The start of college basketball season has arrived, and Kentucky fans are getting psyched for the most exciting season in the university’s storied history.
That season is 2013-14.
Midnight Madness, the traditional college hoops pep rally that no longer arrives at midnight and provides varying degrees of madness, tips off on Friday evening in Lexington, Ky., as well as College Park, Md., and dozens of other fieldhouses around the country. Kentucky students and fans camped out for days outside Memorial Coliseum to get a ticket for the school’s Big Blue Madness event. Ticket demand for the glorified shootaround is so high that fans have developed bootlegger-style ruses to “sell” the free tickets on eBay and Craigslist.
But the biggest stars at Big Blue Madness won’t be touted freshmen Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress. They won’t be head coach John Calipari or rumored surprise guest Jay-Z … well, OK, if Jay-Z shows up, he’s the biggest star. But besides him, the two headliners are a couple of high school seniors who have not yet signed letters of intent yet and will spend this winter shooting hoops in gymnasiums around the Houston suburbs.
Aaron and Andrew Harrison will be at Big Blue Madness on Friday. Lexington is buzzing. College Park is grumbling. The ESPN cameras on both campuses will be rolling.
Welcome to Midnight Madness. And Twinsanity.
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Technical difficulties caused serious problems in The Kentucky Kernel offices last Thursday evening. Sports editor Cody Porter and his staff at the campus newspaper needed to watch ESPNU, but their Internet feed was glitchy. The most important Kentucky sports story of the year was unfolding in a high school gymnasium in Fort Bend County, Texas: The Harrison twins were announcing their college selection. But the Internet would not cooperate with the Kernel’s effort to stay on top of it.
Luckily, everyone else in Lexington was watching the same thing. ESPNU was not available in the dormitories, but televisions in student life centers and sports bars were tuned in to the network. “I sent my reporters out to the restaurants to cover it there,” Porter said.
Five hundred miles away, a similar scene played out at the offices of The Diamondback, the Maryland campus newspaper. Editor Connor Letourneau and his staff huddled around a computer screen, waiting for news from the Harrison twins. Maryland’s chances of attracting the twins appeared slim a month ago, but recent weeks had seen some tightening in the race. “There was definitely a lot of hype, a lot of anticipation,” Letourneau said. “Just walking around campus, you would hear about the Harrison twins everywhere.”
Aaron and Andrew Harrison are a pair of 6-foot-5 seniors who took Travis High School to the Class 5A Finals in the Texas high school basketball championship last season. Andrew is a natural point guard who also has a fine shooting touch. Aaron is a gifted three-point shooter who can also handle the ball. The brothers have the kind of chemistry that only comes from being together since before birth.
The Harrison twins are two of the top 10 recruits in the country, but as a matched set, they represent the greatest prize in this year’s class. They are an instant backcourt: Add them to a middling program like Maryland’s, and you get a Sweet-16 team. Add them to Calipari’s loaded lineup at Kentucky (the Wildcats are ranked No. 1 or 2 in the nation in most preseason polls, despite an inexperienced roster), and the Final Four is all but guaranteed, at least for the season or two before the NBA beckons.
That’s why sports bars in Lexington were tuned to ESPNU last Thursday, not to college or NFL football. Kentucky fans have well-established priorities. “Usually, football season is just a stepping stone,” Porter said. “This year, it’s like giving a child vegetables to eat when he is begging for dessert.”
Dessert arrived in Lexington when the Harrison twins announced that they would attend Kentucky. "We liked coach Calipari's fire to win and we want to win a national championship," Andrew said. “Coach Calipari did not guarantee anything and we liked that," added Aaron.
"I am very happy that Andrew and Aaron made their own decision,” said Aaron Harrison Sr., their father, an AAU coach and Baltimore native. "They weighed all the facts and made their decision and it never changed."
Reaction in Lexington was swift. T-shirts with slogans like “#Twinning” and “#Twinsanity” went on sale in local stores within hours. Buzz around campus became electrifying. “The idea of having twins of their caliber on the team is just mind-boggling” Porter said. “There’s a fascination.”
Reactions in Maryland were also immediate, also swift. Like the Kernel staff, Diamondback reporters found themselves rushing away from their computer terminals. But it wasn’t to cover the jubilation in the quadrangles. “People just wanted to get away from the screen,” Letourneau said. “They didn’t want to watch anymore.” Around the campus, doors slammed, tempers flared and a few over-engaged fans made the unfortunate decision to vent their rage on Twitter.
