INDIANAPOLIS -- Everything is bigger in Texas, so when a set of twin boys in ninth grade began to outgrow their cleats, you can imagine how thrilled the football coaches were at Travis High School, located just outside Houston. Aaron and Andrew Harrison were being prepped and packaged for the factory that spits out talent annually in a state where Friday nights in autumn are sacred. In this case, Mother Nature and Mother Harrison had other plans.
The Harrison boys were growing, all right, their heights soaring and slowly making them ideal for basketball. And anyway, Marian Harrison was already thinking then what some parents are thinking now about their sons being seduced by a sport accused of turning little boys into old men who become forgetful and can't walk or write in a straight line.
"I really didn't want them to stick with football because all I could think about was them getting hurt," she said. "Maybe that's just me being a mother. But you heard all the stories. Football's more of a dangerous, contact sport. It was their choice. They happened to choose basketball, and nobody was happier when they left football than I was."
Maybe it's a stretch to say the fear of concussions is why the Kentucky Wildcats are in the Final Four. After all, both Harrison boys loved football. But there was a problem back then: Pne of the coaches wouldn't let Andrew play tailback, and that rubbed both boys the wrong way.
"They said he got too tall for the position," said Aaron. "Andrew got upset and he didn't want to play anymore. And if he was going to stop playing, then I was going to stop playing, because we did everything together. Still do."
With Andrew at point guard and Aaron at shooting guard, the Harrisons became high school sensations in the Houston area, and not surprisingly, Kentucky and John Calipari came calling. Calipari was bruised by a poor follow-up season to the 2012 national champion team and just ran off starting point guard Ryan Harrow, who transferred to Georgia State. The door was open for a dynamic backcourt, and it's hard to turn down the chance to play for a national powerhouse. This way, the Harrisons would know what it felt like to be teenagers fawned upon by an entire state (at least outside of Louisville), the way they do in Texas for football players.
The switch was made in the nick of time, with the urging and blessing of their mom. And look what where it got them: Aaron made the biggest shot of the Kentucky basketball season last Sunday, a three-pointer that punched Kentucky's ticket to the big show.
Now the twins are returning to their home state to play a college game -- maybe even two -- in Cowboys Stadium, of all places, a shrine dedicated to the gridiron. And neither will be wearing helmets.
It hasn't been an entirely smooth ride to this point, though. The recruiting haul last summer was another impressive one by Calipari, with folks in Lexington wearing 40-0 t-shirts last fall in anticipation of a historic, undefeated season. What they didn't count on was a team full of five-star recruits, all of them used to being go-to players, struggling to embrace the concept of sharing and sacrifice. When the stunning number of losses began to pile up, 10 total, including a sweep by Arkansas and a March 1 loss to a 14-20 South Carolina team, plenty of skepticism focused on the Harrisons.
Andrew in particular was a turnover-prone, 37-percent shooter who struggled in the big games against Florida, which beat Kentucky three times.
"The journey has to be a learning experience, and sometimes a tough one, in order to reach the final destination," said their father, Aaron Sr. "We knew they'd get here in time."
While their playmaking skills remain a work in progress and their shooting can be streaky, the Harrisons bring one clear advantage over almost any backcourt in the country: their size. Aaron, the oldest by a minute, is 6-foot-6 and Andrew is a centimeter taller when you factor in his slightly bushier hair, the only cosmetic difference among the identical twins. It's their size that allows them to play bigger.
And when times do get tough, the brothers have each other to lean on.
"We've been through so much together," said Aaron, "all the ups and downs, hearing stuff about us not being a great team. We just kept fighting. We had games we lost that we should've won. We had some doubtful moments."
They had supportive parents, even if the intense and spoiled Kentucky fan base wasn't always kind, and ultimately, the NCAA tourney became a therapeutic two-week redemption trip for the Harrisons and their teammates.
"They wanted to come to UK and they knew it was going to be hard work," said Marian Harrison. "They knew it was going to be good days and bad days and they'd have to continue to work hard, and that's exactly what they've done. They're so deserving. It's been hard on them but also good for them."
Kentucky's undefeated dream season was squashed long ago, but so was Wichita State's when the Harrisons and Wildcats handed the Shockers their only loss in the round of 32. Then came an emotional win over in-state rival Louisville in the Sweet 16, when Aaron hit a big three-pointer late to help clinch it, followed by the nail-biter against Michigan to earn a Final Four trip.
Aaron Harrison has discovered his stroke at the right time; he is 13-for-24 on three-pointers in the tourney. Andrew has held his own against tough competition at point guard, mainly Louisville's Russ Smith, hero of last year's championship team. Two more victories and the Harrisons will soon feel someone tugging at their jerseys: NBA scouts.
Will that be hard to resist, the way it wasn't four years ago when basketball pulled them from football? That's a question they'd rather deal with later. In the meantime, they have a chance to confirm what the preseason experts thought about the young Wildcats, who were given a No. 1 ranking before they actually earned it.
"It'll be exciting," said Andrew. "We get to play in the Final Four and not many people can say that."
It'll be extra special in another sense: Andrew and Aaron will get to play at least one important game in Cowboys Stadium, the place where thousands of Texas high school kids fantasize about.
"And we're going there for basketball," said Andrew. "That's strange."
Therefore, we assume there are no regrets about leaving football behind? Not really. Well, maybe a little.
"I always wondered how good I would've turned out had I stuck with it," said Andrew. "But my mother was a little afraid. And the coach wouldn't let me play where I wanted to play. You know how football coaches are. When you play football in Texas it has to be the most important thing. And it wasn't to us."