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Selflessness from Joe Harris helped UVA reach first Sweet 16 since 1995

Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Joe Harris has averaged fewer points this season than in his junior year, but his Cavaliers are making their deepest run in the NCAA tournament since 1995.

RALEIGH -- With its cozy two-seater cab, ample door dings and Washington plates, the Red Rocket turns heads as it sputters through Virginia's pristine campus. To capture the essence of Virginia's once-in-a-generation run to the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament, the best place to start is the bed of Joe Harris' red 1999 Ford Ranger pick-up truck. Last season, Harris' teammates placed a cream-colored couch there so he could carpool them around campus.

"We would squeeze in there and it was definitely dangerous," Virginia senior Thomas Rogers said. "But Joe took care of us. He got us where we needed to go."

With the 6-foot-6 Harris behind the wheel, UVA has driven through a season of historical mile markers. The Cavaliers won the ACC outright for the first time since 1981, won the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976 and earned a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1983. In order to do that, Harris has sacrificed statistics in order to let his teammates shoehorn into Red Rocket for their historic ride.

Harris averages three fewer shots per game compared to last season, and his scoring average fell from 16.3 points per game to 11.7. And Harris couldn't be any happier. He sets off-ball screens in the brutish ballet of Virginia's motion offense, and his Popeye biceps provide the muscle behind Tony Bennett's pack-line defense.

Harris, the son of a Washington state Hall of Fame high school basketball coach, came 3,000 miles from a town of less than 4,000 in central Washington to play for Bennett, and the trip is winding down with Virginia's first Sweet 16 since 1995, a game against No. 4 Michigan State in Madison Square Garden on Friday.

"The feel for the game, hard work, being a great teammate -- unselfishness," Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. "It's about winning more than anything else."

*****

Growing up with three sisters at home and 12 big brothers at his dad's office, Joe Harris Jr. learned Teammate 101 well before college. From his help-side defense to the Red Rocket's communal keys, Harris has showcased those ideals from a lifetime of training.

Chelan, Wash., is known for tourism, apples and grapes for local wine vineyards. Thanks to Joe Harris Sr., it's also known for a defensive mindset that's a kindred spirit to the Bennett family. Joe Harris Sr. has won 499 games in 29 seasons as a high school coach. He's spent the past 23 of those years as head coach at Chelan High School, where he preaches on-ball pressure and a "first to 40 points wins" pace. Even the Chelan mascot, the Mountain Goat, gives off a gnarly defensive vibe.

"There's some life lessons to be learned in that," he said of team defense. "If you give up yourself to do what you have to do defensively, it eventually transcends into where you're going as a young adult. You have to think of the greater goal, you just can't think of yourself and be in the moment."

Around age 4, Joe Harris began tagging along to his dad's practices, launching so many jumpers that players took to calling him "Shooter." During a summer when Joe was 8, the gym closed for six eternal weeks so the floor could be re-finished. When it finally opened, he sprinted to midcourt, belly-dived and exclaimed, "Baby, I'm back!" By middle school, he'd show up and sweep the floor without being asked while his dad taped ankles in the locker room pre-practice. Anyone in Chelan looking for Joe didn't need to search far.

"You're at the gym more than you're at your home," Harris said of being a coach's son. "I was always there, I'd be keeping score for a fourth grade AAU tournament. It was like I never left."

One day around that time, one of Harris' sisters exclaimed to her dad, "Joey's in big trouble." He'd taken a blue Sharpie marker to the walls of his bedroom to write down goals and inspirational quotes. The goals included "great attitude" and "become a pro," and the quotes ranged from Joe Paterno to Hank Aaron to Larry Bird. "When I was young I never wanted to leave the court until I got things exactly correct," the Bird quote read.

Before every game, Joe Sr. lays out inspirational quotes, from Lombardi to Churchill, on the towels of all the Chelan players. Not only did Joe Sr. not get mad at the Joe's wall scrawling, he pulled out his cell phone at a Starbucks near the Virginia hotel on Sunday to show them off. "We're never getting rid of those," he said.

Joe started from the first game of his freshman year and perhaps his defining high school snapshot came from the day he broke the Class 1A state scoring record his senior year. (He finished with 2,399 points in his career). Officials stopped the game to recognize the milestone, and Joe wanted no part of it. Former Chelan teammate Mat Engstrom recalled Harris taking out the frustration with a vicious dunk, hanging on the rim and getting a technical.

"Joe, being the humble guy he is, was pissed off that they stopped the game," Engstrom said.

Playing for his father wasn't always easy. Amid the defensive stances and life lessons were blips of inevitable teenage tension. In his senior year, Joe threw his hands up in exasperation during practice one day, the universal signal for, "Are you kidding me?" Joe Harris Sr.'s coaching pet peeve is bad body language, and he sent the entire team to the baseline to run as punishment. Amid the suicides, Coach Harris called his son a "prima donna" and predicted he'd never see the court in the ACC.