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If the concept of a major television network descending on a high school campus to give a pair of 17-year old boys the LeBron James “The Decision” treatment, or the thought of huge collegiate athletic programs (and the students and fans devoted to them) publically staking their reputations on a pair of teenagers, or even the idea of a sportswriter devoting 2,500 words to a couple of kids who should be thinking about prom dates and trigonometry instead of their recruiting rankings or media availability, if any of these things trouble you, well, we are only standing on the tip of the iceberg, folks. We haven’t even gotten to the sneaker companies yet.
Legend has it that a major Texas university made a scholarship offer to Andrew and Aaron Harrison when they were in the seventh grade. Under the circumstances, we should applaud Calipari, Maryland, ESPN and the sportswear conglomerates for waiting for the brothers to finish puberty.
Travis High School coach Craig Brownson saw the Harrison brothers play when they were in junior high, but he sees a lot of big, athletic kids dominate at a level where some of the pre-teens are only on the court for the exercise. Andrew and Aaron arrived in Brownson’s locker room in their sophomore year, after attending a prep academy as freshmen. “Your jaw just dropped at some of the things they could do physically, and some of the things they understood, even at an early age,” Brownson said. “They understand spacing, where guys are supposed to be on the court, all the little things that some players never pick up.”
The Harrison twins led Brownson’s Travis High School teams to the state tournament in a region with a high level of high school competition. They also played on an AAU team coached by their father and sponsored by Under Armour. That’s where the sneaker companies come in.
Under Armour is based in Baltimore. Company founder Kevin Plank is a Maryland alumnus and a major financial supporter of the university, both athletically and academically. Harrison Sr. was highly selective about who could contact his sons, but Under Armour marketing director Chris Hightower was on the short list of people with direct access to the twins.
Cue the conspiracy theories.
It is crucial to note here that no one has been accused of any wrongdoing. Every AAU league in the country has a corporate sponsor, typically one of the major sneaker-apparel giants. The Harrisons have ties to Maryland that have nothing to do with sneakers: They still have family in Baltimore, and Harrison Sr. has a working relationship with Maryland assistant coach Bino Ranson. Casting major college recruiters as heroic paladins and sneaker manufactures as greedy trolls, battling for the souls of tall teenage boys, is naïve and indicative a lack of knowledge about the last 120 years or so of college athletic history.
But the Under Armour angle added a whiff of scandal to the Harrison twins saga, and it set nerves on edge in Kentucky, where Calipari had already allegedly lost top recruit Shabazz Muhammad to UCLA (read: Adidas) in April. “Fans were skeptical when the Under Armour story broke,” Porter said. “We knew you could lose a recruit to a sneaker company.”
The Muhammad story, like the Harrisons tale, is much more complicated than “high school kid hypnotized by Sneaker Svengalis.” UCLA isn’t exactly Directional State Nowhere, and one of the only reasons anyone notices when Adidas or Under Armour appear to influence a recruit is that Nike has had that market cornered for so long that people stopped commenting on it. “Bottom line, this is the world we live in,” wrote Gary Parrish of CBS Sports on the Muhammad situation. “I don't like it. I'd love to change it. But I don't know how and the NCAA doesn't, either.”
Harrison Sr., whose AAU experience made him an old hand at dealing with both recruiters and marketers, understood the risks of the business, even as he allowed an apparel executive whom he called a “saving grace” and one of the “straight, upright, humane” people in the business access to his sons. "Me being in the used-car business, and I will let you know this, the basketball business, is 25 times worse than the used-car business," he said last week. "It is not even close. It blows my mind what people try to do.”
The Harrison brothers themselves just tried to make the best possible decision for their own futures, while the college sports world watched and speculated on the motives of the people close to them. Coach Brownson stayed out of the decision-making process while doing his best to be available for his players. “They were ready for it all to be over,” he said. “They want to enjoy their senior year and just be kids.”
“This is a business,” Brownson added, “but it should not be such a business in that respect. There’s a lot of fanaticism out there.”
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There was little talk of any corporate godfather swooping in to deliver the Harrison twins on the Maryland campus. Students at College Park speculated that a musical guest at Maryland Madness might coax the Harrison brothers to delay their decision and visit the school. The Harrisons are fans of Wale, and Letourneau pursued rumors that the school might book the Washington, D.C. rapper for Friday’s event. “People were looking for any advantage we could get,” Letourneau said.
