By Chris Dortch
Kentucky forward Josh Harrellson wasn’t feeling the love from coach John Calipari after grabbing 26 rebounds in the Wildcats’ Blue-White scrimmage in late October, prompting him to voice his disappointment in a typically modern way.
In the old days—before the Internet, smart phones and social networking—Harrellson might have pulled aside a newspaper beat writer and bent his ear a bit, or groused to an assistant coach, hoping his grievance might makes it way back to Calipari. Now, all anyone has to do to voice an opinion, a complaint, or what they’re eating for breakfast—in 140 characters or less—is pull out a cell phone and punch the Twitter app.
“Just amazing to me I can’t get a good job or way to go,” Harrellson tweeted after his perceived snub. “Yes he has been working hard this off season … It is just amazing to me but I look past it and keep trucking!”
Suffice it to say when Calipari found out about that little bombshell, he didn’t take it well.
Fortunately for Harrellson, the Wildcats had an off day after the tweet appeared, giving Cal a chance to cool off.
“The next day he called me in his office,” Harrellson said. “And we talked about it. He said, ‘If I’d have talked to you yesterday, I’d have probably sent you home.’ ”
Harrellson sidestepped banishment, but there were times when he was running steps and suicide sprints he may have wished Cal had run him off. But a funny thing happened during those grueling punishment sessions. Harrellson started to like
them. He became a workout fiend, got stronger and in the best shape of his life, and now, after a string of monster rebounding games, has barged his way onto the radar of NBA scouts.
Only in the Internet age.
“I think the tweet was the dumbest, smartest thing I’ve ever done,” Harrellson said. “I would have never worked as hard as I have. Coach Cal could have kicked me off the team. But he sees something in me that I never saw in myself. He stuck it out with me.
“Instead of coming to him man to man [after the Blue-White scrimmage], I just got mad. A lot of people [air their grievances] on Twitter. Twitter’s not the right way to do it. But for me, it was the best thing I ever did. It turned me into a new man.”
Part of Harrellson’s punishment was a ban on tweeting, but after numbers like he’s produced in recent weeks, Cal might want to hand all his players an iPhone and a Twitter account and tell them to level the blaster any time they get the urge.
After 11 games, Harrellson is second in the Southeastern Conference in rebounding (9.4 rpg)—behind only teammate Terrence Jones (9.6 rpg). He leads the league in offensive boards (3.6 rpg) and is second behind Jones in defensive boards (5.7 rpg).
Harrellson, a mobile behemoth at 6-foot-10 and 275 pounds—was a hero in a Maui Classic win over Washington with a nine-point, 14-rebound effort that included a critical three-point basket, his only one of the season. Three times—against Portland, Indiana and Mississippi Valley State—he’s grabbed 12 boards in a game, and he notched 11 against Boston University.
“The best thing he did was the garbage he Twittered,” Calipari said. “He even today is still conditioning 30 minutes before every practice, and then he practices. Are you seeing somebody who’s in the best shape of their life? Are you seeing somebody that mentally never could do this? Never could break that barrier?
“So here’s what I learned from this: it shows you the guys that beat up their players, that mentally and physically beat them up, say they don’t yell anymore, and just beat them up, some players that’s what they need. Josh needed that.”
Opposing coaches have marveled at the development of Harrellson, who hardly played last year behind eventual first-round NBA draft picks DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton. The year before, under former Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie, Harrellson’s playing time was maddeningly erratic—“28 minutes one night, one minute the next,” Harrellson said.
"I love that kid,” Boston University coach Patrick Chambers said. “He does everything that you want a center or a big man to do. He plays ball screens great, he rebounds the basketball, he blocks shots. I really like him. He's perfect for this team."
“He’s a legitimate five who can step out and shoot the ball and does a lot for them,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “You see how [Calipari] has him out on the floor so much. [Calipari] knows. [Harrellson’s] a big, big part of their team.”
How big? Consider that when heralded five-star recruit Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible by the NCAA after allegedly accepting excessive benefits from a professional team in his native Turkey, the Wildcats were left with a huge hole in the post. Nothing in Harrellson’s previous experience at Kentucky suggested he could fill that hole, much less average double-figures in rebounds.
Even Harrellson admits at times he suffered from a loss of confidence and wondered whether a fresh start at another school might have been in his best interests. From that low point, Harrellson has turned himself into a potential NBA player.
“I’m telling you, I get calls every day about Josh,” Calipari said. “It makes me laugh. It makes me like, ‘What?’ I talked to [former assistant and now Auburn coach] Tony Barbee and he said, ‘I’ve talked to pro scouts who are saying it. You know that kid’s playing well for you.’ I mean, I’m like, ‘You’re talking about Josh right?’ I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him.”
“If you asked me a year ago a year ago if I’d ever thought of [becoming an NBA prospect], I’d have laughed and thought you were kidding,” Harrellson said. “I guess [the NBA] is looking for somebody that’ll go in there and do the dirty work. I’d love to do that, and I’ll keep working as hard as I can. If it takes me there or not, I’m going to keep working hard.”
Harrellson thinks there’s a lesson to be learned from his story.
“Patience is a virtue,” he said. “I just hung out and kept working hard. It’s definitely been a long road. I’d thought about transferring, but this place is so great. Kentucky fans love you whether you’re playing or not. And last year, we won 35 games. It was a fun ride.
“And now, finally, all the hard work is playing off. It’s really good to know that hard work pays off in the long run. If I could tell people one thing, it would be don’t let anything get to you, don’t doubt yourself.”
And, Harrellson might have added, don’t hesitate to utilize modern technology—Twitter, for example—to put yourself out there a little bit. Even Calipari would agree with that.
“My job is to get guys to change,” Calipari said. “I probably, if Josh didn’t Twitter, would not have done it this way with Josh, and you know what, it would have been a mistake and he wouldn’t be as good as he is right now.”