Virginia's Joe Harris has big dreams
He doesn't write them down on a bedroom wall anymore, but he still has them
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- To understand Joe Harris' love of basketball, look inside his room. Not his current room in the off-campus apartment he shares with University of Virginia teammates Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte, but his childhood bedroom inside his parents' home in Chelan, Wash.
As a fourth-grader, Joe came home one afternoon and asked his mother, Alice, if he could write his goals on his bedroom walls. His father, Joe Harris Sr., was the head boys' basketball coach at Chelan High School and Joe had started volunteering as a team manager. Before each season began, Joe Sr. asked his players to write down their goals; now, Joe Jr. wanted to follow suit.
"Sure," Alice replied, assuming he'd write them on a piece of paper. Instead, Joe took a Sharpie and scribbled his hoop dreams -- and advice from the pros on how to achieve them -- across his room's white walls and ceiling.
When Joe walked out of his bedroom, he'd reach up and touch the phrase in blue block lettering above the door frame: "Expect to win!"
As he got ready each morning, he'd look next to his bookcase and read the words of Charles Barkley and Julius Erving.
"I've got confidence in myself to believe that when I'm healthy and hitting shots no one can stop me. Great athletes have to think like that." – Julius Erving
Before falling asleep, he'd look up at the goals he wrote on the ceiling and above his closet:
Good team member.
Win a championship(s).
Become a pro.
While a career as an interior decorator may not be in his future, Harris has followed those designs across the country as one of only two current Wahoos players not from the East Coast. The former Mr. Basketball in Washington and Gatorade State Player of the Year is a senior leader for 25th-ranked Virginia, which faces Navy on Tuesday night.
A preseason All-ACC first-team selection also named to the Oscar Robertson Trophy Preseason Watch List, Harris has accomplished many of his room musings. But the 6-foot-6 guard has never won a championship -- not in high school, nor in his three years at Virginia.
This season, as part of the deepest Cavaliers roster he has played on since arriving in Charlottesville, Harris is determined to change that.
When he was 4 years old, Harris began tagging along to his father's basketball practices. He'd shag balls for the players, hand them water and watch. Soon, Joe was begging to go to practice.
"If I ever got into trouble with my sisters or was slacking off, it was always my punishment that I couldn't go to a practice or a game," Harris said. "That was the worst thing in the world."
Each summer, the Chelan High gym floor was refinished, forcing the team into a hiatus for several weeks. Joe Harris Sr. remembered driving his son, then a rising sixth-grader, to the gym after the requisite three-week break. "Joe opens the door, comes into the gym, slides onto his stomach and kisses the floor and hollers, 'Baby, I'm back!'" Joe Harris Sr. said, laughing. "Now that's a gym rat."
Harris Sr., who has coached the Chelan High boys' basketball team for 22 years, focused on fundamentals, particularly shooting. He established a mandatory routine for each of his players to complete before practice, a habit that Joe adopted and still follows.
That routine began with a round of shots five feet from the basket: hold the ball one-handed, lift and shoot. Each player had to make five swishes in a row, then move out on the wing, then the top of the key, followed by the wing again and the five-foot opposite block.
"Shooting is repetition, technique and working to make yourself better," Harris Sr. said. "You've got to have a love to work hard on your own, and Joe has that."
Before school each morning, while waiting for his younger sisters, Harris went outside to the family hoop, taking shot after shot. One of his handwritten goals was to take at least 1,000 shots a day.
Along with his father's tutelage, Joe received advice from Warren Friedrichs, known then around the northwest as "the shot doctor." Friedrichs, a professor at Whitworth University, held a shooting clinic at Chelan each summer. A decade later, Harris still remembered Friedrichs' advice -- his elbow was out too far, he was shooting the ball on the way down.
Harris finished his high school career with 2,399 points. Chelan played in the state's small I-A division and Rivals.com ranked him a three-out-of-five star player. Most of his recruiting interest came from northwest schools.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett, then the head coach at Washington State, watched Harris play at an open gym in Chelan, a resort town of 3,900 residents, and began recruiting him. Harris loved the idea of being close to home and had an easy rapport with Bennett, so he decided he'd play for WSU.
But in March 2009, Bennett accepted the Virginia job. He asked Harris, then a senior, to visit Charlottesville; when Harris arrived, Bennett talked to him about being a part of his first Virginia recruiting class, a group whose collective goal would be to turn the program around. Harris, the consummate team player, was sold on the revisionist philosophy.
"I liked the idea of being one of the foundations for Coach Bennett's program and trying to revive UVa basketball," Harris said.
Along with starting forward Akil Mitchell, another senior member of Bennett's first recruiting class (the other four original players have transferred), that revitalization has happened. The Cavaliers won 15 games during Harris' freshman year, in which he averaged nearly 30 minutes a game. He hit 65 3-pointers, ranking second among freshmen in Virginia history, but viewed his game as one-dimensional.
"My first year, over 80 percent of my shots were three pointers," Harris said. "I didn't go to the foul line or create off the bounce. That summer, I tried to focus on my ballhandling."
Virginia won 22 games the next season, earning a bid to the NCAA tournament. Last season, Harris emerged as one of the ACC's top players, averaging 16.3 points per game. Starting and playing in a Virginia-record 35 games, he ranked fourth in the ACC in scoring and 3-point shooting accuracy and was an All-ACC first-team selection.
After a memorable 36-point performance in a home upset of Duke, Coach Mike Krzyzewski called Harris "one of the best players in the country."
Harris entered the season ranked second in Cavaliers history in 3-point shooting percentage (40.8%) and sixth in 3-pointers made (192). While setting shooting records and gaining 45 pounds of muscle -- he went from 180 pounds his first year to his current 225 -- he also has become a more complete player.
"He's become a really good perimeter defender … being able to put the ball on the floor now and his passing ability -- it's all taken another step," Mitchell said.
This season the Cavaliers have more depth thanks to a solid freshman class and sophomore forward Anthony Gill, a transfer from South Carolina, and point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who sat out last season with an injury. And more skilled players mean less dependence on Harris to be the offensive leader on the floor.
"We have a lot of weapons offensively, guys that can contribute every night," Harris said.
The Cavaliers have had a different scoring leader in each of their first three games. Harris is averaging 8 points per game, fourth on the team.
"He's such a humble, unassuming guy that if you said, 'Joe, this game, I want to get others involved, I only want you to take a few shots,' he'd probably take zero shots," Bennett said. "He doesn't care if he scores, he's just trying to win."
His strong play also has led to a Twitter movement. Last December, SBNation writer Will Campbell tweeted: "Oh Joe, you always know how to finish at the hoop and be awesome. #Swoon." Harris deflects the attention and claims that around campus, he's just another Virginia student. His teammates think otherwise.
"I wouldn't call myself a celebrity, but I know Joe is, though he wouldn't say he is," Mitchell said. "It hasn't changed him at all -- he's still the goofy kid I knew first-year."
He's also the guy who still writes down his goals, in a notebook or in his phone. Rather than individual goals, his pursuits are focused on the team and what they might accomplish.
"To play for an ACC championship, whether during the regular season or the conference tournament. That's a completely realistic and viable goal for us," Harris said.
And one that he won't need to write on his bedroom walls to remember.
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