Commentary

DeCock: Ex-UNC basketball star builds career around unexpected

Ex-UNC star’s life is one of second acts. His latest: Reviving a town

August 18, 2012 

— The receipt paper in the cash register has run out at Cup 22, the coffee shop nestled inside the Haw River Ballroom, a cavernous, brick performance space that was once the dye house of a cotton mill. Tom LaGarde, 6-foot-10 to the top of his shaggy hair, ambles over to poke at the register.

Just as he often pauses before answering a question, composing thoughtful, softly spoken responses, he moves deliberately –in part because of knees battered by years of basketball, in part because he has the easy gait of a man who isn’t in any particular hurry, having finally arrived where he wants to be.

A big man on some of the best North Carolina teams of the ’70s, his No. 45 is one of the honored numbers hanging from the roof of the Smith Center as the fifth player to win academic All-America honors. LaGarde joined teammates Phil Ford, Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak, John Kuester and Mike O’Koren in the NBA, and like many professional athletes, his life and career moved on to a second act. Except LaGarde’s second acts have second acts.

After knee problems cut his basketball career short, he worked on Wall Street, combined inline skating with basketball and, after moving back to North Carolina in 2004, turned his own renovations of an old farmhouse a few miles outside Saxapahaw into an architectural-salvage business.

LaGarde and his wife Heather would become key figures in the revival of the little Alamance County mill town 15 miles west of Chapel Hill. They had put on a Saturday evening concert series since moving back, but in 2011 they joined with a silent partner to open the Haw River Ballroom as LaGarde embarked on yet another unexpected new career – concert promoter and coffee-shop owner.

“I thought it would turn out great,” said LaGarde, 57. “It turned out much better than I thought it would.”

ACT I

Tommy LaGarde loved basketball from the start. He was tall, and he kept getting better. By the time he was a senior at Detroit Central Catholic, it was clear to the Niagara University assistant coach who had been recruiting him that LaGarde was bound for bigger things.

He wasn’t interested in the expected local options, Notre Dame and Michigan and Michigan State. “Why not North Carolina?” the Niagara assistant suggested, pointing out it was hard to go wrong with Dean Smith. In the days before college basketball was a nightly fixture on national television, this is how players found far-away schools.

LaGarde got off the plane and was smitten. The weather, the smell of the flowers, the campus, the girls – it was all too appealing, not to mention playing for Smith.

He battled injuries, but worked hard to get better. Smith would make players run in 45-pound vests as punishment; LaGarde would put one on by choice, stand under the basket and dunk, flat-footed, 20 times after practice.

He became a pivotal figure on the inside for the Tar Heels. He was also a pivotal figure inside of the locker room, where his even-handed sincerity commanded the respect of his teammates. After the Tar Heels slumped to three losses in four games in the middle of the 1977 season, LaGarde called a players-only meeting in a Granville Towers lounge. It became a candid assessment of both individuals and the team.

“From that meeting, we won every game until Marquette (in the national championship),” teammate Woody Coley said. “It was a pivotal moment of leadership. He had the ear of all the players to come and do that in a constructive way. Somebody else could have done that with a much different outcome. His sincerity, and the respect people had for him, set the tone.”

Late in the season, LaGarde blew out a knee – not for the last time – and his college career was over. Already having won Olympic gold under Smith in 1976, he was drafted ninth overall by the Denver Nuggets and won an NBA title with the Seattle Supersonics in 1979 before playing in Italy. In 1984, his knees shot, he retired.

“I’m grateful I had the experience, but in many ways, it was very disorienting, dysfunctional and distorted,” LaGarde said. “You ever go in the fun house, like at the state fair? Playing ball at Kentucky or Carolina or in the NBA, it’s like the fun house. You look around, you’re having a fun time, you look in the mirror and you’re fat or you’re tall or someone’s standing behind you.

“You’re never really sure who or where you are. It was fun, but I don’t know where fun gets you at the end of the day. I had more fun than a lot of people, but it was very disorienting.”

ACT II

Smith once told LaGarde, it’s not the future NBA stars who benefit the most from his coaching. They pick up the basketball stuff, and it serves them well. But the walk-ons and the managers, who aren’t preparing for a basketball career, just a career, really flourish.

LaGarde had a basketball career many would envy. Yet when he lists the teammates he’s closest to now, it isn’t the ones who joined him in the NBA. It’s the managers and walk-ons, the ones who were listening to Smith as closely as he was, who absorbed those lessons as deeply as LaGarde did – men like Coley, a walk-on who is now the managing partner of a real-estate consulting firm, or John Cohen, a team manager who would go on to run his family’s jewelry business.

“If I was distilling it down into two or three words: Preparation. Organization. Discipline,” Cohen said. “I learned so much about that from him. I can tell you in our business, we were fairly successful in what we did, and I tried to run our business just like coach Smith and coach (Bill) Guthridge ran the basketball office. It was so much about being prepared.”

So LaGarde went to Wall Street. If he played professional basketball because it was expected of him, he ended up on Morgan Stanley because he thought it was the logical next step for an ex-athlete. Cohen, among others, thought LaGarde’s intellect would make him a success. Yet he found the world of high finance as dysfunctional and distorted as the NBA.

During this period of existential despair, after going through a divorce and while questioning his Wall Street ambitions, a therapist told LaGarde to read “Babbitt,” Sinclair Lewis’ parable of American conformity.

