MONTGOMERY, Ala. - When Keylon Harrell’s grandmother arrived in Germany and playfully rested her Virginia Cavaliers’ sports cap on her six-month-old grandson’s head, perhaps it was prophetic.
Little did anyone ever suspect that 17 years later, Keylon (better known now as K.T.) would sign a basketball scholarship with none other than Virginia. The highest-rated player in the Cavaliers’ six-man incoming class, Harrell is definitely the designated trigger man of coach Tony Bennett’s Six Shooters.
Some time last fall when K.T.’s parents, Rodney and Michelle, were asked to comb through family photo albums to come up with a baby picture of their oldest son for his UVa file, they could hardly believe their eyes. There, in all the mix of photos was little Keylon, wearing a definitely dated Virginia Cavaliers cap. He was also wearing a big grin — it’s bigger now that he is officially a Wahoo — but pretty big for a six-month old.
Maybe he knew something?
“We hadn’t seen that picture in years and, frankly, had forgotten about it,” Rodney Harrell said. “Michelle dug it up and said, ‘Rodney, you’re not going to believe this.’”
Michelle, who grew up in Roanoke and attended William Fleming High School, was in the U.S. Army, but stationed at an Air Force base in Wiesbaden, Germany, where she had earlier met Rodney, who was serving in the Air Force and playing a little hoops on the side. Although Rodney, a military brat, was born in Portsmouth, neither he nor Michelle had really ever been Virginia fans growing up.
After they were married and had K.T., Grandma had to visit and, for some reason, wore a UVa hat that soon found its way to the baby’s head and Michelle made it a Kodak moment.
“I was like ‘Wow,’ when I saw that and I called [Virginia coach Tony] Bennett and told him that we had a baby picture with K.T. wearing a Virginia hat,” Rodney said. “He said, ‘What?’ We scanned it and sent it to him. I believe it was destiny. I told my wife that it’s like a movie. You couldn’t plan something like that. I get goosebumps every time I look at that photo.”
Rodney, who is now a self-taught graphics artist and operates CourtSide Training (www.courtsidetraining.com), where he helped transform his son from a slow, somewhat unskilled basketball player into a 4-star prospect (out of five), has a basketball background. Michelle, who recently earned a master’s degree with a 4.0 GPA from Troy, edits military manuals for the Air Force.
Living in Germany during the first couple of years of high school, Rodney made first-team All-Europe as a freshman and when he began to blossom, his parents sent him back to Georgia to finish high school. He was recruited by the University of Georgia and several other schools, but he fashioned a shortcut the way one of his playing idols, Larry Johnson, had achieved fame — by going to Odessa Junior College, where he hoped to get noticed more quickly.
Admittedly, Rodney wasn’t focused on his academics and used a near-photographic memory to get by. Things didn’t go quite the way as planned, but he did play college ball and joined the military and played pro basketball overseas.
Maybe, just maybe, he was living somewhat vicariously through K.T., or perhaps it was just a father’s love, helping his kid be all that he could be. Whatever, Rodney made sure that his oldest son would get everything he needed to become a solid basketball player from an early age.
Once, he was driving the 13-year-old hard, frustrated that K.T. wasn’t getting what his father was preaching on the basketball court. Michelle stepped in and reminded him that he couldn’t expect the 13-year-old to do what a senior could do, a lesson that Rodney never forgot.
He learned about teaching his son by steps, purposely pacing him and not cramming too much into his young mind too soon.
One day, as a young high schooler, K.T. approached his father and complained that all the other players were teasing him because he was 6-foot-1, a ninth grader, and couldn’t dunk.
Rodney knew exactly how to handle the situation.
“I said, I’m keeping you from dunking. Now win. Win without quickness. You win with your mind. The rest will come. And when those things come, what are they going to do with you, K.T.?” Rodney Harrell remembered.
“I knew K.T. was going to be able to jump, but I kept it from him. I knew he was going to be able to be fast, but I kept it from him,” Rodney said.
While Michael Jordan was always the player that Rodney Harrell’s generation looked up to, and Rodney loved MJ, he related more to another player of the day because the other player could be a role model for K.T.
One day, Rodney looked at his son and proclaimed, “K.T., I’m going to make you the black Larry Bird.”
