Story by Earl Williams
NOTE: Earl Williams is a longtime sportswriter who worked at the Press-Telegram during its glory years under editor Jim McCormack. He’s provided an expanded obituary on Long Beach hoops legend James Hardy–thank you to Earl and to Jim for making the connection. Click here to read our obituary from last week.
LONG BEACH — How many basketball players have you ever witnessed elevate basketballs above the square for earth-quaking dunks while having to duck his head to avoid hitting the back of a backboard during a game?
Well, it really happened folks. The story isn’t a myth.
James Percivell Hardy, who died from a heart attack on Dec. 28, did it.
In the basketball archive at the University of San Francisco, there is a vintage black and white photo of the 2017 USF Athletic Hall-of-Fame inductee posterizing Santa Clara players during a West Coast Athletic Conference game.
From the early 1970s to 1990s, Hardy gave generations of basketball fans in San Francisco, Long Beach, and around the world a plethora of unforgettable highlights to remember.
The things he did on the hardwood are legendary. He was truly a man-child.
His heroics on the hardwood at Jordan High had UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian, Long Beach State Lute Olson, both Naismith Hall-of-Fame coaches, in hot pursuit of his services.
However, USF coach Bob Gaillard landed the 1975 First-team Parade All-American who stood 6-foot-8 with a huge wingspan. There, he teamed with Bill Cartwright and Wilford Boynes, also Parade All-Americans, to form one of the greatest teams in USF’s storied history, a squad sportswriters dubbed “The Dandy Dons.’’
“James Hardy was the most talented athletic high school player in the nation,’’ Gaillard said. “He was simply poetry in motion and an invaluable asset to what became the No. 1 team in college basketball.
“Apart from his athletic prowess, James was an exceptionally intelligent and insightful young man,’’ he continued. “Intellectually far more aware than his peers, James had the ability to assess individuals, groups, and the social unrest/questions of the turbulent seventies. James Hardy was special and his brief meteoric journey through all that knew him will never be forgotten.”
In 2017 before Hardy was inducted into USF’s Athletic Hall-of-Fame, Cartwright told a reporter: “We won a lot of games together and climbed to No. 1 in the nation but everyone would always remember that one spectacular play James made every game that you might not see again. We all wished we were as gifted as he was.”
In 1977, Hardy helped lead the Dons to 29 consecutive victories, to a WCAC Championship and to a No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll before Notre Dame upset them, 93-82, on the final game of the regular season. USF lost 121-95 to UNVL in the first round of the NCAA Division I playoffs, finishing the season with an overall record of 29-2.
Hardy averaged 14.4 ppg. and 10.9 RPG. during the incredible run and earned AP Honorable Mention All-American recognition.
The next season, he tallied 15.7 ppg. and 8.9 RPG. to lead the Dons (12-2,23-6) to the WCAC title, and to a victory against North Carolina, 68-64, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, Cal State Fullerton defeated the Dons, 75-72, in the second round.
Hardy, who also earned 1978 AP All-American Honorable Mention recognition, finished his career with the Dons as the program’s 10th all-time leading scorer (1,075 points), and seventh leading rebounder (772).
The junior power forward entered the 1978 NBA Draft. The New Orleans Jazz (now Utah) selected him 11th overall in the first round of the lottery. He played four seasons with them before embarking on a successful career overseas.
Things didn’t go well for him with the Jazz. Hardy’s game didn’t fit coach Elgin Baylor’s system, said David Oliver, a childhood friend, and high school teammate in basketball and track and field.
Hardy was a hybrid player who could handle the ball like a guard and was a deadly shooter from outside. His game suffered greatly. Playing with his back to the basket wasn’t his game. He only averaged 5.7 ppg., 0.9 BPG., and 5.3 RPG.
He didn’t get along with Baylor. Hardy, who never received another opportunity to play in the NBA, felt he had been black-balled, Oliver said.
He took his high-flying act overseas, where he was embraced. He played for Crispa Redmanizers (Philippines), Olympique Antibes, Paris Basketball Racing, CB Ourense (Spain), Mister Day Siena (Siena Italy), and APU Udinese -Gedeco (Udine, Italy).
MARRIAGE, PERSONAL LIFE
Hardy went all over the world, marrying multiple times before he realized that the lady who could make him a happy home was raised as his Godsister, Catherine McLamb.
“James always wanted to have a family,’’ she said. “We have always been in contact with each other. He was finally able to get back to his true love.”
Hardy was born to Emma Ruth and James Hardy on Dec. 1, 1956, in Knoxville, Ala. Unfortunately, two years later, Emma passed.
By age 11, James Percivell Hardy had moved to the Long Beach area. Later, he attended Franklin Jr. High on the Eastside. Instead of attending Poly High, and being a part of the Jackrabbits’ sports dynasty, he enrolled at Jordan High.
What changed? During this time, James Percivell Hardy’s father had fallen in love. He married Willie Maybell, who loved and raised James Percivell like he was her own. The couple had several children together. Catherine McLamb was always over Hardy’s house in the Carmelitos Housing Projects and was considered a part of the family.
