LaTorre was South Carolina's two-sport star in the early 1950s

John LaTorre, a former basketball and football player at the University of South Carolina, holds a copy of a 1952 South Carolina football magazine cover that features him making a tackle.

At 82 years old, John LaTorre still makes it to all of South Carolina's home football games, and catches the Gamecocks' basketball team on TV. He keeps a sharp eye on USC's two-sport star, Bruce Ellington.

"He's had a great year," LaTorre said of Ellington, the busy sophomore from Berkeley High School. "He's fun to watch, has got good speed and he's a good-size kid.

"I think he does a good job both ways for Carolina. He did a great job in basketball last year, and I think he helped the football team immensely this year."

LaTorre is uniquely qualified to critique Ellington's versatility. A 1948 graduate of Bishop England High School and a current Mount Pleasant resident, LaTorre -- known as "Lip" in his playing days -- was the last athlete to letter in football and basketball in the same year for the Gamecocks before Ellington.

Actually, LaTorre and teammate Chuck Prezioso each played both sports for USC in 1950, in football for coach Rex Enright and in basketball for coach Frank Johnson.

"Back in those days, it wasn't as tough to play both sports as it is today," said LaTorre, who played defensive end and by his senior year in 1952 stood 6-1 and weighed 180 pounds. "Everybody is faster and bigger now, and you take more abuse than you did back when I played."

The Lip

Like Ellington, LaTorre was recruited to USC to play basketball. As a 6-1 center at Bishop England, LaTorre was known for his back-to-the-basket moves and a willingness to voice his opinion to referees. That's how he earned the nickname "Lip."

"I got that name by giving the officials a little bit of a hard time," LaTorre said. "I'd foul somebody and say, 'Man, I didn't touch him.' And one of them said to me, 'Don't give me all that lip.' And it stuck with me. I never thought it would, but it did."

LaTorre, whose father John worked on the Charleston waterfront for 50 years, played for USC's freshman teams in football and basketball in 1948, and then took a redshirt year in 1949. He played varsity football in 1950 as the Gamecocks went 3-4-2, then reported for basketball duty.

There, he found 6-11 Jim Slaughter, USC's first All-American in basketball, manning the post. That meant LaTorre would have to play away from the basket at guard or forward.

"I didn't handle the ball that much in high school," he said. "So I didn't have the ability to move to guard or forward. I never developed that outside shooting ability."

LaTorre played a reserve role as the basketball team went 13-12, including a 76-61 win over Clemson, a loss to Long Island at Madison Square Garden and a split of two games against Duke great Dick Groat's team. LaTorre played in three games and scored six points, and after the season decided he needed to focus on football.

"They recruited me mostly for basketball, but it didn't pan out," he said. "And I was fortunate that it didn't, because it gave me an opportunity to play football. I turned out to be a heck of a lot better in football."

Never lost to Clemson

LaTorre began to make a name for himself in football as a junior in 1951, as the Gamecocks went 5-4 under captain Steve Wadiak, including a 20-0 win over Clemson. In 1952, LaTorre and Walt Shea were team captains, and the Gamecocks were 5-5, including a 6-0 win over the Tigers. LaTorre was named to all-Southern Conference and all-state teams.

"I think I played better my junior year," he said, "but I had more publicity my senior year, and that's how I got those honors."

In games he played in, LaTorre went 2-0-1 against Clemson, including a 14-14 tie in 1950.

"That's one thing I can say that I'm proud of," LaTorre said. "I never lost to Clemson."

He and Wadiak, who held USC's career rushing record until George Rogers broke it in 1980, became close friends. In fact, Wadiak was due to visit LaTorre in Charleston when he was killed in a car accident on March 9, 1952, near Aiken.

"He was going to come stay at my mother's house," LaTorre said. "He actually left me his car in his will. That was a tragic thing. I found out when Coach Enright called me and said, 'John, I need you in Columbia.' "

After football

After graduating from USC, LaTorre enlisted in the military and played football for a Navy team for two years.

He coached football at Bishop England High School before making his career in the transportation industry, retiring in 1999. LaTorre's three younger brothers include Walter LaTorre, a member of the S.C. Basketball Officials Hall of Fame, and Joe LaTorre, a longtime fixture in Lowcountry youth baseball who is in the St. Andrews Parks and Playground Hall of Fame.

These days, LaTorre lives on his own in Mount Pleasant, monitoring the progress of his four grandchildren, all of whom are in college, and following the Gamecocks.

A member of the Gamecock Club for 44 straight years, LaTorre enjoys his new link with Ellington, who led the basketball team in scoring last year (12.8 ppg), and caught 17 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown (and ran for another TD) for the football team. Ellington scored 17 points in a basketball win over Wofford on Wednesday night, then caught a 5:30 a.m. flight the next day for Orlando, where he will play in the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska on Monday.

LaTorre hopes to meet Bruce one day, maybe when coach Steve Spurrier makes a speaking visit to the Lowcountry next year.

"I'd love to meet Bruce," he said. "But I'll tell you one thing -- he's a heck of a lot better basketball player than I was."