He knew his son didn’t want to do 30 minutes of ballhandling drills three days a week, but he also knew that if K.T. would follow the program, he would be amazed at the results. Same for the other parts of the training program that would improve his son’s speed, leaping ability, shooting skills and everything else.
“God didn’t give Larry Bird the same ability of Michael Jordan, but I’ll guarantee you that Larry got to his maximum and in my mind, that’s greater than a guy who can jump higher than Larry Bird, but never got to his max. So, who’s better? To me, it’s Larry, because he reached his maximum potential,” Rodney Harrell said.
The last time K.T. Harrell’s vertical leap was measured was in the 10th grade — 35 inches. He was dunking, but awkwardly. The goal was 40 inches, and after having gone through three months of working out with the P90X system, Rodney expects his son has met the goal, if not surpassed it.
“They just don’t know what they’re getting,” Rodney said, leaning back on the couch in the family living room. “I tell coach Bennett all the time that K.T. is going to be a better college player than he was a high school player because I never taught him at the high school level.
“I never told him to just put your head down and go make a layup or to just jump over everybody,” Rodney continued. “I told him to play the game the right way, that when someone’s open, hit them with a pass. Or, if there’s an extra pass, make the extra pass. I taught him to play like a pro. Will he get there [to the pros]? I don’t know. But why not teach him at the highest level while he’s young?”
Apparently there was a lot of good teaching from Rodney and Michelle, from Rodney’s training partner Alex Pitts, from Brewbaker Tech Magnet High School coach Chauncey Shines and some AAU coaches along the way.
As a senior at Brewbaker, a private school that emphasizes academics, K.T. averaged 27.9 points per game, 10.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.8 steals, and 1.6 blocks in helping the Rams to a 23-6 record, losing in the state title game. Those numbers, Shines insists, would have been much higher had he kept his star player in the games.
“Out of all the games we played, I can guarantee you that 20-some of them were blowouts and K.T. probably played 16 or 17 minutes out of the 32,” Shines said. “So, his statistics are real misleading. He could have easily averaged 40 points a game and 15 rebounds.”
In fact, Shines said, Harrell could have averaged a triple-double had he not been so advanced in his passing skills that his laser darts to open teammates hadn’t bounced off their heads or caromed off their hands or whistled past them and out of bounds.
Advanced beyond his years
“His game was not a high school game,” Shines said. “Not being a high school player kind of hurt him. He’d get in foul trouble because he’s playing great defense, but making moves the officials had never seen before. They’d blow the whistle because it just didn’t look right. They’d reason, ‘He can’t do that, so I’m going to blow the whistle.’”
Brewbaker didn’t win the coveted state title, but Harrell was honored with Gatorade’s state of Alabama player of the year award and was selected Class 4A player of the year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association. He was given consideration for McDonald’s All-America status. But he didn’t get the state’s Mr. Basketball award — that honor went to Trevor Lacey, a guard from Huntsville, which left Shines and everyone around Harrell fuming.
“I’m about to make everyone in Montgomery, Alabama, and all of the South mad, but I don’t care,” Shines said. “So, if they read what you’re going to print up there, they can’t treat me any worse than they’ve already treated me.”
Everything changed, Shines said, when K.T. Harrell shunned the two state schools, Alabama and Auburn, and the rest of the SEC and headed north.
“The bottom line is this,” Shine said. “It ticked everybody off when he committed to Virginia. We’re Baker Tech. We have K.T. Harrell on our team and he didn’t sign with Alabama or Auburn, but they didn’t recruit him right. I’m convinced that had he not signed with Virginia, that he would have been Mr. Basketball for the state of Alabama. If he would have signed with someone down here, he would have won it.
Shines added: “It’s ridiculous for a national organization to recognize him as the best player in Alabama, but the state of Alabama says you’re not the best player in Alabama. A lot of times, they say we’re bass-ackwards in Alabama. Well, there you go. I understand why they say that now. Alabama can get mad at me. I don’t steer kids. They go where they want.”
A lost season
The state of Alabama didn’t stand in Harrell’s way when he transferred to Brewbaker after his sophomore year, but the Montgomery Board of Education did, ruling that he had to sit out his junior season, a ruling that the family and Shines and everyone at Brewbaker thought was grossly unfair. The state’s high school athletic association had no such rule, but the city did.
