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MIAMI -- Every winter, the kid would count the days 'til spring training. Not only would he get to spend time with his dad, Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, but every Cincinnati player would be rolling out the Red carpet for him. Tony Perez would throw him slurves in the cages. Eric Davis would hit him fungoes. Deion Sanders would call him "Sugar Shane.'' The clubhouse was just as much his as theirs. All the bubblegum he could chew; all the gumbo he could chow. It was the next-best thing to Christmas.
The drive from his home in Orlando to Sarasota was 130 miles or so, and he'd throw everything he'd need into his dad's truck: headphones, video games and one other item that, every spring, would confound all of his father's teammates.
Shane Larkin would be dribbling his basketball in the Cincinnati Reds' dugout.
Pete Rose's kid, Petey, played one year in the majors. Perez's kid, Eduardo, played 13. Ken Griffey Sr.'s kid is going to the Hall of Fame. Barry Larkin's kid is going to the NCAA basketball tournament.
|Cincinnati Reds spring training meant time to bond for Shane and Barry Larkin.|
How and why Shane Larkin took this detour is beyond his father, who chuckles and says he still thinks his son could hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bags in the big leagues. But the bottom line is Shane Larkin is probably the best point guard in the ACC -- and the University of Miami has an inflexible youth baseball coach to thank for it.
Sometimes, the tiniest insult will stay with a kid forever. In the case of Shane Larkin, a tiny insult is embedded in his soul. His father thinks Shane could have been the next Mike Cameron; instead, the kid will be in Cameron Indoor Stadium this Saturday with a conference title on the line.
Back when Shane was 5 or 6, he was, no doubt, going to be a baseball player. Perez and Pete Rose made him their pet project. Perez, a Hall of Famer, would facetiously tell Barry, "You don't know anything about hitting -- I'm not letting you near the kid.'' And Perez would take it from there. He'd throw Shane batting practice and teach him how to lift his leg as a pitch was coming, then get his foot down lightly before contact. It was advanced for a 6-year-old, but the kid had a quick mind and quick hands. Rose, even though he was banned from baseball, was tight with Barry, and would add his two cents. "Don't alligator arm your swing,'' Rose would tell Shane. "Extend your arms.''
But more than anything, the kid liked to roam the outfield. At spring training, pre-basketball, he'd beg center fielder Davis, or coaches like Tommy Helms, to blast fungoes at him, and he'd run down most of those fly balls -- at the ridiculous age of 5.
"I remember scouts telling me, 'Oh my goodness, your son is going to be an unbelievable baseball player,'" Barry says. "He had a very strong arm, he could hit, he was fast as heck. At 5 or 6 years old, he's scaling the outfield wall. We're talking about him going and trying to jump and kick off the wall and then scale the wall to try to catch the ball.
"Gene Bennett was the guy who drafted me. He told me, 'I'm drafting your son also. He might be a higher pick than you.'''
Finally, at the age of 7, Shane was eligible to play in a coach-pitch baseball league. Barry hated to miss it, but he kept his family in Orlando during the Reds season "so they wouldn't grow up the daughter and son of a baseball player.'' He says he wanted each of them to be their own person. Which, curiously, is exactly how it all played out.
Early in that coach-pitch season, Shane went to the plate to bat. All he could think about was Perez and his mini-leg-kick. Perez, as a player, also used to roll his wrists when he'd load to hit, and Shane picked that up, as well. The kid was going to tear up this coach-pitch league -- until his own coach tore up the kid.
|Shane's batting stance was taught to him by the greats -- but wasn't good enough for one coach.|
In one of his early at-bats, Shane did his perfect Perez imitation, wiggling his wrists and deploying the leg kick. Right then, his coach yelled, "Stop.''
"He told me that whoever taught me how to hit didn't know what he was speaking about,'' Shane says.
Tony Perez? Pete Rose?
"He repositioned me,'' Shane says. "He told me, like, to keep my feet shoulder-width apart and just hold the bat still and just trying to hit it and follow through when he threw it. It wasn't comfortable to me, because I was so used to doing it the way that Tony Perez and Pete Rose taught me how to hit.''
The kid was embarrassed. He was the son of a 12-time All-Star, a former NL MVP, a future Hall of Famer. And all of a sudden, he couldn't hit the ball 25 feet. He felt the coach had insulted not only him, but his father and his father's friends. Baseball was over. At the age of 7, Shane had made the decision all by himself. In his mind, it was final.
