The Hoops Whisperer
What Carey Rich Means to Basketball in South Carolina
By Chris Trainor
You never forget your first time. Even if things don’t go exactly as planned.
As he sits down for a recent chat with Free Times, Carey Rich — the former University of South Carolina basketball star and fixture on the Palmetto State hoops scene — smiles as he thinks back to the first time he ever participated in an organized basketball game. He was nine years old, playing in the City of Columbia’s summer recreational league.
“I was so nervous I shot it in the wrong hoop,” he says, with a laugh. “But I was so excited, I didn’t care if it was in the wrong hoop or not. I just scored my first basket in an organized game. That’s where it all started.”
Rich has been watching with interest as Columbia prepares to be one of the handful of American cities about to step onto college basketball’s main stage. The Capital City and USC’s Colonial Life Arena will play host this weekend to the opening two rounds of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament which — along with the likes of the Super Bowl, The Masters and a couple others — is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. After years of being unable to host the tournament as a result of an NAACP boycott connected to the Confederate flag that once flew on State House grounds (the flag came down in 2015), Columbia is finally going to be a part of college hoops’ grandest event.
“Hosting the NCAA Tournament will be hugely impactful,” says Rich, leaning forward in a chair in the conference room of the City of Columbia’s main parks and recreation office, where he works as the city’s recreation superintendent. “Financially and economically, obviously. But also socially. I think it gives us an opportunity to show who we are as a city. You know what’s taking place downtown or what’s going on in the Vista. We now get an opportunity to showcase that. We get to showcase the University of South Carolina. Those were things we were robbed of years ago when we weren’t able to bring the tournament to Columbia.
“Now we get the chance to be front and center, to show who we are and celebrate who we are. Selfishly, we get a chance to do it with the one thing that I absolutely love, and that’s basketball.”
That love of the game has delivered Rich to a unique niche in Columbia. He’s a hoops whisperer, of sorts. A basketball savant — he calls himself an “advocate” — with deep connections to the game in the city and far beyond, with contacts and tendrils stretching from the rec leagues to the NBA.
Rich, 47, grew up in the Saxon Homes projects near Harden Street. That complex has since been demolished and redeveloped, but was at one time a sprawling low-income neighborhood where Rich honed his hoops skills at Drew Park, which was located within the projects. He went to high school at C.A. Johnson where, as a point guard, he helped guide the Hornets to a state title in 1989.
After a stop at Western Carolina University (where he was Southern Conference freshman of the year in 1991), Rich transferred to USC for his final three years of college ball, and was the Gamecocks’ captain in 1993-94 and 1994-95. The moniker “The Captain” has stuck with him ever since.
After finishing at USC, Rich has never been far from the game. He was the head coach at Allen University for a couple of years, and also coached at C.A. Johnson for a spell. He is perhaps most known to Midlands residents for his omnipresence in local media, as he is a sports talk radio mainstay on 107.5 FM and serves as an announcer for Friday night high school basketball games on WACH Fox TV.
And then there are the numerous hoops events and tournaments in which Rich is a key figure. He’s on the board of the Chick-fil-A Classic, the Columbia holiday tournament that welcomes teams from across the nation and has featured scores of players who’ve gone on to college ball and the NBA. He also organizes an annual showcase for high school juniors, of which former Spartanburg Day School star and current Duke University sensation Zion Williamson is a past participant.
Rich also puts on the annual MLK Bash high school tournament at Eau Claire High School, and is the key organizer and fundraiser for the yearly summertime South Carolina Pro-Am at Heathwood Hall, where current college players — including many from USC’s roster — hit the court with NBA players. Pro hoopsters who have participated in that event in recent years include the Los Angeles Clippers’ Sindarius Thornwell and the Denver Nuggets’ Torrey Craig.
When asked about his proclivity for finding himself at the center of the South Carolina basketball universe, Rich says things have been that way since he was a kid.
“I was always considered, even going back to when I was in high school, and don’t ask me why, the point of contact when it came to pick-up basketball,” Rich explains. “All of the big-name players from this area, whether you are talking NBA, whether you are talking low-level college, whether you are talking college, whether you are talking overseas players, when it was time to play pick-up, I became the designated guy to coordinate it.”
He references hyper-competitive pickup games in the 1980s at Valley Park (now MLK Park), which, at the time, were the proving grounds for the best ballplayers in the city. Later, Rich organized invitation-only games at Keenan High School or Allen University — “It was check your resume at the door,” he says — where NBA alums such as Jo Jo English, Jamie Watson, Ty Corbin and Xavier McDaniel would sometimes show up to play.
So when it came to putting together something like the S.C. Pro-Am, which is entering its eighth year in 2019, Rich said it was simply second nature.
“I’ve been doing this,” Rich says. “Now it’s certified and it’s regulated. But I’ve been doing it.”
His near constant exposure to hoops in South Carolina also has made Rich a go-to contact for basketball insiders from beyond the Palmetto State who are looking for evaluations of players here. During a recent interview with Free Times, the raspy voiced former point guard casually scrolls through his smartphone, showing a reporter snippets of various text message conversations he’s had with high-level college coaches and NBA scouts. (Cleveland Cavaliers executive Brandon Weems was among the folks Rich had been chatting with.)
“I’m just completely immersed in the game, and that goes beyond just high school and college,” Rich says, matter-of-factly. “My roots are right here, and what I want to do is advocate for these local high school players, young players, and high school coaches.”
But, aside from all of his various hoops gigs and hustles, the job Rich most relishes is his recreation superintendent role with the City of Columbia, a job he’s had for three years. He oversees all of the various programs and staff within the city’s parks. He is, after all, a product of that parks system, a native son who came up on the playground courts of the Capital City.
“We all think about what our dream job could be,” says Rich, who has a son and daughter, twins, who are in middle school. “When I think about where I am right now, I think of it as a dream job. I get to work for the City of Columbia in the parks that I grew up in. I get to impact our youth every single day in the parks that I grew up in. I get to work hand-in-hand with the city manager, the mayor, City Council. Because of my playing days at the University of South Carolina, I still get to stay closely involved with athletics. And because of radio and television, it gives me unbelievable access.
“When you think about it, I have the best of both worlds.”
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin tells Free Times Rich has been a solid part of the city’s staff, in part because of his ability to network with a wide swath of people.
“Carey Rich is a treasure and an incredible ambassador for Columbia,” Benjamin says. “Respected by peers, business and civic leaders, and by real basketball fanatics, he has used his extensive relationships and credibility to help young people across Columbia and the Midlands.
“I count on him for advice and counsel and always know that his intentions are genuine. He’s just really ‘good people,’ as we say in the South.”
Rich offers a small, almost disbelieving, shake of his head when he thinks about the places basketball has taken him and the people he’s met and made connections with along the way, from politicians to coaches to high-level players to media personalities and beyond. A ball and a hoop — along with an ebullient personality and an almost uncommon knack for bringing people together — have taken a kid from the Saxon Homes projects a long way.
“That’s the blessing I’ve been able to enjoy here in Columbia,” Rich says. “Basketball has allowed me to have unbelievable relationships with the most influential leaders in this community. I sit in my recliner sometimes and I kind of pinch myself. ‘You just got off the phone with this person, and you just had dinner with that person.’ How did we get here?
“And I think back and, damn, it’s basketball.”
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