Bad kids on a bad team? Harrison twins proving that’s a bad rap
ARLINGTON, Texas — The Harrison twins of Kentucky were getting ripped for body language after a game one night. Their father, Aaron Sr., can’t remember which game it was, but he knows his sons thought it was crap. They sent him photos of Chris Paul, LeBron James and a handful of other famous players making the same expressions and gestures they had, the point being they felt unfairly singled out.
And Dad’s point was, fair or not, this is something you have to deal with.
"It’s all perception," Aaron Sr. said. "Be conscious of it. Every day, you try to become a better man. You have to be more disciplined in the things you do, and that’s a part of it."
The Harrison twins of Kentucky have a communication problem. It’s not what they say, though, because what they say is conventional athlete stuff: being aggressive, wanting to win, having something to prove. All the standard tunes.
It’s with the nonverbal communication where Andrew and Aaron Harrison seem to lose the groove of it all sometimes. People like to talk about their body language, specifically how terrible it is and how it indicates they are uncoachable or selfish or some other phrase that, within the context of team sports, qualifies as a slur. Whether or not this perception constitutes reality is a question that quickly will lead you down a bottomless wormhole of philosophy and the definition of ambiguous terms like "coachable" but on matters of coachability it seems like good policy to consult the coach.
So here’s Kentucky coach John Calipari:
"I’m telling you, two of the nicest, most well-mannered kids," he said Friday from the guts of AT&T Stadium. "They had to deal with that body language at the start of the year. They didn’t even know what it was doing to them. Made them look like, ‘Oh, they’re not good kids.’ They’re great kids."
They’re great players, anyway, which is why people pay so much attention to the direction of their dobbers. Both were consensus top-five prospects out of Travis High School in Richmond, Texas. Although it is just outside of Houston, Richmond is not so much a suburb as it is a small town with an ever-expanding metropolis encroaching upon it.
"Everybody knows everybody," said Aaron Sr., who coached his sons’ AAU team, the Houston Defenders.
Even in a metropolitan area of 6 million in south Texas, where basketball is what passes the time between football seasons, the Harrison twins had that old "Pride of (Town Name)" thing working for them. They started getting scholarship offers in seventh grade and by 10th grade were something of a local spectacle, a "thing you probably ought to go see," like the Astrodome or the Buffalo Bayou bat colony. And twice a week they’d go out there and just clown on fools.
Their coach at Travis, Craig Brownson, got them as 10th graders, when they already were phenoms. The twins had an awkward first year. Older players who were trying to get their own scholarships were jealous of their fame and skill.
"It was tough," Brownson said. "They’re great, down-to-earth kids, so they got along with everybody on the team, but they weren’t real close with everybody on that team. Two years after that, when they had a lot of their classmates with them, it was a lot easier."
So Calipari got some Houston on him, like all the other hot shots. Kentucky isn’t for everybody, he told them, and Aaron Sr. agreed.
"I don’t think it’s a good fit," he told Cal. And so Calipari gave up and settled for plan B.
Just kidding. He got the Harrison twins, because he always gets the Harrison twins, and that started this whole grand Technicolor chain of events that could happen only at a place like Kentucky or Kansas, schools in small, landlocked states where the basketball team makes people have to pay attention to this place for once. The Wildcats weren’t just preseason No. 1, they also were kind of expected to go 40-0. Hell, Aaron Harrison was the No. 1 guard in the class, according to everybody, and he wasn’t even supposed to be the best player on the team, because Kentucky also got Julius Randle out of Dallas.
The first four games were smashing successes. Exhibition wins over Transylvania and Montevallo looked just like they were supposed to, and the Wildcats smashed both UNC-Ashville and Northern Kentucky by 30.
But then Michigan State beat them in Chicago, Baylor beat them in Dallas, North Carolina beat them in Chapel Hill and, OK, so maybe this wasn’t going to be the best college basketball team of all time, but you could hardly freak out over losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina.
The trouble with the Wildcats – and for the Harrisons — really started about the end of February. Kentucky lost at home to Arkansas, then turned around two days later and lost to lowly South Carolina. That gave the Wildcats eight losses, which at Kentucky is an unacceptable number when there are still so many games to play.
It was looking, then, like the Wildcats might not even make the NCAA Tournament, and a good deal of the blame for this was directed at the Harrisons. Andrew caught a lot of it because he’s the point guard, which means he’s supposed to be the leader or whatever.
Brownson was in town for the loss to Arkansas. The world was crashing down, then, upon the twins, these teenagers trying to figure it out on the fly.
"A lot of it was unfair," Brownson said. "They’re not selfish at all. Sometimes we had to tell them to stop passing the ball as much. It did bother me and you could tell it bothered them. They didn’t get on Twitter as much. It’s tough. They’re 19-year-old kids. They’re going to make an occasional mistake."
Aaron Sr. said he understood that part of it. He knew what the score was. You lose, somebody gets ripped. Every athlete knows they signed up for that. What he didn’t like was people – he thought it was mostly TV analysts — saying his sons were bad kids.
"People that don’t know them would make an assault on their character," Aaron Sr. said. "That was the one thing that bothered me that bothered them. Other than that, it is what it is."
The twins responded by withdrawing from social media, which is always the first step. Can’t let them get you down. But, as it turns out, some of those criticisms were valid. Valid enough, anyway, that Aaron Sr. considered it a good time for self-reflection.
"Maybe that’s what bothered people, the body language," Aaron Sr. said. "That’s a thing, as a man, you have to go through life and there’s things you have to fix and change about yourself on a daily basis, and become a better person."
The twins haven’t spelled it out quite that explicitly, but in their analysis of Kentucky’s season you can hear their side of the story.
"I don’t think it is putting egos aside," Andrew said. "When you’re young, you just try to prove yourself. That’s all we were trying to do. I think we have done that so far, but at the same time, we have sacrificed for the team."
Aaron, the scorer, talks of shedding a psychological weight.
"I got a big burden off my shoulders and just started playing basketball again," he said.
He’s the team’s third-leading scorer (14.1 points) and made the 3-pointer against Michigan that sent Kentucky to the Final Four. Andrew averages 11 points and has twice the assists as anybody else on the team. Randle did turn out to be Kentucky’s best player, leading the Wildcats in scoring (15.1) and rebounding (10.7), and, just in the nick of time, the Wildcats grew up.
They play Wisconsin on Saturday for a trip to the national championship game. Nobody complains much about the Harrisons’ body language anymore, but they know everybody is watching.
"When you come to Kentucky," Andrew said, "you can’t be hidden."