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Born for this: Jalen Harris' path to stardom started early but wasn't easy

Jalen Harris
Jalen Harris was a superhero early in life and has turned into a superhero for the Nevada basketball team this season. (Provided by the Harris family)

Jalen Harris’ driving force this season has been to get Nevada to the NCAA Tournament, an event he has technically been to once before. We’re not talking about last season when the Wolf Pack made the Big Dance while Harris was redshirting. He didn’t get to travel to the game, per NCAA rules. And we’re not talking about his two seasons at Louisiana Tech where his college career began before transferring to Nevada.

No, we’re talking about the 1998 women’s NCAA Tournament. Harris didn’t technically play in that game, but he was on the court. Sort of. His mother, Karlin, a sophomore at SMU at the time, was almost 5 months pregnant with Jalen when her Mustangs played Virginia in a first-round game. Jalen was born a few months later, in August, and his mom was back on the court in time for the start of her junior season en route to a Hall of Fame career that ultimately led to her No. 50 being retired.

“For her to do what she’s done and to be in the Hall of Fame while also carrying an extra person inside of you is pretty intense,” said Harris, the Wolf Pack’s rising star. “I could never imagine that, being a man. Kudos, and she knows how much I appreciate her and I feel about her.”

Both of Harris' parents were college players at SMU, his mother being the more prolific of the two, although Erion Harris, Jalen’s dad, was pretty good, too. (He threw down a windmill dunk on his 40th birthday.) With a bloodline that rich in basketball, it’s no surprise Harris has become one of the nation’s top college players, a lightning-quick guard who has gone on a binge of 30-point games while being one of the country’s most well-rounded and versatile stars.

But Harris’ path to this point, which has been the peak of his basketball career to date, hasn’t been easy, from a demanding (yet loving) dad to a high school career in which he was always overlooked to power-conference teams repeatedly passing over him and coaches never fulfilling the promises they made.

The 21-year-old Texas native has overcome all and is in the middle of one of the greatest individual seasons in Wolf Pack basketball history. He’s the only player in the country averaging at least 18 points, six rebounds, four assists and one steal per game and is riding a three-game streak of scoring 30 or more points, becoming the first player in Nevada’s Division I history – since 1969 – to accomplish that.

Harris’ parents always knew this was his potential, but he was a late bloomer in basketball, his size and muscle coming late – he stands 6-foot-5 now – and his lack of athleticism being held against him early in his career, a ridiculous notion given how freakish his physical skills are today. While Harris’ path to college stardom wasn’t easy – it included a broken back in high school – it has led him to this moment in time.

“Jalen’s always been that unknown,” Erion said.

Born into the game

When Karlin Kennedy – her maiden name – discovered she was pregnant, the feeling was disbelief.

“What am I going to do?” she thought.

After earning second-team All-WAC honors as a freshman at SMU, Karlin was 2 months into her sophomore campaign when she remembers getting sick on road trips. Her teammates assumed that’s all it was until doctors confirmed she was pregnant but allowed her to finish the season if there were no complications.

“I remember thinking, ‘You’re only 19. Everything is going to work out. This was just a little hiccup,'" she said.

Karlin finished that season averaging 15.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and was named first-team All-WAC, the first of three straight times being a first-teamer (she also was SMU’s first conference player of the year in 2000). Erion marvels at how well his wife played while pregnant.

“It was one of the most impressive things I’ve witnessed,” he said. “We found out she was pregnant in December when the season had already begun. We talked to the doctors and she was in good shape, so she wasn’t showing and there were no issues with her playing, and she kept on. He was born in August and she took a few weeks to heal and was ready before the first game started her junior season.”

While having a son at that age wasn’t planned, the timing was ideal as Jalen’s birth was squeezed right between the seasons. If Karlin had gotten pregnant a month earlier, she would have missed the end of her sophomore year. A month later and she wouldn’t have been able to start her junior campaign on time.

Erion jokes he wasn’t a favorite of SMU coach Rhonda Rompola after his wife got pregnant, but raising Jalen in his early days was a team effort. As Erion worked around the clock to provide for the family, his wife’s Mustang teammates, and Erion’s parents, pitched in watching young Jalen.

“When I first had him, the team used to pass him around,” Karlin said. “I had him in August right when the preseason was starting. He couldn’t go to daycare until he was 6 weeks old. I would literally go to class and drop him off with one of my teammates and another one of my teammates would pass him to another teammate and then I would come get him. During individual workouts, the trainers would watch him because Erion was working. Everybody took a turn. It was like he was there kid, too.”