Hardy eventually went off to college, the NBA, and overseas got married and had children. McLamb married and had children, too.
In 2009, James Percivell Hardy married McLamb, and the couple merged their blended families. He raised all of her children as if they were his own. “He used to tell people, ‘I married my sister’,’’ she laughed, fondly recalling his sense of humor.
By this time, James Percivell Hardy had retired from professional basketball and had settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. After retiring from basketball in 1990, he drove big rigs for trucking companies. Seven years later, he established MARCO INC., a small trucking company that eventually grew to five trucks and five trailers. McLamb said he logged 170,000 miles per mile a year.
“He drove his own truck and trailer from coast to coast. He loved the freedom that his job gave him, traveling the United States in his mobile office with the best views of God’s creations,’’ McLamb said.
“He still had big dreams of taking the company to a higher level, a vision of creating opportunities for others who also shared his passion for driving big rigs,’’ she continued. “He began purchasing and leasing semi-trucks and trailers to other drivers who needed assistance with getting started in their own business.’’
Later, the road led James Percivell Hardy back to Jordan High. In front of student-athletes, he talked about his basketball experiences and life journey, said Rob Willis, a former Panther coach and a point guard who competed for Loyola Marymount and with pro teams overseas.
“James Hardy was essentially the purest basketball talent to ever emerge out of the Moore League and the City of Long Beach,’’ said Gerald Harris, a former Panther coach and small forward who played at Eastern Washington. “His battles with David Greenwood were of epic proportions, to say the least. He literally extended the ball well over the square on the backboard. I’ve seen him do it on many occasions.
“He was the quintessential ‘man among boys’ of his era,” Harris continued. “His physical attributes have been virtually unseen or matched by anyone since he left the courts of Long Beach.’’
In 1974, during the non-league competition, Jordan High steamrolled to a 13-0 overall record and had received a No. 2 ranking in the CIF Southern Section Poll and No. 5 rankings nationally, Oliver said.
Verbum Dei, a perennial national powerhouse and ranked No. 1 in CIF-SS, underestimated the Panthers during their matchup at the West Covina holiday tournament.That team featured Greenwood and Roy Hamilton, both Parade All-Americans and UCLA signees.
Jordan possessed a plethora of NCAA Div. I-caliber talent, including Hardy who high jumped 6 feet, 7 inches the first time he ever competed in track and field, and finished second behind Oliver (same mark with fewer attempts) at the Moore League championship.
After Jordan won, people had high expectations for the Panthers. Larry Hudson, a 6-foot-6 small forward and prolific scorer, tallied 44 points against the Eagles while Hardy outplayed Greenwood, players said.
The players and fan bases expected the teams to eventually meet up in the CIF finals. Verbum Dei wanted revenge.
However, intra-squad strife derailed the season. The Panthers went 6-4 during league play. They faced formidable opponents like Poly, Millikan, and Compton, and the Panthers finished 19-10 overall.
Hudson, who signed at Long Beach State, said he would have gladly let Hardy or other teammates be first options.
Hudson said he thought Hardy should have been the go-to-player.
“James was the best basketball player to ever come out of Long Beach,’’ said Hudson, a Prep 10 Top 100 All-American who once saw him touch above the clock inside the Millikan High locker room.
“James could do whatever he wanted to do on the floor,’’ said Oliver, a shooting guard who went on play at Loyola Chicago. “He could score at will, rebound at will, block shots at will. He was just a gifted guy. He was before his time. He could handle the rock like a guard. He was Kevin Durant before Kevin Durant.”
Mark Tennis, the editor of Cal High Sports, said Hardy was a part of the 1975 class that is considered the best ever in the history of CIF. Hardy, Greenwood, Hamilton, Bill Laimbeer (Palo Verdes Estate, Notre Dame), Brad Holland (Crescenta Valley, UCLA) and Cartwright (Elk Grove), were all Parade All-Americans. They completed on the first Cal All-Stars vs. the world all-star team.
Paul Moseki, a 7-2 center (Crespi Carmelite High, Kanas), was also a part of that exceptional class and all-star team.
“James could have averaged 50 points and 10 rebounds. He had that skill set,’’ Hudson said. “He was a phenomenal talent, man!’’
James Percivell Hardy was preceded in death by his birth mother Emma Hardy, father James Hardy, brother Freddie Hardy, and brother-in-law Tiran Walker Sr.
In addition to Catherine and mother Willie Maybell (Union Springs, Ala.), James Percivell Hardy is survived by children: Jennifer Paula Hardy, James Michael Hardy, and Emma Claire Hardy, Sharrod, Dontae, Shanecca, Mario, Tanisha, Danish, Yohance; siblings Joyce Addison (Union Springs Ala.); James Lester Hardy (Washington State): Johnette (Titus) (Modesto, Calif.); Jacqueline Walker (Modesto, Calif.), and a host of family and friends.