The Times West Virginian

April 19, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Harlee works on being hero on, off court

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments.”

– Arthur Ashe

MORGANTOWN – Arthur Ashe always knew the important things in life.

Because he did, he really isn’t known for his tennis accomplishments, as great as they may have been.

He is known far more for what he was, than what he did, and somehow Jessica Harlee, the West Virginia University women’s basketball player, understands.

  She should, for today she possesses the annual Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year Award, awarded by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education Magazine, awarded to the top female in college athletics.

Ashe, of course, was so much more than an athlete. He was a pioneer, a black man making inroads in the very white sport of tennis, the first African-American to win the U.S. Open, doing so as an amateur and at a time when the only other person of color of note in the sport was Althea Gibson.

He went on to become a leader, not only in the black community, but in America. He passed on strength and courage and wisdom.

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

– Arthur Ashe

Jessica Harlee doesn’t know all there is to know about Arthur Ashe. Now that she has the award, one suspects, she will learn more.

And she will be the better for it.

“My mom told me some things about him. He sounds like he was a special man, very incredible. He definitely crossed the lines and did things that were unexpected,” he said.

She is off to a good start, as evidenced by this award. That she won it is something of a testament to how there is so much more to her than just athletics.

Awards normally go to players who score 20 points a game. She didn’t. She didn’t score in double figures.

In fact, Jessica Harlee didn’t start for West Virginia.

Her specialty is defense and hustle.

And academics.

She averages 3.9 majoring in industrial engineering.

“It’s more the background players, the hard-working players,” Harlee said when asked why she thought she took down the award. “That’s what I am. I take the charge, dive on the floor. I’m not the star of the team. I do the little things, come up with the big play on defense.”

And the big score in the classroom.

“You have to be good academically. I stress my academics. I am for straight A’s in everything,” she said.

It comes from her parents, who were also athletes.

They stressed academics more than sports. Getting B’s wasn’t acceptable. They knew how smart I was. They were very intelligent themselves and they pushed me,” she said.

Not that they had to.

“Academics came easier for me. I’m naturally gifted and a lot in school comes easy to me. Basketball, I have to work for everything I get,” she said.

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

– Arthur Ashe

Harlee is working on being a hero right now. She had her moments during the season, like making a winning pass against Iowa State in a two-point victory. Whatever was necessary, she did … a pass, a steal, a basket, a stop.

Then came a moment in the final game of the season, a big moment, and her knee went out.

It was a crushing injury, for her and the Mountaineers, who were not talented enough to survive their third knee injury loss of the year.

Now she is trying to come back with the same determination she used to win the Arthur Ashe Award.

“I don’t like sitting out at all,” she said. “I have extreme determination to come back. Even today, I’m pushing to do things my trainer hasn’t put on my card yet. My knee will be fine.

“I didn’t get to finish the season the way I wanted to finish it out. It makes me more and more excited for next year to come out and play in my senior year.”

If she needs inspiration, she can look to Ashe, who overcame a pair of heart attacks and who died at 50 from HIV but not until he did so much in the final days, accomplished all he could.

“Success is a journey, not a destination,” he said. “The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

And Harlee is just beginning on her journey.

“I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I have options. I have an internship this summer at Mon General, and I’m thinking of going to grad school for hospital administration. That’s what I’m leaning toward. If not, I’ll probably graduate and find a job in consulting or something else,” she said.

Email Bob Hertzel at or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.