Added Erion: “He had about 15 godmothers and aunts. That was one of the cool things.”

Karlin never publicized Jalen's birth, so many of the teams she played against in college – and usually dominated – didn’t know she has a son. After four years at SMU, Karlin graduated as the school’s all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage while reaching three NCAA tournaments, including first-round upsets as a double-digit seed in her junior and senior seasons. Erion Harris, playing for SMU from 1993-97, also was a four-year letterwinner, averaging career bests in points (8.2) and rebounds (4.3) as a sophomore.

Jalen said there’s no doubt who the family's best basketball player is. That'd be mom, who grew up on a pig farm in a small town shooting hoops. When Karlin was inducted into SMU's Hall of Fame in 2012, Jalen was in attendance.

“My dad will admit it,” Jalen said of his mom being the better player.

“But not willing," he added with a smile.

Trained by dad

Jalen Harris grew up in Duncanville, Texas, which is 13 miles southwest of Dallas. While basketball is big in the Lone Star State, football is king, so Jalen gave the gridiron a try as well as baseball and basketball.

“Football lasted until junior high when he ran into a kid who ended up signing a scholarship with Oregon,” Erion said. “He ran into Jalen and practically bent him in half near the sideline. I knew at that moment his football career was over, which was great for me because he could focus on basketball.”

Erion envisioned training his son into a high-level basketball player. The genetics must be good, he reasoned, so the training started early. They’d hit the gym before school and after it, the court being their place for bonding and tutelage. Erion pushed hard, too hard in retrospect, but it’s difficult to have second guesses given where his son is now. The Harris family would go on to have four kids, including three boys, but only Jalen got the full basketball immersion treatment from his father.

“When he first started, he was like most kids,” Erion said. “He didn’t like it, and I probably wasn’t the best for him in terms of patience. I always wanted to go to the gym. He gets mad at me now because I’m so easy on my youngest son (Miles) compared to what I was with Jalen. I treat Miles more like water and with Jalen it was puddy. I changed my style after Jalen. There were some battles along the way and some frustrations on both sides. There was a point in time where I was too hard on him and he didn’t take it well, but to his credit he never quit and never let it impact our relationship. I learned a lot from training him.”

Added Karlin: “Erion has really had the biggest hand in all of this. He deserves a lot of credit.”

Jalen didn’t join a travel youth team until sixth grade, at which point he was a backup on the third team. Small and skinny and lacking elite athleticism, he was easy to overlook despite the bloodlines. So Erion started his own team, the Dallas Heroes, when Jalen reached middle school. The team wasn’t stacked with top prospects, but that was beneficial for Harris because is widened his skill set.

“You see it now where kids get on these really good teams and they don’t get to develop,” Erion said. “If you’re a good shooter on a really good team, you sit in the corner and shoot. If you’re a good ball-handler, you pass. If you’re a good rebounder, that’s what you do. He was always on a team where he had to do all of that stuff, which helped developed his all-around game. He had to handle the ball or we’d lose by 40. He had to score or we’d lose by 40. He had to go rebound or it was going to be bad.”

Jalen eventually blossomed physically, hitting 6 feet when he was a freshman before reaching 6-3 by his sophomore season. That led to offers from higher-profile AAU teams, but Jalen was reluctant to join those.

“Jalen being Jalen, he said, ‘If you didn’t want me then, you don’t get me now,’” Erion said.

Harris did join an elite AAU team prior to his senior season but got hurt in the team’s first event in Las Vegas and was overshadowed by the multiple top prospects on the team, including Duke-bound Marques Bolden and Texas-bound Andrew Jones. When the high school season rolled around, Harris was diagnosed with a broken vertebrae from wear and tear, which cost him half the season.

Power-conference teams like Indiana, Kansas State and Oklahoma State were interested, but they saw Harris as a wing player rather than a point guard, his desired position. There was one other big question teams had about Harris.

“Ironically, the knock on him coming out of high school is whether he was just a shooter and wasn’t athletic enough to play at that high level – ‘He’s a shooter, but could he do anything else?’” Erion said.

