The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

December 23, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Playing Purdue brought memories for Indiana native

MORGANTOWN — Mostly his mood had matched the moment, rather dour, even though Eron Harris had scored 24 points and played a spectacular game against Purdue in defeat.

In many ways it was an important game for the West Virginia sophomore, for even though he had grown up in Indianapolis, which is in the shadow of such basketball schools as Purdue and Indiana, he had been ignored by them in the recruiting process.

But now someone mentioned that the Christmas break, if not the Christmas spirit, was upon us and he would be heading home for the holidays, and that drew a huge smile on what had been up until then a face without sunshine.

“I am looking forward to going home and coming back with the attitude. The past is the past,” he said.

At that moment someone noted that going home would bring him face to face again with his father, Eric Harris, the thought being that his father had spent two years at Purdue and that he might be riding him just a bit about losing to his old school.

But Eron Harris saw it in another light, for it had hit him with the realization that this trip home would be different than any other he had ever made.

“Oh, man, I’m 20 years old now. This is the first time I’m 20 years old and going home. I can do what I want now. I’m grown. I can say, ‘I’m leaving, ’bye,’” he said.

Eric Harris did not play basketball at Purdue.

“He tried out but he didn’t make the team. He was a football player, really,” Harris said. “He wanted to be a basketball player. He was a star football player but he said, ‘I’m going to try out and make the team.’ He tried out, but it didn’t work out.”

Little wonder. Purdue had Troy Lewis, Todd Mitchell and Melvin McCants, and won back-to-back Big Ten titles and reached the Sweet 16 in 1988, which would have been Eric Harris’ senior season.

It was a good time for Purdue football then, too, quarterbacked by Jim Everett and led on defense by Rod Woodson, who would go on to become a Hall of Fame defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That Harris father attended Purdue made one wonder how much thought Harris gave toward following in his father’s footsteps.

Turns out, he gave it none at all.

“They didn’t offer me. None of those big Indiana schools offered me,” he said.

Not Purdue, not Indiana, not Butler, not Notre Dame … none of them.

“I just didn’t get their respect,” he said.

Having seen the talent that Eron Harris possesses, it’s hard to imagine such an oversight.

“I was really the underdog,” he explained. “I didn’t get to play and be seen. In fact, I almost didn’t get to come here. West Virginia came in the very last minute. I mean the very last minute.”

This wasn’t one of those small-school kids getting overlooked stories.

“I went to a huge school, a 4-A,” he said, referring to Lawrence North. “I started my junior and senior year. Most good players start all four years of varsity in high school, but I played freshman ball and JV. I played like one game as a sophomore for the varsity.

“I was like that typical high school player. I knew how good I was but nobody else did.”

Sometimes kids develop late. Harris would seem to be one of them. While he was 6-2 or 6-3 in high school and long, he weighed in at no more than 160 pounds and averaged just 14 points a game as a high school senior, six points a game less than he is averaging as a college sophomore.

Bob Huggins saw something in Harris that others were missing, an athleticism that you can’t teach and a driving spirit that is pushing him to be good.

He broke in slowly last year but by season’s end was among the better freshmen in the Big 12, a conference that grabs off some top of the freshmen with schools like Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas, et al.

So it was on Sunday that he was on the floor facing Purdue in a game he wanted badly to win.

“It felt good playing against these Indianapolis kids. You have Terone Johnson, Ronnie Johnson, Basil Smotherman, A.J. Hammons. These guys are all my buddies. They knew I would come out and play competitively,” he said.

He outscored them all, outplayed them all, but came up four point short of beating them all.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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