By Frankie Mansfield
Go to a Gamecock basketball game, and you’ll probably quickly notice “Baseline Jesus,” the stamping, Gamecock flag-waving, 57-year-old alum with a long gray beard and hair to the middle of his back who leads the cheers. But unless you look past that, you’re less likely to notice the group of friends, most with special needs, he brings to the games.
And Carlton Thompson is perfectly happy if you notice his passion for the Gamecocks but miss his other one – helping and caring for people in need.
The on-court action sends him into a frenzy, and with each good play he screams words of encouragement and stamps his yellow Crocs into the metal stairs hard enough to vibrate all the seats around him.
In all the excitement, a frail hand reaches up from the seats and tugs on the Gamecock handkerchief hanging from Thompson’s back pocket. “Baseline Jesus” instantly becomes calm and leans in to speak with Nellie Fowler as she offers him a sip from the bendy straw in her can of Coke.
“I always tell him if he doesn’t calm down he’s going to give himself a heart attack,” Fowler says. “But he goes right back to it. He just loves it.”
“Ms. Nellie” just laughs if you ask her age, but she’s more than willing to chat about her memories, like graduating high school right before the Hindenburg crash of 1937 and listening to Gamecock baseball games from her grandmother’s front porch across the street from the old ball field.
These days, with a little help from Thompson, she watches almost every home Gamecock basketball game through her pink sunglasses from the second row behind the baseline.
Fowler and Thompson have been friends for almost 20 years, and she’s part of the group – usually three or four, but sometimes as many as 10 – that relies on him to get to and from games. Thompson says he’s happy to help because, “it just feels right.”
“I would be jumping up and down with him if my shoulder wasn’t hurt,” Fowler said. “We’re just the best of friends, and I couldn’t imagine the games without him.”
Thompson drives from his Elgin home as far as 30 miles to Lexington to pick people up, take them out to dinner, help get them tickets and make sure they’re safely in their seats before the game.
“Whether we’re up by 20 or down by 20, he’s always trying to get the crowd involved and just motivate us to keep playing,” senior guard Lakeisha Sutton said. “And it’s not just about Gamecock basketball. He’s a really good person, and he’s always trying to help somebody else.”
At halftime, Eddie Kester joins Thompson behind the baseline. Kester, a longtime ticket broker and devoted Gamecock fan himself, and Thompson have been friends for over 30 years.
“They really look forward to hanging out with Carlton,” Kester said. “He gives some people who might not get out very much otherwise a great friend and great night out, and I don’t think people realize.”
Thompson said that when he first met the group “I just felt right at home with them, and they have been like my best friends ever since.”
One of Thompson’s two sons, Greg, 35, says he thinks few people actually realize the people his father helps because he is so quiet about it.
“It’s how he’s always been,” Thompson said. “He doesn’t think he’s doing anything special. I don’t even think it’s a conscious thing. It’s just second nature.”
Thompson’s wife, Judi, says her husband has always been headstrong and that two of the things he cares deeply about are cheering on the Gamecocks and helping people in need.
To his group, “he’s not ‘Baseline Jesus’ or ‘Gamecock Jesus’ or whatever,” she said. “He’s just Carlton, and just his friendship means a lot to them.”
Thompson is as energetic at work as he is at the games, said Bobbie Mckeever, who has worked with Thompson for almost 30 years at the VA. Some patients are apprehensive when they first see him, she said, but they love him within an hour.
Zach Mantooth, who also works at the VA, said that when he first saw “Baseline Jesus” at the games he thought Thompson was homeless.
“Shame on me for judging him,” Mantooth said. “He’s one of the best nurses we got and someone I look up to. People won’t remember hardly anybody, but they’ll always remember Carlton.”
Before halftime ends, Fowler hands Thompson a Little Debbie cake and another can of Coke for David McLean – another friend Thompson brings to every game, but who sits up a little higher in seats easier for him to access.
As Thompson walks through the arena he shakes hands and poses for pictures while fans call out “Baseline Jesus.”
When Thompson reaches McLean, “Baseline Jesus” again disappears, and the two talk about the first half while they watch the halftime show.
As McLean scans the arena he turns to tell Thompson, “You might need to get louder and get these fans excited.”
“You know, you might be right,” he says.
The two share a laugh and sit back to enjoy the Coke – just two old buddies talking basketball.