In the final scene, Babbitt’s son has just gotten married against his parents’ wishes, but Babbitt shocks both his son and the reader by endorsing the marriage.

Lewis’ words stuck with LaGarde: “I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along.”

He decided he would no longer just get along. He had taken up inline skating as a way to get in shape without taxing his knees, but also felt like his injuries denied him the opportunity to end his basketball career on his own terms. So in 1992, he slapped the two together.

By 1997, LaGarde was running a nonprofit that taught the comingled sport to disadvantaged kids in Harlem and on the lower East Side. His skating, dribbling, shooting kids made national news – Sports Illustrated, CNN – and performed at NBA games.

“That was his first step in letting himself be ‘Tom the crazy innovator,’ that he is now,” said Heather, who met him while he was on skates. “Now he has less to prove and more to enjoy.”

Then 9/11 happened, and it all fell apart. Donations dried up, and the city suddenly seemed like a less magical place to raise kids. He and Heather were married in 1998. While LaGarde had adopted Chapel Hill, she had been born there. They dropped everything and moved home, to an old farmhouse they had bought in Alamance County, just south of Saxapahaw.

Renovating that farmhouse brought him in contact with others who were doing the same. While his wife rebooted her career as a community activist, LaGarde started selling a few pieces out of his barn. BarnStar Vintage Wood and Architectural Salvage became a full-time business, at least until the mortgage crisis dried up development. By then, their future was tied to Saxapahaw.

ACT III

The Jordan family – of the senator and the lake – once owned the Saxapahaw mill. After it closed in 1994, the family bought it back and embarked on a project that would offer a template for rural North Carolina communities left adrift after the twin collapses of textiles and tobacco.

As Mac Jordan, the grandson of Sen. Everett Jordan, redeveloped the old mill buildings into apartments, condominiums and commercial space, he had a vision for a self-sustaining, local village, but no idea how to promote it. That was right about the time Tom and Heather LaGarde moved nearby. Jordan now calls their arrival “a Godsend.”

It started with the LaGardes’ Saturday evening farmers’ market and concert series, which still occupies a hillside overlooking the river, next to the post office and art gallery. An event that once drew hundreds now draws thousands.

Then Jordan asked them to open a restaurant. They declined, but helped recruit Jeff Barney and Cameron Ratliff to turn the town’s general store into a dining destination. Ratliff remembers sitting in the tree house on the LaGardes’ seven acres in 2008 as they pitched the idea of a convenience store that was also a gourmet restaurant.

“So there was Tom, who was of mythic proportions, and Heather, and their two lovely children, and wine and cheese,” Ratliff said. “They sort of lured us out here and have apologized for it ever since, but we’re lucky it happened.”

The Saxapahaw General Store, with its chalkboard menu, shelves of staples and “Saxoco” gas is now one of the region’s top farm-to-fork restaurants. It sits at one end of the old mill, with the Haw River Ballroom at the other – beyond unique, with its weathered brick walls, exposed lumber and tangible industrial heritage. An old drying vat sits outside, lit up at night with the name of the venue.

The coffee shop overlooks the event floor, where locals play ping-pong on Saturdays – LaGarde’s idea – and acts like indie favorites the Mountain Goats and cult folkster The Tallest Man on Earth draw sellout crowds.

People come in all the time looking for LeGarde. If they ask for “Tommy” instead of “Tom,” they’re basketball fans.

“I think we’ve tried to do things we wanted to do,” LaGarde said “Maybe that’s the best gift of basketball, because I really loved basketball and I found out I could find things I enjoyed doing.”

While Heather’s marketing ability and outspoken personality draws much of the publicity, the other stakeholders in Saxapahaw say Tom’s stoic pragmatism deserves just as much of the credit for the town’s success.

In a particularly contentious meeting of those stakeholders last week, LaGarde settled the room by speaking up. He rarely uses sports metaphors, but he did that night, comparing the current state of Saxapahaw to the late stages of a marathon, where the pain builds up but the finish line is in sight.

He might have been reading from a Dean Smith script. Just as he had in a dorm lounge 35 years ago, he brought a different kind of team back together.

“Tom is like the oak tree, just rock-steady, quiet, strong,” Mac Jordan said. “You can count on him. ... A lot of times, the dreamers like me and Heather, we get all caught up in the dream and the emotion. We need folks like Tom to bring us down to earth, to tell us, ‘This is what we need to do and this is how we can do it.’ “

As his 8-year-old son Holland roams the ballroom on an aimless summer day – his 12-year-old daughter Hadden is away at camp – LaGarde freely admits this is never where he thought he would be at this point in his life. But he also admits he is more willing than ever to let life lead him wherever it takes him.

“Not like my dad, who drove a bus for 30 years and had to slog through it,” LaGarde said. “He’s a bright guy, but never finished high school, nor did my mother, and he had to do that for the family. He was forced into that.”

Around Saxapahaw, LaGarde is easily spotted, not only because of his height, but because he’s often tooling around in Saxapahaw’s first golf cart, a concession to both his knees and the scarcity of parking spots when things get hopping. He knows everyone, from their names to their travel plans.

“Hey, when do you leave for India?” he asks one woman as he rumbles by on the golf cart, a man at ease with where he is and who he is; a man and a town, reinventing themselves together.

DeCock: luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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