troubles — academic problems and drug issues — he faced later in life?
“Maybe we could have helped each other,” English said. “I know he probably wouldn’t have endured some of the difficulties and challenges he endured at Baton Rouge here.
“We had a foundation. Whenever we fell down, we had a brother help pick us up. He maybe didn’t have that type of brotherhood at LSU that he could have had playing close to myself. We were like brothers because we went from kindergarten on up together.”
‘I am a Gamecock’
Life’s back together for the big man who was once expelled from the NBA for violating the league’s drug policy.
“It’s great,” he said. “When I came back to Baton Rouge, it was like I never left. The fans treat me the same. Everybody recognizes me. I’ll always be a Tiger.”
But those in his new home have questioned Roberts’ blood color. He says purple and gold, sure, but … “LSU fans always say, ‘Well, he’s a Gamecock at heart,’ ” Roberts said with a laugh.
Roberts is happy and proud to be from South Carolina. The majority of his family still lives here. He cheered when USC made its first Final Four in 2017.
“I am a Gamecock,” he said. “I don’t deny it.”
The trend of elite South Carolina basketball players leaving the state for college started before Roberts and continues today. The 7-footer from Lower Richland, though, wouldn’t mind a complete do-over.
“South Carolina was my home,” he said. “My mom worked there. And, like I said, a lot of my teammates and a lot of my good friends went there at the time. For me, at that time, I had to get out of South Carolina. That’s why I chose LSU.
“But South Carolina, it’s what I knew, it’s home.”
Five more who got away
After Stanley Roberts, which other top South Carolina high school basketball stars left the state for college?
Ray Allen, Connecticut
After leading Hillcrest (Dalzell) to the 1993 state championship, Allen went on to become Big East Player of the Year and the No. 5 pick in the 1996 NBA draft.
Raymond Felton, North Carolina
Latta standout was McDonald’s All-American and Naismith Award winner for top high school basketball player in the country in 2002. A national champion and All-American at UNC, Felton has played 13 years in the NBA.
Xavier McDaniel, Wichita State
Former A.C. Flora star was part of nationally ranked recruiting class for the Shockers. As a senior in 1984-85, McDaniel became the first player in Division I history to lead the country in both scoring and rebounding. The No. 4 pick in the ‘85 draft scored over 13,000 points in his NBA career.
Tyrone Corbin, DePaul
Despite helping A.C. Flora to the 1981 state championship, Corbin was lightly recruited. He landed at DePaul and was a two-time All-American honorable mention. He spent 15 years in the NBA.
Zion Williamson, Duke
A consensus top five player out of Spartanburg Day School, Williamson took his talents — and YouTube highlights — to Duke this summer.