Harrellson this year’s unlikely hero
NEWARK, N.J. – In 2009, Josh Harrellson played so passively in a game at Vanderbilt that then-Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, in a motivational ploy, ordered the then-sophomore out of his sight during a halftime speech.
Rather than wait out in the hallway, as Gillispie assumed he would, Harrellson decided to head into the bathroom and take a seat in a toilet stall.
Later, Harrellson rode home from Nashville in the equipment truck.
“I just slept the whole way,” he said. “I got home quicker.”
In November of this season, Harrellson decided to complain via Twitter that John Calipari wasn’t praising him enough. “Just amazing to me I can’t get a good job or way to go” he tweeted, later comically adding, “I look past it and keep trucking! You can’t stop this train!!!”
Considering Harrellson had averaged a whopping 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds as a junior, Calipari said it took a trip to church and a lot of prayer to keep from, indeed, stopping this train by booting him off the club.
Instead Cal ordered Harrellson to 30 days of going through a half-hour, pre-practice conditioning session as punishment. Naturally, it later got extended to 60 days and then 90 days, a daily cardio beating that both changed Harrellson’s body (he dropped 10 pounds) and mindset (he decided to stop being the team goofball).
“[The tweet] was the dumbest smartest thing I’ve ever done because it got me into shape,” Harrellson said Saturday, in advance of Kentucky’s Elite Eight game here with North Carolina.
“When I first did it, I couldn’t regret it more but now I’m so happy I did it. It made me the player I am today.”
The player he is today is something no one could’ve seen coming. Harrellson is averaging 15.7 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the NCAA tournament. He played future NBA lottery pick Jared Sullinger of Ohio State to a draw Friday, helping the Wildcats to a 62-60 victory.
“Harrellson is probably the most underrated player in college basketball,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said.
This is probably true. Only it’s not that people overlooked Harrellson’s game; it’s because everyone paid attention.
He’s underrated because he can be so underwhelming. Fifteen times this season he scored four or fewer points – including twice this month. When UK freshman Terrence Jones first saw Harrellson in preseason pickup games, his immediate thought was how he sure hoped Enes Kanter would get eligible.
Kanter, a talented freshman center from Turkey, wasn’t allowed to play, though, and many figured that would severely limit the Wildcats’ potential. No one had any reason to believe Harrellson would do much more than find creative ways to infuriate his coaches.
Before this run, his claim to fame was earning the nickname “Jorts” in honor of his devotion to the rural fashion of jeans shorts. He said he owns 10 pairs.
“A lot of people think of jeans shorts like I cut my jeans off and made them shorts,” Harrellson explained. “I actually buy them. [I wear them every day] when it gets to jorts season.”
“When it’s spring time,” he said. “It’s a fashion statement. They’re easy to put on. I can wear my basketball shorts underneath them. You can wear them out to the courts. They’re easy to take off, and then slip back on and wear home.”
He claims he has made jorts so popular in Lexington he even got teammate Darius Miller to start wearing them.
“That’s a lie,” Miller countered, shaking his head and playfully wondering what the heck is wrong with his teammate.
One of the beautiful parts of the NCAA tournament is the annual rise of these out-of-nowhere guys such as Harrellson.
He’s skillfully assumed the 2011 role of former West Virginia big man Kevin Pittsnogle as the tourney’s colorful, country-bred hero who’s nearly impossible not to like. Gillispie said he still checks in with Harrellson and calls him “the best guy in the world.” Cal, who just months ago needed three “Our Fathers” to tolerate him, now can’t stop with the praise.
Harrellson is hysterical and he knows it. He’s soaking up every bit of the fun since there is no good reason that he should’ve become a big national sporting star.
He said he never considered playing basketball until the first day of his freshman year at St. Charles (Mo.) High. He was 6 feet 4 and 240 pounds, and he walked into the football office and asked if he could go out for the team. The football coach inexplicably said it was too late to join even the freshman team.
The varsity basketball coach, Gary Wacker, happened to be sitting there.
“[Wacker] said, ‘You guys are dumb for not letting him play,’ ” Harrellson said. “Then I had PE with [Wacker] and he kind of told me without any options you’re coming out for the basketball team. I said, ‘All right, I’ll try it.’ “
It wasn’t pretty.
“[I was] the worst player by far. Terrible. I was absolutely terrible,” Harrellson said. “The freshman coach wanted to cut me. His wife said, ‘Get rid of him.’ The only reason I stayed is because the head coach said, ‘You’re keeping him. He’s going to be good one day.’
“I couldn’t make a left-handed layup. Then I worked so hard on my left-handed layup I couldn’t make a right-handed layup.”
Harrellson shakes his head and laughs. He kept working and working and finally got to junior college, then Gillispie took a flyer on him at Kentucky.
Gillispie said he saw the potential but couldn’t get Harrellson to be aggressive.
“He always wants to please people, and I think he just deferred because he didn’t want to hurt anyone on the team by taking playing time,” Gillispie, now the coach of Texas Tech, said Saturday.
Indeed, Harrellson still says he’d give up his season if it meant Kanter had been eligible.
“Watching him now,” Gillispie said, “it’s been one of the best stories I’ve ever seen.”
After his epic performance against the Buckeyes, Harrellson got a text from his old doubting freshman coach, Ben Owens. The two communicate often.
“He said, ‘Congrats. I’m so happy for you. I knew you could do it.’ “
Harrellson paused briefly.
“[Of course] at first he didn’t know that.”
Everyone laughed. It’s jorts season.