— Story by Michael Castellano
An image all too familiar – and possibly frustrating – to followers of St. John’s basketball appeared to be unfolding once again last Sunday in Brooklyn.
D’Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm’s all-everything 6-4 guard, went after a loose ball with Tulane’s 6-11 center Ryan Smith. They both came down with the ball, each fighting to claim it as their own. A jump ball was called as Harrison wrested the ball away from Smith, but the whistle did nothing to stop his emotions from getting the better of him. Harrison’s forceful shove of the Tulane big man drew a technical foul from referee Clarence Armstrong, who quickly ran over to separate the two players almost as if he was well aware of Harrison’s documented volatility in similar situations and not just trying to perform his duties as an official.
In the end, it just turned out to be an isolated incident for the Missouri City, Texas product, who came back the very next possession and drained a three from the top of the key to put the Johnnies up 26 halfway through the second half. Harrison finished his day at Barclays Center with 21 points and St. John’s’ 82-57 romp of Tulane improved its record to 11-1, its best start to a season since 1985-86, back when Lou Carnesecca was manning the sidelines for the then Redmen.
Its lone loss to date this season came in a 73-66 defeat to then No. 10 Gonzaga in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game on Nov. 28, a game that still eats at Harrison, who was visibly red-eyed and emotional while sitting at the podium inside of Madison Square Garden during the postgame press conference.
“We let that Gonzaga game slip away,” Harrison said. “We don’t want to lose another game; that’s our mindset.”
The senior guard has improved upon his stellar junior season in which he averaged 17.5 points en route to a first team All-Big East selection. Along with the individual accolades, he helped to guide St. John’s to its first 20-win season since Steve Lavin’s first year at the helm in 2010-11. Harrison, a preseason All-Big East First Team selection going into this season, has increased his average to 19 points a contest as St. John’s is in the midst of possibly its best stretch of basketball in the Lavin era.
But things weren’t always this rosy for the reigning Haggerty Award winner as New York City’s collegiate basketball player of the year.
Harrison’s behavior issues initially came to light when he was suspended for the remaining three regular-season games and the postseason in the 2012-13 campaign, a season in which St. John’s just fell short of earning an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. He was also suspended by Lavin for an exhibition game earlier that season for an undisclosed issue.
“I was a hard head in the beginning [of his career],” Harrison said. “I was in a dark place.”
It wasn’t until later in the summer of 2013 that Red Storm fans and the media realized the suspensions were due to ongoing anger issues Harrison was dealing with. During the offseason, he spent almost two months in Houston in the summer at the John Lucas Center and Wellness Program. Luxuries like a cell phone were not present during his stint, and only basketball and “getting better” were the main tasks at hand. While there, he also befriended Mike Rice, the erstwhile Rutgers head coach who was also at the center at that time following his ignominious departure from coaching in April of 2013 due to the physical and verbal abuse directed at many Scarlet Knight players during practices.
Harrison was eventually welcomed back by Coach Lavin and his teammates, who were once unwillingly privy to Harrison’s issues. During practices and games, an errant pass or a missed shot would have caused a swing in the short-tempered star’s mood. But instances like those are few and far between nowadays, he iterates.
“I get through days easier now,” Harrison said, via the New York Daily News. “I’m at peace with myself. I’m happy all the time. Few things can let me down.”
In that same Tulane game, where his behavior issues momentarily resurfaced, he showed vividly how far he has come in channeling those emotions. Repeatedly, he pulled teammates aside to offer on-court advice and show leadership, something that a few years ago would have been as foreign as an international film. One particular moment came when sophomore guard Rysheed Jordan rushed a shot with St. John’s up big late in the second half. Harrison calmly walked over to Jordan and rested his arm on Jordan’s back, encouraging the young player despite his rush-of-blood moment.
“I’m living through my teammates right now; I love being around them everyday,” Harrison said.
It’s those teammates, along with Harrison, who are off to one of the best starts in recent memory. Included in the current stretch of 11 wins in 12 games was a road victory in the Carrier Dome over former longtime Big East rival Syracuse which snapped the Orange’s 55-game non-conference home winning streak. Harrison led the way by pouring in 24 points and going 4-for-6 from three-point range.
Now with conference play afoot, Harrison will look to lead the Johnnies back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, as well as try to play in his first NCAA Tournament game in his last go-round as a collegian. Harrison’s fiery personality is still evident in his play, but its effect on his teammates is what is different now.
“Same energy, same fire that I have, but it’s controlled, and for the betterment of the team and not myself,” Harrison said.
Even more important than being the ring leader of a basketball revival on the court, Harrison understands better the merits of the old basketball cliché: It’s the name on the front of the jersey instead of the back that really matters in the end.
“Knowing that when I used to talk crazy to a ref or look crazy at a call or make a face or something, it’s not just D’Angelo Harrison, it’s St. John’s basketball,” Harrison said. “I just look at things in a whole different perspective.”
[Cover photo (Harrison) courtesy of Rich Barnes/Getty Images]