Former University of San Francisco hoop star James Hardy in a file photo from the 1970s. (Credit, USF Athletics)

James Hardy, who teamed up with Bill Cartwright and others to lead the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team to great heights in the 1970s, passed away in late December at age 64.

In the past few weeks since Hardy’s death of a heart attack on Dec. 28, former teammates and those who knew him best reflected on his extraordinary skills on the basketball court.

In remembrance of Hardy, perhaps Cartwright summed up his ex-teammate’s career best.

“In all of my years of playing basketball, he was maybe the best athlete I have ever played with, which I think says a lot,” Cartwright was quoted as saying on the USF Athletics website’s Hardy obituary. “But more importantly he was a good friend, an excellent teammate, and good man who cared deeply about his family.”

Cartwright’s perspective comes from a lifetime in basketball, including 16 seasons as NBA player and the experience of being a part of three title-winning squads as the starting center for the Chicago Bulls in the early 1990s.

A coach’s perspective

Hardy’s former USF coach, Bob Gaillard delivered poignant remarks to

“James Hardy was the most talented athletic high school player in the nation. He was simply poetry in motion and an invaluable asset to what became the No. 1 team in college basketball.”

Added Gaillard: “Apart from his athletic prowess, James was an exceptionally intelligent and insightful young man. 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.”

Great expectations

James Hardy arrived on the USF campus in 1975 as part of a celebrated recruiting class that included future No. 3 overall pick Cartwright and Winford Boynes.

The Knoxville, Alabama, native attended Jordan High School in Long Beach, California, and caught the eye of college coaches from coast to coast with his immense talent and hoop acumen. As a high school senior, he was a Parade All-American First-Team selection in 1975.

There were, of course, great expectations for Gaillard’s Dons in those years.

And the school’s publicity efforts proclaimed as much, too.

Consider what was written in the USF basketball media guide for the 1976-77 campaign: “With the addition of Boynes, Cartwright, and Hardy, Gaillard and the Dons instantly became a top-twenty power overnight,” it was noted in the USF Athletics website obituary.

Success for the Dons

Led by a talented roster and strong coaching, James Hardy and his USF teammates enjoyed success, with West Coast Conference titles in 1976-77 and 1977-78, as well as trips to the postseason in all three of Hardy’s seasons in a Dons uniform.

With Hardy playing a starring role, the Dons opened the 1976-77 with 29 straight victories. By Week 6, the Dons (15-0 at the time) had climbed to No. 1 in the AP national rankings. USF was No. 1 for most of the season, and finished 29-2 overall, dropping its final two games.

James Hardy’s college numbers

The gifted leaper contributed 13.4 points and 9.7 rebounds in 80 games at USF. He shot 52.8 percent from the floor. What’s more, he was No. 10 on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,075) and seventh-leading rebounder (772) by the time his Dons career ended.

As a sophomore, Hardy was an Associated Press honorable mention All-American in 1976-77. He opted to turn pro after his junior season.

In the pros

After his distinguished college career at USF Hardy was the 11th pick (New Orleans Jazz) in the 1978 NBA Draft and began his career playing for Elgin Baylor, the legendary ex-Lakers forward, in the Crescent City.

The Jazz moved to Salt Lake City the next year, and Hardy spent the next three seasons with the club. In his NBA career, the 6-foot-8 Hardy appeared in 249 regular-season games while averaging 5.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists. Baylor stepped down rather than remain at the helm after the team moved to Utah, and Hardy continued his NBA career under bench boss Tom Nissalke and Frank Layden, who replaced him in the 1981-82 season after the Jazz lost 12 of their first 20 games.

After four seasons in the NBA, Hardy spent the next eight in Europe, starring for teams in Italy (A.P.U. Udinese and Mister Day Siena), France (Paris Basket Racing and Olympique Antibes) and Spain (CB Ourense), and then he retired in 1990.

Additional insights from Cartwright

Talk Basket reached out to Cartwright a couple weeks ago, and the former NBA player and head coach shared some of his favorite James Hardy anecdotes in an interview conducted via email.

“As you know James, Winford and I came in together in the 1975-1976 class at USF, it was an extraordinary time,” Cartwright shared.

“Even though I was 7-feet tall I was skinny and gangly, Winford was a two-time Mr. Oklahoma, but when we first met James he was the most physically prepared to play. He was 6-foot-9 and a freak of an athlete. I can remember being almost jealous of this guy because he had such an impressive phyique. I thought to myself that there was no way that this guy worked harder than me; he had a god-given talent.

“James is best remembered not for being the team’s leading scorer although there were games in which he was, not for being the team’s leading rebounder although there were games in which he was, but for making spectacular dunks or plays in the games. People would remember the game for his spectacular plays — not if we won or lost.”

Unforgettable memories

A dramatic victory over a local rival remains etched in Cartwright’s mind decades later.

“I remember a game when we played Santa Clara (our rival) in a hard fought game that we ended up winning at the buzzer — Chubby Cox made an unbelievable runner,” Cartwright told Talk Basket. “People best remember the game for the the dunks where he caught a lob pass going away from the basket with his left hand and switched to his right hand and dunked the ball. That was freaky!

“James’ nickname in college was ‘Trouble’ mainly because he had ‘Trouble’ written on the side of the van he brought to USF. We never actually knew where the van came from but we expected it came from a rival school that was recruiting him. Even though James’ nickname was ‘Trouble’ he was the exact opposite. He was very thoughtful and very smart (he played chess). I think he got a kick out of people thinking he was a bad ass.”

Mourning James Hardy’s death

Cartwright publicly mourned his teammate’s passing.

“It is sad that he passed so early,” Cartwright commented.

Cartwright relished the fact that James Hardy was inducted into the USF Athletic Hall of Fame in 2017. He said it was “long overdue.”

“He was so thankful and honored to be in the Hall of Fame,” Cartwright said of Hardy. “(Hardy) didn’t expect it and obviously it was well deserved.”

Cartwright continued: “He brought his wife Catherine and his family to the ceremony. I was happy to have that time to spend with him.

“After James passed I received many many texts from former teammates and USF alumni. He was a special player and a special person who will be missed.”

The final word on James Hardy

James Hardy was inducted into the USF Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017. On the YouTube intro section for a video highlighting his induction into the Hall of Fame, Cartwright summed up Hardy’s unique talents this way:

“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. He was a scorer, a rebounder, shot blocker and we all wished we were as gifted as he was.”