He then asked his son, "Are you done bitching yet?"

Joe fired back, "No, I can run all day."

And run all day they did, to the horror of Harris' teammates. Engstrom recalled: "We were like, 'What are you doing? We're dying."

The lesson sunk in, as these days Harris shows all the emotion of a Buckingham Palace guard. While Harris jokes that one of the differences playing for Bennett as opposed to his dad is that Bennett doesn't curse, he cherishes the time spent playing for his father. Much like Joe Sr. relished the time with his son.

In the offseason, they'd drive Joe six hours round trip to Seattle for AAU practices multiple times a week, taking turns driving and listening to each other's music. And as high school gave way to college, Joe Harris became more like his dad. Straight faced. Plain spoken. Defensive minded. No flash.

"They're carbon copies of one another," said UVA forward Evan Nolte.

The entire Harris family is close, from the family text thread that runs on a constant stream to the 41 family members they recently hosted at Thanksgiving. And so is the Chelan community, as Joe Sr.'s friends kick him airline miles to allow him to fly east for games and administrators are understanding about him miss school. "If you drive around Chelan during a UVA game," Engstrom said, "you're not going to see anyone."

*****

Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Bennett began recruiting Harris when he was the coach of Washington State and continued when he got the job at Virginia.

Tony Bennett began recruiting Joe to Washington State during his junior year of high school. Soon after, Bennett left for Virginia and urged Harris to come check out Charlottesville at an elite camp. Harris found many of the same things he learned at Chelan -- a defense-first philosophy, family atmosphere and a coach who knew the emotional highs and lows of playing for his dad.

Harris grew up a Gonzaga fan and always figured he'd play somewhere in Washington. But the Zags never offered. While there were more convenient geographic options with offers from Portland, BYU and Washington State, Harris surprised everyone in Chelan by following Bennett to Charlottesville.

"These four years have been unbelievable, everything I could have asked for," Harris said. "I can't imagine going to another school or playing for another coach. I think playing for my dad in high school helped me out a lot."

His freshman year, Harris lived with Billy Baron, the son of then-Rhode Island Coach Jim Baron. They bonded over their unique sons-of-coaches tie, even sleeping in the film room at John Paul Jones Arena to be sure they'd wake up for 6 a.m. lifts. Harris managed to be intense while asleep, as he sleepwalked over to Baron at 4 a.m. one night screaming, "We need to get to JPJ! We need to get to JPJ!"

Harris has exhibited all the nuances you'd expect from a coach's son.

Memphis coach Josh Pastner said Harris is the best player in the country at moving without the ball. Teammates marvel at his willingness to forgo a good shot early in the shot clock for teammate to get a better one later. Baron only played with Harris a semester before transferring, but in that short time he left an impression. He cried when saying goodbye to Harris before leaving.

"I haven't seen him since I left, but we talk like we see each other every day," Baron said. "He'd still be in my wedding party. That's the type of kid he is, a friend for life."

Harris has averaged double-digit scoring in each of his four seasons, but UVA hadn't won an NCAA tournament game until this year. The most pivotal moment in Harris' career came when he hopped in Red Rocket on New Year's morning and drove over to Bennett's house the morning after losing to Tennessee by 35 points. UVA fell to 9-4, and the season was slipping away.

"It made me think there was something I was doing wrong from a leadership standpoint for this team," Harris said. "It's not how I thought the program would be in my last year."

The Cavaliers learned quickly after that day that they needed to rely more on defensive aggression and offensive precision than up-and-down athleticism. They've lost just twice since then. "We realized we don't have as much talent as we thought we might have," Harris said.

It's set up a potential happy ending for Harris, one that his father has vowed not to miss. Joe Sr. skipped one of Chelan's games earlier in the year to take in a long weekend in Charlottesville, the first time in his career he'd willingly missed a game. And Harris' mom, dad and three sisters all made it to Senior Day when the Cavs pulled away from Syracuse on March 1. "That was the best weekend of my life," Joe Harris Jr. said.

Joe Sr. relishes just being a fan, as he boasts that he's known as "Joe's Dad" in UVA circles. "Joe's Dad" is certain his son ended up in the right place.

"The greatest testament would be that if I had another son, I'd want him to play for Tony," he said. "Or any kid that I coached. Not only are he and his staff great basketball-wise, but as individuals they're outstanding people. Tony has been such a great mentor to Joe."

Despite being a campus celebrity in UVA's preppy Vineyard Vines culture, Harris has remained the same kid who got ticked off when officials stopped a high school game to recognize him. When Harris rolls around campus in the Red Rocket, his biggest fashion statement comes from his 7-11-inspired wardrobe. He collects beverage T-hirts from Monster to Gatorade to Amp. His favorite is a Red Bull shirt that proclaims, "'Why do you need brakes when all they do is slow you down?"

The Red Rocket is two games from the Final Four, and it would certainly turn heads if it pulled in AT&T Stadium next weekend.

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