RALEIGH — It took a free T-shirt to help Mindy Ballou Fitzpatrick become a Hall of Famer.
Actually, her accomplishments on the basketball court at West Carteret High School and the University of South Carolina were noteworthy in their own right. But what set her apart and ultimately caught the attention of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame was her record as a champion surfer.
It’s a success she might not have attained without the aforementioned shirt.
“I wasn’t real competitive about it, which isn’t like me because I’m a competitive person,” Ballou Fitzpatrick said of her early surfing career on the Outer Banks. “I just loved it. It was kind of a breakaway from basketball and I got a T-shirt if I entered a contest. That’s when it started.”
The Morehead City native’s competitive juices started flowing again once those contests began, and she went on to win the Women’s Amateur National Championship at Sebastian Inlet, Fla., in 1994. She followed that up by winning five Eastern Surfing Association titles, along with numerous district and regional championships.
Her performance on the waves, combined with the record-setting numbers she put up on the basketball court, was rewarded earlier this month with her induction as one of the 15 newest state athletic Hall of Famers.
In the process, Ballou Fitzpatrick became both the first surfer and first athlete from Carteret County to be honored by the shrine — a fact that left her both humbled and surprised.
“It doesn’t make sense to me, basically,” she said. “I feel like I was raised by a lot of Hall of Fame-level people. I think I’m lucky, with the combination of being a national surfing champ, too. I know a lot of surfers who are better than me that could be in this, and I hope someday they will. I feel this is a gateway for other people from Carteret County to get the chance to be looked at.”
Though her surfing skills were likely the element that put her over the top as a Hall of Famer, it was Ballou Fitzpatrick’s basketball talent that first began to get her noticed.
She was named all-conference in all four of her high school seasons, earning three county Player of the Year honors while setting single-game, season and career scoring records. She was an All-American her senior year and became the first — and still only — West Carteret athlete to have his or her jersey retired.
At South Carolina, she scored 1,199 points between 1982-86. But it was her prowess as a playmaker that helped her become a three-time All-American and the No. 6 player in a recent ranking of all-time Gamecock women’s basketball greats.
Ballou Fitzpatrick still holds the school record for assists in a season with 219, and her career total of 595 is still the second-most in school history nearly three decades later.
“I’ve had a way of attracting people better than me,” Ballou Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve been very lucky at that.
“I was a point guard at South Carolina, and I had one of the best players ever on my team. She’s the reason I have that assist record. Brantley (Southers) couldn’t always remember the offensive plays, but she was incredible. So I just got her the ball and she scored a lot.”
Ballou Fitzpatrick said her ability to handle the ball and feed her teammates came from her early years playing pickup games with and against boys.
“My advantage of playing with guys was being a point guard,” she said. “If I was a three or a four, I couldn’t compete with that size. But I worked hard at handling the basketball, and nobody could take it from me. And I liked to make sure I was a good teammate and give the ball up a lot. That’s why I was always picked, even with the guys, because they knew I was going to give them the ball.”
Because Ballou Fitzpatrick came along before the WNBA, her professional options were limited after college. She had opportunities to play overseas, but she turned them down to stay close to her elderly parents.
She had another chance to return to the court when the WNBA was established in 1996 and the Charlotte Sting offered her a spot as their starting point guard at the age of 33.
This time she passed for a different family reason.
“I was pregnant with Matt Jr. when I got the call to come back, and thank God I was, because I’d have gone and played,” she said of the first of her two children. “I’d had enough out of basketball.”
Instead she was lured back to surfing, a sport on which she first became hooked through her three brothers while growing up on the coast.
All it took to get her back into the water was a free T-shirt.
“Surfing was something I kind of did and loved,” she said. “But in competition we were pretty relaxed out there which I think that made us compete at a much higher level.”