One of the first projects Joe Harris consumed himself with upon arriving at the University of Virginia four years ago, was to delve into the Cavaliers’ basketball history.
Having grown up on the West Coast, Harris knew the legend of Ralph Sampson, but little else about Wahoo basketball. He subsequently learned about Bryant Stith, John Crotty, Barry Parkhill, Wally Walker, Jeff Lamp and all the rest. Harris’ research was more than just names and stories. It was also about the people behind the scenes.
“When you can look back and understand what it used to be, what the fans used to experience, it makes you strive that much harder to get the program back to where it once was,” Harris said. “There’s so much pride in the fan base, so much loyalty. It seemed like when we first got here as freshmen, the fans were almost dying for the team to have success. They were waiting for things to erupt. Now that we’re slowly creeping toward that, it’s exciting and makes you feel good to be part of trying to resurrect it.”
The kind of wisdom that Harris has displayed as a college senior is only one of the reasons he has become such a fan favorite. He played his way onto the All-ACC first-team as a junior and captured the heart of Wahoo supporters everywhere.
His All-American good looks captured the hearts of an adoring female fan base as well. In fact, UVa teammate Justin Anderson commented after Monday night’s win over Maryland that Harris was the “Justin Bieber of teenage girls in Virginia.”
Surrounded by reporters, and with Anderson within an earshot to listen to Harris’ reaction, Harris just delivered one of his modest “aw shucks” responses, almost too embarrassed to answer.
Asked about a coed who during the game displayed a huge sign that read: “Joe, Pass me the Rock and Diamond Ring,” and Harris smiled.
“Yeah, I saw that,” the UVa heart throb said. “It was a great sign. It looked good.”
A cover boy on several preseason basketball magazines, Harris blew off the notoriety, pointing out that preseason projections meant nothing. He talked about team and that if the team was successful, then individual honors would follow in order.
So, does Joe Harris just hate attention?
“I mean, I don’t hate attention,” he said. “I don’t embrace it or like it a whole lot.”
With that said, it was easy to understand why the celebrated Cavalier was a bit embarrassed about one of the actions he took as UVa began to pull away from Maryland in Monday’s game at John Paul Jones Arena. It was a sequence few Wahoo fans will forget anytime soon.
With the game tied at 35-all, Anderson trailed a Maryland player on the fast break. Stalking his prey, Anderson sprung into the air and not only blocked the stunned Terp's shot from behind, but saved the ball to a UVa teammate. All the while, Harris and Teven Jones were dashing down the floor.
When no Maryland defender came out to where Harris was lurking at the 3-point arc, Harris let go of a deep shot that zipped through the nets and turned JPJ into a madhouse of emotion.
The shot tied Harris with Harold Deane (1994-97) for second place all-time on Virginia’s 3-point field goals list with 237 made.
“I was running down and Teven and I made eye contact,” Harris remembered of the shot. “I was hoping nobody would come out on me. I had room and rhythm, so I just let it go.”
After he bombed it, Harris made a rare display of emotion, signaling a three with his fingers.
“It was pretty sweet to see him run down the court,” an admiring Anderson smiled. “Once Joe starts throwing up three ball signs, that’s when you know he’s ready to lock and load.”
Again, Harris was almost embarrassed by the attention.
“I don’t really do that a whole lot,” the Cavalier said. “I kind of regret doing that, but it was in the heat of the moment. Everybody kind of loves it when you show a little bit of emotion.”
Not only had Harris rode to UVa’s rescue with 16 of his 19 points in the second half, the most unselfish player in the ACC recognized that he needed to elevate his game in order for the Cavaliers to win the game.
“This is the sign of a mature player,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after watching his 17th-ranked team reel off its eighth straight ACC victory. “One who can be efficient and senses when we need it. Joe wants to win. He will do whatever it takes to win.”
Even Boston College coach Steve Donahue admired the way Harris has handled himself this season, pointing out that the Cavalier senior was willing to often take a back seat and allow a teammate to take the glory even if it meant sacrificing his scoring average.
Bennett points out that fact every chance he gets.
“Joe understands that he draws attention to let other players get going, but then also has the ability to elevate his game,” Bennett said. “That is a rare player.”
Not only is Harris a superb player but a leader as well. He personally drove to Bennett’s home on New Year’s Eve to ask the coach what it was going to take to turn the team’s fortunes around. The Cavaliers had struggled against the better teams in a less than impressive performance in nonconference play.
It was all about buying into the roles that Bennett had envisioned for each player and accepting the fact that not everyone was going to be a star in this system. Once that issue was settled, the Cavaliers have been one of America’s hottest teams.
The unselfishness is something that coaches and teammates understand. Sometimes the fans don’t. They want him to be more selfish and fear that if he doesn’t, everything is going to unravel at some point.
“I hear that a lot … shoot more,” Harris said after the Maryland game.
In fact, he took only five shots in the first half against the Terps. Made only one. The second half was a different story when he made 5-of-6.
“There was a lot of room and rhythm in the second half and it seemed like I had a clean look at the rim,” Harris said.
One reason why was because teammates realized they needed to give their shooting star the room via screens. Playing against Maryland’s defense was a bit taxing. Harris believed the Terps were the toughest team the Cavaliers have faced this year in terms of keeping them out of the paint.
So, now the Wahoos get a bit of a rest before going to Clemson, a place where Harris and senior teammate Akil Mitchell have never won.
Harris could think about being No. 2 on UVa’s all-time 3-point list, but he won’t. He only had one comment about that.
“No chance, no chance, no chance,” he said when asked about Curtis Staples’ UVa record of 413 career 3’s. “I don’t think anybody’s going to break that record here.”
He could think about the 20 wins and how UVa struggled to hit that mark the past two years, grinding at the end of the season in an attempt to make the NCAAs. But he won’t.
“I guess it’s nice that we have a nice little cushion but at the same time, we have a tough stretch with important games and you don’t want to have any kind of dip at the end of the season,” Harris said.
He could think about being one of 10 players in American named to the Allstate NABC Good Works Team that recognizes preeminent community service. Harris volunteered time to the Charlottesville Boys and Girls Club, local elementary schools and local hospitals. That’s just part of who he is.
And that UVa hoops history? It’s cool to be part of but like he said, he and teammates won’t dwell on it.
“People have started to talk about it a little more, a bit more buzz from people who have been around Grounds a while,” Harris said. “You go into places like Littlejohn’s and some people who have been around since the days Ralph played here talk about experiencing some things since that time.”
Bennett won’t allow this team to get ahead of itself and Harris is the perfect cow bell for that thinking.
“Coach talked the other day about how we’re working our way up some stairs and we have to have two feet on each stair before we get to the next one,” Harris said.
The next step is another Littlejohn, as in Clemson’s arena come Saturday. Harris will be ready. As Anderson said, locked and loaded.