"I get a call, and my wife tells me that Shane wants to talk to me,'' Barry remembers. "And when he talks to me, he's hysterically crying. He's like, 'I hate baseball, baseball's for losers, the game is no good.' I'm like, 'Yo, yo, calm down.' He's like, 'I hate baseball, I hate baseball, I hate baseball.'"
Barry's first urge was to chase down this peewee coach, but he was in Cincinnati or L.A. or Pittsburgh or some other random National League city. He figured it would just pass.
The kid was too good of an athlete to sit still, and when Barry returned to Orlando for the winter, Shane filled him in on a basketball game he was about to play.
"What are you going to do out there?'' Barry asked him.
"Dominate,'' Shane said.
|Shane Larkin saw basketball as an alternative to baseball where he could also star.|
He was pint-sized, with long, curly hair, but he was also a blur to his opponents. He could handle the ball and shoot it, and it all became bittersweet to Barry. He himself had played hoops in high school and was recruited to play college ball by a Maryland assistant named Ron Bradley -- before deciding to play baseball at Michigan.
Barry's younger brother, Byron, would go on to become the leading career scorer in Xavier history. So basketball was very much in the family. Still, it struck a nerve with Barry that his son was so viscerally against baseball, a game he so badly wanted to share with his son.
"I knew he wanted me to play baseball, '' Shane says. "Wanted me to follow in his footsteps. My telling him, 'I don't want to play the sport you play.' I knew it would hurt him, and it hurt me more.''
The truth was, Shane still enjoyed the game, still counted the days to spring training. He'd still shag fly balls, still take BP, still sit with the Reds players spitting sunflower seeds. But he always had that basketball under his arm. Barry, Perez, et al would constantly quiz him about coming back to baseball, because he was a natural -- but they'd always get a blank stare back.
"Every single spring training, or every single year, I'd ask him, 'Are you ready to play baseball?''' Barry says. "He's like, 'I'll go to spring training. But I'm not gonna play in Little League.'''
All of the other mystified Reds stopped asking. But not Barry. He'd ask every spring, like clockwork, hoping, wishing for a change of heart. And before you knew it, Shane Larkin was a high school junior-to-be, playing year-round AAU basketball, being compared not to his father but to Chris Paul.
In 2009, Shane was playing in an AAU tournament in Orlando in front of various mid-major coaches. Shane's team turned the ball over, and he was the only player back on defense as three opponents came racing down the court.
The player leading the 3-on-1 fast break had been throwing no-look passes much of the night, and Shane had picked up on it. So when this player eyeballed the player on his left, Shane faked like he was going left and then jumped like a cat to the right. He stole the pass.
Jim Larranaga, at that time the coach at George Mason University -- who three years prior had taken the school to the Final Four -- was drooling at the play. And when Shane, a 5-foot-11 point guard, started draining jump shots and piling up assists, it was a done deal: Larranaga was offering him a scholarship.
More schools would jump into the recruiting fray later, but Larranaga had given Shane his first college offer, something Shane would never forget. Around that time, Shane had watched Clemson knock off North Carolina on TV, and marveled at the sight of the Clemson fans who stormed the floor. He decided right then that he wanted to win a huge college game someday and have his team's fans rush the court. He thought perhaps it could happen someday at George Mason.
|Barry Larkin said scouts told him Shane would have been "an unbelievable baseball player.''|
Every time Shane would bring up a new college, Barry would ask if they also have a reputable baseball team. He was a broken record. But he supported Shane's basketball pursuits, as well, and when George Mason invited Shane to Midnight Madness in 2010, Barry and his wife, Lisa, joined him on the trip.
By that point, DePaul's Oliver Purnell was recruiting Shane, as well. In fact, as fate would have it, Ron Bradley -- the same coach who had recruited Barry to Maryland -- was Purnell's associate head coach and had particularly zeroed in on Shane. The kid had options, and had four other visits set up to big-name schools. Larranaga knew this and put the pressure on Shane to commit to George Mason during Midnight Madness. He told Shane on his visit that they were interested in two point guards -- Shane and Corey Edwards from New York -- and they would take whoever committed first.
