Nearly every basketball player who has ever donned the blue and white of Kentucky is held in high regard among the Big Blue faithful. Whether that player was a star, human victory cigar, or a role player, UK fans hold a special place in their hearts for those who choose to play their college ball in Lexington. But every so often a player comes along who completely captures the imagination and heart strings of Kentucky fans everywhere. Josh Harrellson is the latest such player.
A JUCO transfer out of St. Charles, Missouri, Harrellson arrived on campus as one of Billy Gillispie’s first recruits. But to the chagrin of some Kentucky fans, he was a recruit whose only Division I offer out of high school was to Western Illinois, and since Harrellson wasn’t rated by the popular Rivals or Scout.com sites, he was a recruit UK fans knew very little about. It didn’t take long, though, for the vast Kentucky fan base to take a liking to the 6’10″ big man. Wearing his signature jorts (jean shorts) wherever he went, and with a smile always on his face, Harrellson was easy to like and quickly became a popular figure among UK fans.
Adding to the positive vibes surrounding Harrellson was a quote Gillispie gave The Cats’ Pause 2008-09 Kentucky Basketball Yearbook — “Josh has probably been better than anyone could have ever imagined. I really liked him when we recruited him because he has great hands and great skills, and the ability to post up with his back to the basket and the ability to face up and shoot.” Needless to say, Kentucky fans like nothing better than hearing a coach say a player “has probably been better than anyone could have ever imagined.”
Because of his natural charisma, and the excitement among Kentucky fans about his talents, the experience Harrellson had over his first months as a Wildcat couldn’t have been scripted by Hollywood any better. He seemed to be a big, lovable teddy bear with skills; a PR man’s fantasy.
And then the season began.
Although when Harrellson played in his first year at UK, he produced, his minutes per game varied wildly. As an example, versus West Virginia early in the season, Harrellson played 25 minutes,scored 12-points while grabbing 10-rebounds; against Indiana, Harrellson played 18 minutes and put up 15-points (his high point mark of the season) and seven boards; and in 17 minutes against Central Michigan, the big fella scored 12 and snagged six rebounds. But there were many games Harrellson didn’t play double-digit minutes, and once the SEC season began, he never played more than 13 minutes in any one contest.
Harrellson ended his initial UK season averaging 9.3 minutes per game, 3.6 points and 2.5 rebounds per contest. He played in 34 games, starting two. Not exactly the season many had envisioned for the newcomer, including Harrellson, I’m sure.
Many prognosticated (at the time) the death knell for Harrellson’s UK career occurred on April 1, 2009; The day John Calipari was hired to coach the ‘Cats. “No way Harrellson can play for Calipari” was the oft repeated phrase of doom by ‘Cat fans, and really who could blame them.? Cal was known for his dribble drive offense, an offense which places a premium on ball handling, athleticism, and taking the defender off the dribble. None of which Harrellson seemed to excel at. But Cal saw something in the big fella; perhaps it was Harrellson’s ability to knock down the three, or just his sheer size, or perhaps the UK coach wanted to hedge his big man bets. Whatever the reason, Harrellson returned for his junior year, and proceeded to play in only 22 of the teams 38 games, stuck on the bench behind three future NBA 1st Round draft picks in DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, and Daniel Orton.
From the bench, though, Harrellson cheered like no other as his teammates elevated Kentucky basketball back to its rightful place among college basketball’s top tier programs with a 35-3 record and an Elite 8 appearance. Did Harrellson want to play? Of course he did, but at the same time he realized he was witnessing something special.
Coming into his senior season, Harrellson once again seemed to be an afterthought to UK fans, and the coaching staff alike. With the recruitment of the undeniably talented Turkish big man Enes Kanter, a certain top-10 NBA Draft pick, Harrellson’s place on the bench was secure … or so it seemed.
As summer gave way to fall, Kanter’s eligibility became more and more questionable, and Kentucky fans everywhere — as they are wont to do — began playing out the scenarios for the upcoming season. Scenarios which, without Kanter, seemed unlikely to produce a championship-caliber team. With the little used (especially in the low post), and unproven Harrellson being the only big body on the roster, UK fans lamented, and lamented some more.
And then came the “Tweet” heard ’round the Commonwealth.
Upset with being snubbed by his coach (at least in Harrellson’s mind) after a 20+ rebound performance in the annual Blue/White game, Harrellson chose to use his twitter account to voice his frustration at his coach’s lack of gratitude for his play. With the tweet bordering on insubordination, suffice to say, Calipari was not impressed or swayed by Harrellson’s mistake in judgment, but instead of suspending the big fella, Cal opted to work his soft and slightly overweight post player, and then, work him some more.
