There's no doubt that LeRoy Gardner Jr. was a playground basketball legend. And it's become community lore that as a freshman at St. Paul Central, he led a group of buddies to victory over Elgin Baylor and a team of Minneapolis Lakers in a pickup game at Oxford Park.

Gardner later humbly claimed he was just an "average" player at the University of Minnesota, but friends and family members said he had the integrity of a leader on and off the court.

He eventually made his career at the university, becoming a counselor and adviser, a teacher and a mentor.

Gardner, 61, of Golden Valley, was diagnosed with lung cancer last February and died Saturday at Our Lady of Good Counsel in St. Paul.

Gardner, the son of a pastor, played for Central from 1962 to 1965 and helped take the team to its first state tournament berth in years. He scored 41 points in a region semifinal and 33 points in a consolation title game, said his eldest son, Frank.

He was the first black man born and raised in Minnesota to receive a full basketball scholarship at the U, his son said. Gardner earned undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology at the U.

He was an academic adviser in the athletic department when he was caught up in the scandal involving NCAA rules violations in the late 1980s. Football coach Lou Holtz, Gardner said, had given him $500 for a football player.

Frank Gardner said his father was told "point-blank to lie," but when the time came to talk to NCAA investigators, he told the truth.

"That was not my father's character," Frank Gardner said. "He was not a flawless character, nobody is, but lying and stealing were two things he did not do."

Al Nuness, a former Gopher teammate with Gardner, agreed: "Even in the darkest shadows of the Lou Holtz thing, LeRoy held true to his story, and it cost him for a while at the U.''

Defeated and heartsick in the wake of the NCAA investigation that dismissed his allegation against Holtz, Gardner left the university for a short time and tried to start a private psychology practice. When that didn't work, he returned and "found his passion" in teaching, his son said.

"That was his pride and joy, all the students he touched," Frank Gardner said.

The elder Gardner was a staunch supporter of the university's General College and led many battles to keep the program. He eventually lost and, in recent years, taught multicultural relations.

"Fairway Gardner" took up golf about 10 years ago and loved that sport, too. He wasn't very long off the tee, his son said, but he was "always right down the middle of the fairway."

He loved to head to Lake Superior's North Shore to camp and he absolutely loved to cook. "He was serious about his food," Frank Gardner said. "He fed everybody. And he loved everybody. And everybody loved him."

In addition to his eldest son, Gardner's survivors include his wife, Claudia; children LeRoy III, Lena Gardner and Tiffany Wallace; his parents LeRoy Sr. and Katherine; a sister, Sharon; a brother, Gordon, and seven grandchildren.

Services are pending at the Estes Funeral Home in Minneapolis.

Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551