Shines selfishly admitted that he wished Harrell had played on that team, which went 25-5 without him, noting that the state championship probably would have belonged to the Rams that season.
“But the best thing that could probably happen to K.T. was sitting out that season,” Shines said.
Rodney Harrell and Pitts pushed K.T. in their training laboratory, continuing to break down every phase of his game, assembling piece by piece a basketball monster to unleash on Dixie. Even K.T. could hardly believe his eyes.
“I really got serious and worked as hard as I could,” the 6-foot-4 shooting guard said. “I really wasn’t that athletic my 10th grade year, and the 11th grade year, I had so much time on my hands because I wasn’t playing, I knew I had to get a lot better if I wanted to compete on the AAU circuit. After all that work, and I actually got [onto the AAU circuit], I was amazed at how good I had gotten. I knew I was ready.”
Pitts was always there behind the scenes in the gym and could see it coming day by day. All those drills on the individual parts of basketball finally started coming together like a jigsaw puzzle. Pitts witnessed the hard work that K.T. put in daily.
“The kid had slow feet. That’s what people don’t know. He ran slow, jumped slow, shot the ball slow,” Pitts said. “You can’t tell it now.
“But here’s the kind of kid he is. His 10th-grade year, K.T. would go to school an hour early just to put up shots in the gym. There weren’t any juniors or seniors there with him, so he had to convince Rodney to go and catch for him,” Pitts said. “That’s why he was the only 10th grader to make the All-Metro team. But the best was yet to come.”
While he sat out his junior year, Harrell amazed Shines that the kid was still at every practice, and during games, every time the coach looked down his bench, he would see Harrell at the end, cheering harder than anyone for his teammates.
It was that following summer that the college basketball world took notice. His dad had purposely kept him under the radar until then, but word soon got out and recruiters following the AAU circuit began to ask, who is this kid? Does he have grades?
Boston College jumped on the bandwagon early, but things changed quickly.
That’s when Bennett, Virginia’s new coach, showed up.
Early that summer, Bennett called K.T. but didn’t reach him and left him a heartfelt message that also left a lasting impression.
“I thought after hearing the message, I immediately told my dad there was something different about coach Bennett,” K.T. said. “After that, we continued to build a relationship and it wasn’t long until I realized what he was all about, and I felt Virginia was the right place for me.”
By then lots of colleges were interested but the Harrells had built a bond with Bennett, especially on the home visit.
“Right here in this living room, I already knew that I wanted to play for him, but I waited,” K.T. said.
A young man of strong faith, Harrell prayed about it. Rodney had already set up visits to Arkansas and Georgia and was about to set up more to BC and maybe Clemson. They had already dropped by ’Bama and Auburn.
After praying for a day, K.T. came home and told his dad to cancel the visits, that he knew where he wanted to sign. Rodney tried to persuade his son to at least take the visits, but K.T., having never visited UVa or seen the arena, said there was no way he would change his mind. Coaches tried to convince Rodney not to cancel, but everything was set in K.T.’s mind.
“All the Virginia coaches had great personalities and coach Bennett loves the Lord, and that’s one thing I really look up to,” Harrell said. “That was one very important thing that I looked at.”
Once he made his official visit (for the UVa vs. Indiana football weekend), K.T. and the other UVa recruits clicked immediately. He went into John Paul Jones Arena and just sat there, taking it all in.
“I had never seen anything like it,” K.T. said. “I didn’t want to leave.”
Finding a foil
It was on that trip that he and fellow recruit Billy Baron really connected. They stayed in the gym shooting. Harrell, who doesn’t think anyone can outwork him, shot baskets until 2 a.m. He found out later that Baron stayed until 4. He said that’s who he wanted to room with, a guy that will push him and vice versa.
The recruits bonded quickly and began texting long before they arrived here last week for summer school.
Once arriving, he said the only thing he was sure of was that he was going to pretty much live in the gym.
Now, he and the rest of the Six Shooters are building chemistry. They are the future of Virginia basketball.
“I know Virginia lost a lot of players, so it may be a little weird at the beginning,” Harrell said. “But I think we’re going to have good chemistry. I know we’re going to work really hard. As long as we do that, we’ll be fine.”
After all, it is destiny, right?