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The flag bearer: ‘Gamecock Jesus’ leaves behind a legacy of joy, kindness and belief

My daughter always kept her eye on the baseline, especially when she was young.

How could she not, with such a character patrolling behind the basket?

In our household, University of South Carolina basketball is, simply put, family. It has been for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Abbeville, and my Dad used to bring me to Columbia for basketball games at the old Carolina Coliseum. My first one was Jan. 6, 1990. The Gamecocks played Tulane.

It was the first of countless others. As an adult I’ve been a men’s basketball season ticket holder for 15 years, and now I’ve got one of those nifty mobile passes that gets us into both the men’s and women’s games. In the cold winter months, the Colonial Life Arena is our second home.

And through the decades, it’s a home that had one particularly steadfast resident. A mainstay who radiated joy and energy and asked us again and again whether the Gamecocks were up by 10 or down by 30, whether it was a Final Four season or losing campaign — to believe.

He was, of course, Carlton Thompson, perhaps better known in Columbia as Baseline Jesus or Gamecock Jesus. A USC alum and retired nurse, Thompson died recently after a battle with cancer. He was 69.

As tributes poured in Wednesday morning on social media and elsewhere, a term kept popping up to describe Thompson: A Gamecock superfan.

And while he certainly was that, it’s a label that doesn’t quite capture the experience that was Baseline Jesus.

If you ever attended a USC men’s or women’s basketball game in the last three decades, you’re undoubtedly familiar with Thompson’s enthusiasm. With his flowing hair and long beard — hence the good-natured Jesus nicknames — and Gamecocks bandana, Thompson was a whirling dervish behind the basket near the student section and USC band.

He was constantly yelling and stomping — he took to wearing yellow Crocs in later years — and he carried a Gamecock flag to all the games, one that seemed to become a little more tattered with each passing season.

And on the garnet T-shirt that he wore on many nights, there was but a single word: Believe.

It was that one word, and Thompson’s seeming insistence in it, that pushed his loyalty beyond simple superfandom. In fact, his fervent support of the teams actually tipped toward a sort of empathy.

He was, by every account, one of the kindest people you would ever meet, always quick to stop and say “hello” to those who called out to him at the arena. Social media was lined Wednesday morning with photos from fans who had met Thompson at the basketball games and elsewhere in Columbia.

He was always exceedingly patient and, in fact, enthusiastic in agreeing to pose for those photos. I was among the many Wednesday who posted pics I had gotten with him through the years, including a shot of the two of us outside of a Mexican restaurant during a chance meeting in Glendale, Arizona, during the 2017 men’s Final Four, and a shot of Thompson and my daughter, when she was just a youngster, along the baseline during a women’s game.

Thompson seemingly had a particular connection to the women’s basketball team. He was stomping, yelling, chanting and tossing his flag in the air in support of that program long, long before it reached its current lofty heights under Coach Dawn Staley.

Simply put, Gamecock Jesus — or Baseline Jesus, if you prefer — believed even when we didn’t. Even on the darkest days, there he was, flag in his hand, a bandana laced through his flowing locks as he cheered on the Gamecocks.

Joy, I believe, is contagious. It leaves the longest-lasting impression.

And that’s what Carlton Thompson left with us.

We still believe.

Carlton Thompson aka Gamecock Jesus, left, and Chris Trainor during a chance meeting in Glendale, Arizona in 2017 during the Final Four.
Carlton Thompson aka Gamecock Jesus, left, and Chris Trainor during a chance meeting in Glendale, Arizona in 2017 during the Final Four.