ESPN cameras will be at Maryland Madness on Friday, but the vibe will not be the same without the Harrisons. “The last few years, Maryland Madness has not been the most exciting event. I have a feeling it will be the case again this year,” Letourneau said.
Excitement has never been a problem in Lexington. Free tickets to Big Blue Madness became available at 7 a.m. on Sept. 22 (weeks before the Harrisons made their decision) and were gone within hours. The Kernel reported that the tickets “sell” for between $5 and $500 on eBay and Craigslist. Selling tickets to a free event is illegal, but enterprising fans dodge the law by selling a paper clip for $280 (which happens to be attached to Big Blue Madness tickets) or an envelope for $125 (guess what’s inside).
Intense fan allegiance like this can quickly boil over into unhealthy obsession, especially for fans of the school that was left at the altar. In the hours after making their decision, the Harrison brothers’ Twitter accounts were flooded with messages, not all of them congratulatory. A small handful of Maryland fans turned from bitter to hateful to downright violent in a series of regrettable tweets. “You and your brother better not show your faces in Maryland or I swear we will tear your knees out ourselves, sellouts!” wrote one particularly disappointed fan.
Opinions and views expressed by the angriest lunatic on the Internet never reflect the views of the student body as a whole. “I am disappointed in some Maryland fans,” Letourneau said. “Some of the things they said went a little too far.” Indeed, many Maryland students and fans rushed onto Twitter to congratulate the twins and shout down the knuckleheads. But no matter what choice the Harrisons made, this is the world they would enter: a place where random strangers threaten them on the Internet, fans spend hundreds of dollars and bend the law to get a glimpse of them, and major corporations jostle for the sliver of market share they will one day represent.
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The Harrison brothers will play in a high school tournament in Western Kentucky in late November. Travis High School is likely to go deep into the Texas playoffs again this year. You will no doubt get some opportunities to watch them, because if ESPNU is willing to broadcast their selection announcement, the network is sure to find a way to point some cameras at a few of their games.
In the meantime, Kentucky and Maryland will go about the business of trying to win basketball games in the 2012-13 season. The teams face each other on Nov. 9 (Kentucky’s season opener), then Kentucky battles Duke while Maryland faces some smaller programs. “We could be 0-2,” Calipari said at Thursday’s press conference, tamping down expectations for his young team a bit. Expectations are already low for Maryland, projected to finish in the middle of the ACC pack and ride the NCAA tournament bubble.
The Harrison twins will attend Big Blue Madness (“This weekend is gonna be crazy can’t wait #BBM” tweeted Andrew on Thursday morning), then go about the business of graduating from high school.
Teenage athletes are slightly more prepared for this level of media scrutiny than we give them credit for. Peril-fraught Facebook and Twitter interactions are part of the modern teenager’s everyday life, a fact their teachers are in-serviced about two or three times per year. Travis High School playoff games were broadcast on regional television (“It’s our own little March Madness,” Brownson said) and their conference is covered by two Fort Bend newspapers, with the Houston Chronicle peaking in for the big games. I have been on high school campuses when big-time television cameras arrived (as a teacher, not a reporter), and the commotion is shockingly minor: Cheerleaders apply a little more glitter, administrators straighten their ties, but a day later everyone carries on, tomorrow’s algebra test or Saturday’s party being more important to the American teenager than a glimpse of Dick Vitale.
Brownson said the attention has neither crushed the Harrison brothers nor gone to their heads. “Everybody who knows them really likes them,” he said. “They don’t walk around like they are better than anybody else.”
In two years, the Harrison brothers will try to lead Kentucky to the Final Four, and then at some point they will enter the NBA. Only the angriest cranks at Maryland will remember how their school was “snubbed.” Sports business watchdogs will have closed the Harrison file and will be playing connect-the-dots between another set of prospects, programs and apparel companies. The folks who spent $280 to see Calipari make a speech and Noel perform a layup drill will have forgotten where the money went.
The people closest to these talented teenage boys are the ones responsible for remembering what matters most. “I would love for them to play in the NBA and all that good stuff, but I really want them to be happy,” coach Brownson said. “They are fine young men and they deserve it.”