Corky Carnevale was part of a big show in a basketball arena Saturday, just like old times.

For some, retirement means travel and relaxation. More time around friends of a certain age. More golf.

Like other 64-year-olds, Carnevale has closed the book on a long career -- that of a successful Lowcountry commercial real estate executive. Uniquely, the former University of South Carolina basketball player walked across a stage at TD Arena during the College of Charleston's December Commencement and was handed a Master of Arts degree in special education.

"Here's the thing: As you get older, your brain gets smaller," Carnevale said. "You have to study so much longer to retain information. But I can't say enough good things about the College of Charleston and the teachers. I'm actually surprised they let me in the school."

Carnevale is eager to "retire" as a full-time teacher. He plans to dedicate a decade to teaching the most challenged children in the Lowcountry.

More work. Less tennis with best bud Bobby Cremins, the College of Charleston's basketball coach and Carnevale's former teammate from the Frank McGuire glory years at South Carolina.

"These last few years I would see Corky on campus," said Cremins, also 64. "I would be showing a recruit around the library and Corky would be in there with his backpack studying, which was pretty funny. But Corky has always had a soft spot for this kind of stuff."

Here's the other thing: Carnevale lives in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant, where he and his wife, Karen, have raised three daughters; but he wants nothing to do with working in the high-performing schools East of the Cooper.

"Oh, no. I know too many of the parents in Mount Pleasant," Carnevale said. "They think way too much of their kids."

Carnevale wants the roughest, toughest, most hopeless environment he can find.

"I think I could do a lot of good in a lower socio-economic, inner-city school type of situation," Carnevale said.

A 'vibrant' push

Question, as posed by The Beatles: "Will you still need me … when I'm 64?"

Answer: Absolutely, if you're half as ambitious as Carnevale.

He completed the two-year Masters program with honors.

The kids at Goose Creek's Westview Middle School, where Carnevale just completed his student teaching, called him "Mr. Corky."

"It's wonderful," said Dr. Frances C. Welch, Dean of the College of Charleston's School of Education. "I have heard from other students how dedicated Corky is to becoming a fine teacher."

Carnevale's "passion has been an inspiration," said Kathy B. Schwalbe, the school's interim director in the Office of Student Services and Certification.

The feeling is more than mutual.

"The kids I've graduated with are dynamic people," Carnevale said. "I'll have a short career but they'll have a long career."

Contribution goes with the Carnevale name. The late Ben Carnevale, Corky's father, was a head basketball coach at North Carolina and Navy. Mark Carnevale, his younger brother, played on the PGA Tour. Karen Carnevale is a veteran nurse at MUSC's Hollings Cancer Center.

"I've always wanted to be a teacher but I couldn't afford to take two years off and go to school until recently," Corky said. "I could have pushed rope uphill for a few more years but in this economy it just didn't seem to me there was much of a future in (commercial real estate)."

Don't let him fool you. Carnevale has presided over some big business deals, not the least of which was helping connect the College of Charleston and Cremins when Gregg Marshall abruptly returned to Winthrop one day after he was introduced as head basketball coach in 2006. Along the way, Carnevale has coached a Special Olympics basketball team for 25 years, and over that time The Big Dogs have lost only twice. He also was South Carolina's Special Olympics state chairman.

The bold step came three years ago after Carnevale, Cremins and another former Gamecocks basketball teammate, Skip Harlicka, had lunch with venerable federal judge Solomon Blatt Jr.

"Sol was 87 then and just such a vibrant guy," Carnevale said. "He gets up every day, goes to work and makes such an impact. And I'm sitting there thinking to myself, 'What a great way to keep your mind sharp and make a contribution.' He was a real inspiration."

Cremins all the way

Notice how Bobby Cremins is linked to Carnevale at every step? They arrived at South Carolina as freshmen in 1967 and were college roommates.

"The funny thing is, we didn't study much," Carnevale said. "Bobby was studying for a final once and when he opened his history book, it cracked the way books crack when opened for the first time. I went out on the town for several hours and when I came back, Bobby was flying through the book. He looked up and said, 'Hey, Cork, all this stuff about the kings and queens is pretty interesting.' "

While helping the South Carolina basketball team remain highly ranked, Carnevale and Cremins spent lots of time with Frank McGuire's beloved handicapped son, Frankie. Frank McGuire and Ben Carnevale were close friends and the families vacationed together.

"Of course, I was always aware of Frankie," Carnevale said. "But I don't think my passion for special education is as much about Frankie as it is that my wife and I had three perfect children -- or perfect in my eyes and my wife's eyes. I realized I didn't deserve to have perfect children. I mean, I've got a checkered past. All I did was screw around when I was growing up."

Wednesday was Carnevale's last day at Westview Middle School, where he marveled at the work ethic of teachers Cecile Lewis and Robin Pippen Brown.

"His goal was to make a difference in the students lives," Lewis wrote about Carnevale on her web page, "and I believe he accomplished his goal."

Before leaving Westview, Carnevale hit up many of his friends -- Cremins included -- for donations. He used the money to pay for a class field trip to the South Carolina Aquarium.

"I went out there and spoke to the class," Cremins said. "You know, going in and seeing the people that Corky was teaching was amazing. It really put things in perspective. But what he is trying to get across is that even for people who are handicapped -- and some of them severely -- there is a place in this world for all of them."

Corky Carnevale intends to spend his "retirement" seeing to that.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter at @sapakoff.