Shane wasn't ready yet, and neither was Barry. And on their way to the airport, the family received a phone call from one of Larranaga's assistants: Edwards had accepted the offer.
Larranaga and his wife, Liz, felt awful. Jim and Liz Larranga had gone out to dinner with the Larkins while they were in town, and Liz and Lisa Larkin became instant friends. In the days that followed, Liz sent Lisa an email saying, "Coach loves your son. He really, really wanted to coach him. We wish you the best of luck, and we're sad we're not going to get the chance to spend the next four years together.'' There was no agenda; it was just a genuine note.
But it's crazy how things come back around sometimes. After enrolling at DePaul in the summer of 2011, Shane Larkin didn't even make it to basketball season. He declined to be specific, other than saying he needed to transfer to a school closer to home, that there were family issues in Florida he needed to attend to. Eighteen-year-olds deserve the right to change their minds, and conveniently, good ol' Jim Larranaga had resurfaced in Florida, himself, as the new coach of the Miami Hurricanes.
After Shane decided to leave DePaul, his AAU coach reached out to Larranaga. Miami's new coach needed a smooth point guard, and the point guard needed a smooth coach. Larranaga says it took "less than a second'' for him to offer Larkin a scholarship.
"I had already told my coaches, 'Listen, this kid is good enough to play anywhere in the country,''' Larranaga says. "I don't care if it's Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Indiana, Michigan State, Kentucky. This kid is going to be a great college player.''
Barry was all for it, too.
Miami had one of the best baseball programs in the country, and he knew the coach.
Now the whole country could see the shortstop inside the point guard. Maybe the kid learned it watching his dad patrol the Reds' infield, but Shane -- even as a freshman in 2011-12 -- quickly showed he was always thinking two plays ahead.
|Shane Larkin is considered a likely first-round NBA draft pick as one of the nation's elite point guards.|
The best example was a game against North Carolina State that season. The Hurricanes trailed by a point with less than 10 seconds to play, and the Wolfpack were inbounding the ball in their own backcourt. During the timeout, Larranaga told his team to press, trap, and if nothing else, foul. Shane's job was to deny his man the ball, but, inexplicably, he let his man get wide open. Larranaga was beside himself, until he saw that Shane was baiting the player inbounding the ball to throw it his way.
"Just as the passer released the ball,'' Larranaga says, " Shane accelerated, jumped, and like Superman, dove for the ball, caught it in midair while he was four feet off the ground, threw it around the back to Durand Scott.''
He might as well have been turning a double play, considering he was parallel to the ground and was able to fluidly flip the ball to a teammate. Unfortunately for Miami, Scott missed the potential game-winning shot. But that was the first sign that Shane had the Barry Larkin gene.
This season, Larkin has led Miami's charge to the top of the ACC standings. He scores when the Hurricanes need points, stays calm when the Hurricanes get reckless, defends when the Hurricanes need stops. His teammates still compare him to Chris Paul, because he's a hybrid -- a scoring/passing point guard.
He averages 13 points, four assists and four rebounds, and is the clear choreographer of a team that won its first 13 conference games and can clinch its first ACC regular-season title with a win Saturday at Duke. Feeding Reggie Johnson with a no-look pass that resulted in the game-winning bucket versus Virginia was a memorable moment for Shane this season. Holding Virginia Tech's Erick Green to 16 points on Wednesday night was another. But his most wondrous scene of all was when Miami's fans stormed the court after the Hurricanes defeated Duke by 27 points in January -- that's the whole reason he wanted to play college basketball in the first place. And this wasn't lost on Barry, who watched it all happen with a grin on his face and a Miami visor on his head.
The two of them have been to local restaurants after games this season, and it has been Shane who's received the applause and the autograph requests.
"As awkward as it sounds,'' Shane says, "I'm not Shane Larkin, Barry Larkin's son, anymore. It's Barry Larkin, the father of Shane Larkin.''
Barry says, "I love it. It's his time. I'm Dad.'' But that doesn't mean he hasn't called Miami's baseball coach, Jim Morris, asking if he'll considering looking at his kid. Barry will never give up. He still asks "Sugar Shane'' if he wants to play catch. He still tells him it's not too late to scale a big league wall. He still tells him Tony Perez is available for lessons.
And Shane Larkin -- who is his own man -- always has the same answer:
"No, I'm good, Dad. I'm good.''