Now back, Al Harrington setting an example

ORLANDO, Fla. — The game’s outcome had long since been decided. But that didn’t matter one bit to Al Harrington.

With the Orlando Magic down by an insurmountable margin Sunday night to the Memphis Grizzlies, Harrington cut to the basket and scored off a crisp pass from rookie Kyle O’Quinn. Then he deflected the ensuing inbounds pass by Jon Leuer, gathered in the ball and missed his first shot before converting the put-back.

In a season when feel-good moments have grown harder to find, the return of the 15-year NBA veteran from nearly a 10-month absence resulting from arthroscopic knee surgery compounded by a staph infection feels like a million bucks. Harrington’s hustle and work ethic are attributes that the Magic hope will serve as an inspiration on a team where four of the five current starters are 24 or younger.

“I just try to show them that playing hard is what’s going to keep them around,” said Harrington, who turned 33 last month. “I’m in a type of situation where there are rookies starting and stuff that usually doesn’t happen in this league. And after 15 years, I’m sure I can not play anymore and be fine for the rest of my life. But I just enjoy this game and respect this game. And the way you respect the game is by playing hard at all times.”

“He’s leading by example,” said Maurice Harkless, who was barely 5 years old when the Indiana Pacers took Harrington straight out of high school in the first round of the 1998 draft. “He’s being a great leader. He’s the one giving us speeches before the games. He’s the one in the huddle yelling at everybody. He’s out there playing hard on every possession. No matter what happens on offense, he’s always going to go hard on defense.”

The 6-foot-9 Harrington and guard Aaron Afflalo came over from the Denver Nuggets last summer as part of the four-team trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. While Afflalo leads the Magic in minutes played, Harrington wasn’t cleared to so much as practice until a few weeks ago.

Four surgical procedures were needed in all to repair torn meniscus cartilage and, more importantly, clear up an infected right knee joint. A return to the court this season was in question, and there were moments when Harrington could have been forgiven for pondering his own athletic mortality.

“Earlier in the season, I figured I might not play,” he said. “But maybe in the last two months, I realized I had the opportunity as long as I stuck with my rehab. And things began to get better.”

With the help of physical therapist Ed Manalo, Harrington’s health and conditioning improved and he took part in his first full practice as a member of the Magic. The following night, he made his debut against the Philadelphia 76ers.

He admitted afterward that “I wanted to cry” upon checking into the game. But the prevailing emotion was one of unbridled happiness after Harrington scored all nine of his points in the fourth quarter as the Magic pulled away to a 98-84 victory.

After spending 54 games in a row on the inactive list and being in uniform but not playing twice, he was caught slightly off guard when Magic coach Jacque Vaughn inserted him in the second game of a back-to-back scheduling arrangement.

“I was a little surprised,” Harrington said. “But given the fact that (Vaughn) is conscious of how many minutes he’s playing me helps. I know I can go out and play 12 minutes on a back-to-back. If I played 20, he probably would’ve sat me out.”

Vaughn brought Harrington off the bench in the first quarter against the Grizzlies when starting center Nikola Vucevic struggled against Marc Gasol. When the fourth quarter began, Harrington was part of a lineup which included three rookies who had not gotten in during any of the first three periods: O’Quinn, Doron Lamb and DeQuan Jones. (He was later replaced by yet another first-year player, Andrew Nicholson.)

There’s also a reminder of how far Harrington still needs to go in the form of a bulky brace on his right knee.

“Once I get out there and I start moving around, I kind of forget about it,” he said. “But you can see I’m always tugging at it. It slips on me a bit. That’s the toughest thing about it, just trying to keep it in place.”

For now, and for the foreseeable future, his place is on the court regaining his 3-point shooting touch and providing moments like the one he did in a span of less than 10 seconds in an otherwise lost cause.

“It’s a great lesson for guys that were in the game with him at that time,” Vaughn said. “He knows you can’t take this game for granted.”