Ready for Ruston

Harris finished his senior season of high school second in the Dallas metro area in scoring and was listed as a three-star recruit. He turned down Indiana and Kansas State to sign with Louisiana Tech, which was four hours east of Duncanville in Ruston. The few power-conference teams who were interested wanted Harris to play off the ball, but Louisiana Tech was graduating its starting point guard and would let Harris compete for that spot.

Harris had a strong freshman year, averaging double-figures off the bench before moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore when he averaged 15.3 points per game before deciding to transfer during the semester break. Harris believed he’d play point guard for the Bulldogs, but that never materialized.

“They recruited another point guard and that was a big reason he went there,” Erion said. “He ended up leaving because if he was going to play off the ball, then he might as well do it at a bigger school.”

As a 6-5 point guard with explosive athleticism and proven Division I production, you’d figure a number of power-conference schools would vie for Harris. But his decision to transfer mid-semester meant fewer teams had open scholarships. Harris drew interest from Oklahoma State and Butler and took official visits to Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin before taking a trip to Reno for Nevada’s game against Boise State, which drew the 11th-largest crowd in Lawlor Events Center history at the time (11,164 fans).

During his visit, the game atmosphere and community support stuck out. Harris always wanted to play in a place that loved basketball. At Nevada, he saw that. He was struck by how welcoming people were, too.

“It’s funny,” said Harris, who committed three days after his official visit. “I was on my visit and I went to the concession line and random people were talking to me. I didn’t know them, but they were saying, ‘How are you liking it?’ I was telling them I was on a visit. They said, ‘We would love to have you here.’ They had never even seen me play, but to be here and feel how I was welcomed was a big thing for me.”

Harris also felt a kinship with Eric Musselman, the Wolf Pack's coach who had thrived on turning D-I transfers into national stars. Musselman was the ultimate players coach. He’d pick the brains of his players and allow them to make decisions for the program. Harris was looking forward to playing for Musselman.

But after his redshirt season at Nevada, last year’s historic 29-5 campaign, Musselman left for Arkansas. Harris discovered the news via Twitter, the initial feeling being one of shock.

“We were all pretty surprised, pretty baffled just because of the expectations we had and that was set among the players and among the program,” said Harris, who never got to play a game for Musselman. “When that happened, it was a shock, but we knew regardless we would have to figure something out.”

Staying with the Pack

With uncertainty abound, Harris put his name in the transfer portal the day before the Wolf Pack hired Steve Alford. When Erion played at SMU, the Mustangs underwent a coaching change and in the team’s first meeting after the move he recalls the new coach telling the team: “I don’t want any of you guys.”

That left the Harris family leery about what was to come for their son. But Alford recognized early on that one of his top priorities was retaining Harris, who was back home in Texas. Jazz Johnson and Nisré Zouzoua both bragged up Harris’ skill and work ethic and told their new coach how important it was to keep him.

“And they were obviously exactly right,” Alford said with a laugh.

Alford sold Harris on what he wanted to build at Nevada and how he would be used. Equally important was the fact Harris liked Reno and the Wolf Pack fan base. While Harris drew interest from Gonzaga and SMU, among others, when in the portal he opted to remain at Nevada, in part because another transfer likely meant he’d have had to sit out another season, which was non-negotiable considering Harris hadn’t played for so long.

“The concern over his eligibility was too great," Erion said. "If he had to sit out another year, he would have left school and gone overseas or something.”

Harris’ journey to that point had been so jagged with so many coaches not fulfilling their promises, his parents were cautiously optimistic about the Alford hiring. The pairing has resulted in his best play ever.

“He’s the first coach who did what he said he was going to do,” Erion said. “That’s been a big thing. Even with Musselman, he spent three weeks convincing me he was never going to leave. Alford is the first coach who’s done what he said he was going to do. I think they had to get to know each other a little bit and it seems they have a trust. He trusts Jalen to do what he needs him to do and Jalen trusts him. It’s great seeing him comfortable. I’ve always talked to him about overthinking things.

“Now he’s playing off instinct. That’s been the most satisfying thing because of everything he’s been through and the struggles he’s had. To get through that and play at the level he’s playing at now and still have another level ahead, that’s been gratifying because when somebody puts in that much work and has that much disappointment, you want to see your kid do well and win. It’s been good to see that.”