Assistant coach Kenny Payne was in charge of the Calipari-prescribed 6:00 a.m. workouts. Workouts which lit a fire under Harrellson, and ignited a commitment to get better, or get out. Then, like manna from heaven (in hindsight that’s exactly what it was for Harrellson), Kanter was ruled ineligible, leaving Harrellson the only big man on the Kentucky roster.
UK fans, whose lamentations over Kanter and his eligibility were growing legendary, now had their frustration at the NCAA’s lack of compassion, and the resulting (seemingly) lost season, amped-up to a level reserved for only the most intense, serious-minded fan bases. Without Kanter, the season quickly became a “bridge” season — A season to look forward to, but not a season expected to produce greatness. The sighs of what-might-have-beens could be heard from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to the far western Jackson Purchase.
And all the while, Harrellson was working, working like never before.
Early on in the year, Harrellson, while not scoring in bunches, was rebounding the basketball with abandon. Embracing his role on a team of fuzzy faced superstars in-waiting, he did his job, and did it quite well, giving the team a post presence, at least on the backboard.
Then came the Louisville game, a game which means everything to Kentucky fans, and a game which over the years has produced its fair share of unexpected heroes. This game, played on New Year’s Eve day in UofL’s shiny new arena, became not only a rousing UK victory, but also the coming out party for one Josh Harrellson.
His 23-points and 14-rebounds not only played a key role in the ‘Cats win, but the performance served to cast Harrellson as hero; a new sensation for the UK center, but one he earned through his hard work and dedication to becoming a better player.
What was to follow can best be described as a shocking turnaround of Big Blue fortune. After struggling at times early-on in the SEC season, and being physically bullied on the road in losses to Georgia and Alabama (he averaged only 3.6 ppg, while shooting 36.1% through the first eight SEC contests), ‘Cat fans were resigned to believe Harrellson’s outburst against the Cardinals was a one-time affair, never to be revisited again. But the fans were unaware of Harrellson’s new found resolve, which led him to commit to taking the fight to the opponent, instead of allowing the opponent to dictate the terms of play.
In the ensuing 16 games, Harrellson doubled his points per game to 10.0, shooting over 60% while doing so, and continued to be one of the top rebounders in the league. Furthermore, in Kentucky’s final eight games encompassing the SEC and NCAA tournaments, Harrellson averaged 12-points and 8.1 rebounds per contest. His improvement (due to his confidence, which came from knowing he had worked his behind off) spurred the ‘Cats from a season where they once stood at 5-5 in conference play (16-6 overall), to a season-ending 13-3 run, culminating in an SEC Championship and Final Four appearance, UK’s first such appearance in 13 years.
The kid who, during his sophomore year (his first year at UK) was banished from the locker room at halftime of a game, became the catalyst behind the biggest, most impressive in-season reversal of bad fortune in recent UK history. For without Harrellson, no way UK wins 29 games, without Harrellson, no way UK wins the SEC Tournament, without Harrellson, no way UK makes the Final Four.
Simply put, a bona fide Big Blue hero was born. The one-time mystery man from the Show Me State, through his commitment to be the best basketball player he could be — instead of settling for pine time — became universally adored and admired among those who cheer the ‘Cats. Fighting through the temptation to call it a career, Harrellson showed us all what hard work and dedication to an ideal can produce.
As if to re-emphasize his popularity and the dream-like nature of his rise, Harrellson has produced a line of Jorts apparel, a laughable idea only four short months ago. Also making the story almost unbelievable is the fact that Harrellson is now on the NBA’s radar, bringing into play the possibility of a pro career either here or overseas. Yes, doors open for those who earn the right.
“Jorts” is the moniker most associated with Harrellson, but he’ll always be the Comeback Kid to me. For where he started, to where he’s been, to where he’s going, is a saga reserved for dream-weavers only. Unfathomable? Certainly, yet at the same time completely understandable, because it wasn’t luck, or divine intervention which enabled Harrellson to excel under the brightest of lights. It was a plan, a plan borne out of frustration with his coach, and fulfilled in the early morning hours of autumn. A plan to get better, or get out of the way. And the payoff for the successful culmination of his plan was an historic Final Four run, followed by all the glory that goes along with being the UK player most likely to create a fan frenzy.
So Godspeed Josh Harrellson. You’ve earned the good fortune which now comes your way, and as you’ve traveled your path you’ve taught us all a lesson in what it means to better oneself, to demand excellence, instead of settling for mediocrity.