Harrellson went from forgotten man to senior force

One-time whipping boy emerged as senior starter

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 1, 2011 

Josh Harrellson, center, grabbed one of his 14 rebounds to go with 23 points in UK's 78-63 win at Louisville this season. It was a breakout game for the UK senior, who once was banished to a bathroom stall and spent last year on the bench.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

Before this basketball season, the University of Kentucky produced a promotional poster entitled "It happens here." The collage of images included a salute to the incoming freshmen who made up the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, the five departed first-round draft choices from 2009-10, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins posing with Coach John Calipari. Oh, and there was Jon Hood helping hold up a trophy symbolizing UK's championship pedigree.

A player was missing from the poster. Apparently, Josh Harrellson was not happening at UK.

"It kind of hurt a little bit," Harrellson recalled on Monday.


Pick up a copy of today's Lexington Herald-Leader for a Josh Harrellson keepsake page.


Some of his friends e-mailed the UK basketball office to ask why no Harrellson. No intentional slight, UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy said. Simple oversight.

Meanwhile, Chandler Norfleet, an 11-year-old from Louisville, went to work. The little boy became Harrellson's buddy after the UK big man accidently broke Norfleet's leg at one of Calipari's camps last summer. Harrellson's hospital visits and phone calls produced a friendship.

Believing his friend should be part of the poster, Norfleet cut out a picture of Harrellson and pasted it in the corner.

"I have that hanging in my room," Harrellson said.

This Kentucky's Senior Night honors the forgotten man who became the indispensable man. A player who couldn't make a left-handed layup as a high school freshman who posted five double-doubles (and counting) as a Kentucky senior.

There's more. A player who played 12 Southeastern Conference minutes last season became the league's leader in offensive rebounding (3.5 per SEC game) and No. 3 rebounder on both ends of the floor (8.4 per).

Still more. Billy Gillispie's whipping boy considered transferring. He stayed, but he felt forgotten by Calipari the next season. Then he famously tweeted a protest of Cal's belittling of his 26-rebound performance in the Blue-White scrimmage last fall.

Now he will stand at center court with an extended group of supporters from his St. Charles, Mo., home and bask in hard-earned and well-deserved Big Blue love.

"I don't know if I've ever coached a player who got more out of his body and his skill level and his athleticism than Josh Harrellson," Calipari said Monday. "And I've coached a lot of players."

Harrellson's improbable road to UK Senior Night included no formal basketball training until the ninth grade. "I always played H-O-R-S-E in the driveway with my mom and dad," he said. "It was an eight-foot goal, so that probably doesn't count."

Harrellson followed his father Doug's footsteps and played baseball. His mother protested the switch to basketball. To hear Harrellson, his ninth-grade coach agreed with mom.

"He wanted to get rid of me," said Harrellson, who couldn't make a layup with his left hand at the time. "My high school coach made him keep me."

"Well," that coach, Gary Wacker, recalled, "he had something you can't teach. He was a big kid. He was a 6-6 kid running around school as a freshman. You don't throw them out to pasture. You try to bring them along."

Day after day, month after month, Wacker worked with the big boy. Harrellson did his duty, but he did not fall head over heels in love with basketball. He famously missed a freshman game to go deer hunting with his father. Harrellson eased his father's concerns by saying, "We're going to beat them without me."

Division I schools did not pursue Harrellson, which may explain why Wacker kiddingly asked him at dinner recently, "Why didn't you play this hard for me?"

After a year of junior college, where Harrellson made all-conference, Kentucky and other Division I schools showed interest.

Harrellson marveled at how UK fans knew who he was when he attended a Blue-White football scrimmage during his official visit.

"I knew my heart was stuck here." Harrellson said of the visit.

Playing for Gillispie was an ordeal. Most famously, the UK coach made Harrellson stay in a toilet stall during halftime at Vanderbilt and then ride home in an equipment truck.

"I didn't appreciate it very much at all," said Doug, a construction worker. "If I'd gotten my hands on (Gillispie), he'd have had a bad day."

Recalling Gillispie barking at his son and other UK players during games, Doug Harrellson said, "I felt like coming out of my seat and going over and just smacking the guy."

Brother Matt Harrellson said Gillispie called his brother names like "Fat Boy" in an attempt at motivation. "Josh was upset," Matt said. "He didn't like Kentucky that much. Josh forgave him. When Coach Gillispie's mother died, Josh texted (condolences)."

When Harrellson scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against Louisville, Gillispie texted congratulations.

"(Gillispie) may have treated you like dirt," Wacker said he advised Harrellson, "but on the other side of that, he brought you to the University of Kentucky."

Sentiment and gratitude seem to be a big part of who Harrellson is. He has a cross tattooed on his back in remembrance of his grandfather, William Harrellson, who took him hunting and fishing and camping.

He visits children's hospitals and homeless shelters. He regularly goes to the Humane Society to play with the dogs. "I don't think they get enough love and affection up there," he said.

Oh, Harrellson also has given Kentucky a presence around the basket and made Calipari remember that good things can come from unlikely places if, like Wacker showed at St. Charles High, you're willing to patiently develop a player.

"If any of you thought after watching us in Canada he'd have an impact on our season, you need to be drug tested," said Calipari, who deflected credit for Harrellson's emergence. "He did it. He had a choice between beating it, getting out of here or change. And he changed."

Thanks to Calipari ordering extra conditioning as punishment for that ill-advised tweet, Harrellson changed from out-of-shape, irreverent jokester to purposeful contributor for Kentucky. But, thankfully, he did not totally change.

"One of the best teammates I've ever had," Jon Hood said of Harrellson. "As long as you want help, he'll give you help. Everybody will miss him when he's gone."

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