Harris' impact on the Wolf Pack has been immense and helped Nevada stay on a 20-win pace despite the team losing its entire starting five and coaching staff in the offseason. Wolf Pack fans have become accustomed to watching great players over the years, names like Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Marcus Marshall, Kendall Stephens, Cameron Oliver and Jazz Johnson repping Nevada’s jersey. Fifth-year senior Lindsey Drew has played with all of those stars. He doesn’t put anybody above Harris.

“He stacks up against any of those guys,” Drew said.

Added Zouzoua: “He’s a very special talent, not just offensively but defensively, too.”

Alford would certainly prefer not to envision what this season would have looked like this season without Harris. He admits the Wolf Pack has put a lot on his shoulders, but Harris has been up to the task. Alford has raved about Harris’ unselfishness, leadership and work ethic and said his versatility is rare for a college player.

“He’s solidified himself as one of the premier players in this league and out West,” Alford said.

His best ball yet

When Karlin gave birth to Jalen, she developed a fear of flying.

“When you’re young,” she said. “you don’t really think about what could happen. But when you have a kid, you start thinking about, ‘What happens if I die?’ and it’s the fear of, ‘I don’t want to have 3 minutes to know I’m about to die.’ I’m not afraid of dying but the thought of, ‘What do you do with 3 minutes?’”

Karlin hasn’t flown since her final college game, a Round of 32 loss in the 2000 NCAA Tournament. But she tries to get to as many games as she can. Karlin has made four trips to Reno this season, which requires a 50-hour round-trip drive with two kids in the back of the car. She drove to Reno for Harris’ first game in silver and blue, the season opener against Utah in which Harris hurt his foot in the opening minutes.

“It was hard at first,” Harris said of his foot sprain. “When it happened, I was feeling down. I was upset. At the end of the day, I’m a faithful person and thought, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’”

That resiliency is what Karlin loves the most about her son’s journey. Harris sat out Nevada’s second game with the foot injury and got off to a slow start, struggling in a marquee game against USC (he went 3-of-19 with nine points) before a seven-turnover game at Davidson in Nevada’s next contest.

“He’ll call me and said, ‘I really think the Lord wants me to learn this or that,’” Karlin said. “Or, ‘I’m praying about this.’ For me, that’s ultimately why we live. To see his growth and relying on God to provide and stick with it and not get angry and don’t give up if you miss a shot or get a bad break. Just keep shooting, keep shooting, keep shooting. Those are lessons in life and basketball.”

Harris has rebounded from his injury-marred start to the year. He’s scored at least 15 points in 18 of Nevada’s last 19 games. He ranks first or second on the team in scoring (20.7 ppg), rebounds (5.3) assists (4.1), steals (1.2), made field goals (166), made free throws (93) and made threes (52). His Player Efficiency Rating (26.7), a catch-all number measuring all-around value, is the second highest for a Nevada player during since the stat was created. Beyond the stats, Harris has earned the adoration of his coaches and teammates for who he is as a person.

“Jalen’s been an exceptional teammate on and off the court,” Zouzoua said

Harris’ red-hot last month of play – in the last eight games, he’s averaging 27 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while shooting 49.7 percent from three, including 45 percent from three – has brought up murmurs of the NBA. Erion said his son, a junior with another year of eligibility, will make that jump only if it’s “a sure thing.” There also hasn’t been any discussion of using a grad transfer for his senior year given how well he's jived with Alford.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t have confidence or faith in him,” Karlin said. “I’m not the best judge of talent. But I remember asking Erion last year, ‘Do you legit think he could play at the next level? For real? You don’t think it’s just us being wrong?’ Your perception of your children can be off. Erion was always, like, ‘Yeah, he can. He can make it.’ You look at his path and it just had to be a specific set of circumstances to lead him to where he is today at Nevada with a coach who trusts him.”

The NBA might be in Harris' future, but he's focused on the present, on getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since he was in his mother's belly for that 1997 game. With Harris on Nevada's side, the Wolf Pack is confident it can make a run in next month's Mountain West Tournament. For Harris, it has been a life in basketball, and he's never had more fun that he's having right now.

“It’s a lifestyle for sure,” Harris said of his bond with the game. “It’d be weird to take basketball out. I’m not saying I wouldn’t know what I’d do, but it’s a big part of my everyday life. I love every moment of it. It can be frustrating, it can be painful, it can be happy and it can be exciting. It’s something I’ve been around my whole life.”

And with all due to respect to mom and dad, he might be the best player in the family to pick up a basketball. After all, he was born for this.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.


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