The kid is here to endure the madness and mayhem of March, for the first time, as a Miami point guard. The bright lights from a baseball field that shone directly over home plate had fascinated Shane Larkin, taking swings in the cage with Tony Perez and Pete Rose and spending time with his dad and every Cincinnati player as a young kid.
For as long as he can remember -- back in early childhood -- Shane imitated Perez in his at-bats, wiggling his wrist and emulating the leg kick. When he was 5 or 6, he was sure to be a baseball player, and follow his dad's footsteps. Growing up going to spring training with his father, Larkin wasn't enamored with baseball like his father.
Deion Sanders, who was multi-athletic and played in the big leagues, gave him the nickname SugaShane. Inside the clubhouse, he walked around wearily, laughed and joked around with his dad's teammates and chewed all the bubblegum. While he looked on during games, he would dribble his basketball in the Reds' dugout.
Soon enough Larkin, the son of former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, could drain a breathtaking, game-winning shot to send his team to the Final Four in Atlanta, Ga., and in the meantime, whether the Hurricanes are bracket killers or not, he's stepping onto the court with a chance to reach the ultimate goal as a player. And yet, he pursued a different game to play, he chose basketball and now he's a star for the Miami Hurricanes.
He's the son of 12-time All-Star, a former NL MVP and a Hall of Famer. The kid mostly ran down fly balls blasted to him at spring training, and eventually he was eligible to play in a coach-pitch baseball league. At age 7, when he roamed the outfield and scaled the outfield wall, he made his decision, a smart decision. From that point on, he was dribbling a ball and shooting hoops, no longer jumping and kicking off the wall and then trying to catch a ball.
When he was in elementary school, the Reds began giving him tips on hitting and conditioning him for the big leagues, but then he returned home to Orlando, Fla., and his Little League coach turned him away from the sport by criticizing his swing. He gave up on baseball, but his father passed athleticism onto his son, so daddy is still proud and attends every game his son plays.
He couldn't believe it. Barry recalls the day his son told him he no longer wanted to play baseball. He was young, wealthy and gifted, deeply in love with baseball and was lucky enough to make a living as a pro athlete, while his son was just introduced to the game. Barry's greatest surprise was his son turning down the game, in frustration. There has been almost nothing but good fortune for him ever since he began playing basketball.
More than that, Barry remembers being incredibly upset and disappointed that he quit baseball. This was a chance for him to move out of his dad's shadows -- to make his own decisions. He had another goal in mind, and just like his father but in a different sport, Shane was driven and ambitious to grab a basketball, dribble it down the floor, make plays and finish at the rack. It's not that he chose the wrong sport. He didn't. It's just that he chose a sport opposite of what his father played, and his presence this season turned Miami into a superpower nationally.
It should certainly be noted that Larkin's emergence is the reason Miami began a 6-0 start for its first in conference play in school history. It's true, becoming attached to basketball, baseball had never been Larkin's sport of choice. It's really never been something that interested him because he found it boring and too slow. It was something Barry's son never wanted to pursue. Barry had never known this before, his mind amped up as if his son was the next baseball star of the family.
It turns out that he was the first basketball star of the family, a speedy 5-foot-11 Orlando native who has flourished in the Hurricanes ball-screen offense, scoring 14.6 points and dishing out 4.4 assists a game all season. He's a well-rounded guard, a natural-born talent, the kind of player every coach wants on his team. No one, of course, is more fully developed than Larkin, just as no one can play defense and run Miami's balanced offense better than him. The ball is secured in his hands, he's a playmaker, he hardly ever makes mistakes, and more importantly, he's unselfish with the ball.
His efforts to get his teammates involved in every game, unlike few sophomore players who are selfish sharing the ball and displaying teamwork, exceptionally put together a breakthrough season for the entire program. Larkin, 20, in many ways has emerged as a leader on the court among the four other seniors in the starting lineup. It was his father's idea to instill leadership qualities in him, for whatever he decided to work towards in life, which was becoming a stud in basketball.
For too long, we have ignored Miami in the ACC and respected Duke and North Carolina -- the Hurricanes are suddenly a national power, and deservingly they are a Final Four contender on a number of NCAA Tournament brackets, including mine. So it could be he took a detour and knew he had potential to be a premier star in basketball, with his solid ball handling, with his knack and love for the game -- zealous and keen, but respectively a skilled superstar.
It's time, now that Miami claimed its first ACC Tournament championship and earned a No. 2 seed, that we realize Larkin has grown into one of the nation's top point guards under veteran coach Jim Larranaga, who was most notably for guiding George Mason to 13 straight winning seasons. There's no doubting that Larkin has been taught and groomed by his father, as a kid, and has played with such passion and energy.
They are talking about him, reading about him, so everybody knows who Larkin is by now -- a burgeoning star in basketball, and the University of Miami Hurricanes are one of the biggest success stories of this tournament. All season, loudly, the Hurricanes have played tournament-style basketball with the grinding effort that makes them a potential Final Four threat. And Larkin has blossomed into one of top point guards in college hoops, and his team, the Hurricanes, finished the regular season with a 27-6 record and went 15-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
On Friday, the Hurricanes who were ranked fifth nationally in the poll will begin on the road to the Final Four. They will play against No. 15 seed, Pacific, in the East region of the NCAA Tournament. It's fair if you believe, as I do, that he's a more efficient basketball star than he is a baseball player, judging by his success on the hardwood where he's led Miami's charge to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference. In Chicago, DePaul wasn't the place he called home, and coach Oliver Purnell was trying to rebuild around him, but Larkin bailed out and transferred to Miami where he became the centerpiece for Larranaga.
It was Shane's decision to focus on basketball and not baseball. The coolest thing about Larkin is that he treats the game like an exam, and when he plays like a superstar that he is, he scores big and leads the Hurricanes to a positive outcome. It is especially all so familiar to Barry, who, like others, raised an athletic and classy son with the desire to succeed and the urge to reach his potential, but more importantly, to lead Miami to a national title.
The Hurricanes, for once in school history, are relevant in college hoops of Larkin's breakout season. The focus remains on school for the sophomore who decided to return for his junior season, staying in college and not making the jump to the NBA.
The son of a retired baseball player better put his shoes on. It's about to get good.