March 28, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
INDIANAPOLIS - Any doubt about whether Gary Harris' star has risen, at least in constellation over central Indiana, was removed the other night while walking with teammates to a nearby fast-food restaurant.
"Some random guy on the street yelled out, `Is that Gary Harris?' " Michigan State fellow freshman guard Denzel Valentine said during the NCAA Tournament media session at Lucas Oil Stadium Thursday. "So they started talking and I'm saying, `He's the man around here - everybody knows him.' "
Harris excelled in basketball and football in the bedroom community of Fishers, which is located northeast of Indianapolis. When novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote "You Can't Go Home Again," he didn't have someone like Harris in mind.
"It feels good to get this opportunity," he said. "You've got to cherish it and just be thankful because not everybody can come back and play in their own hometown to go to the Final Four."
Harris is making a triumphant return to his own backyard, and not while wearing the old gold and black of his mother's alma mater, Purdue, or the cream and crimson of Indiana University.
Although he was wearing the colors of a Big Ten rival, it didn't stop a throng of youngsters lined up to collect autographs after MSU's shoot-around from shouting, "Gary! Gary! Gary!"
The soft-spoken Big Ten Freshman of the Year isn't prone to excessive elaboration, but he lit up while talking about returning to the scene of past personal success, just 16 miles from his home. As a junior wide receiver, a pair of circus catches, including one for a touchdown, helped Hamilton Southeastern High beat Zionsville, 23-10.
"I remember the last time I played here, we won," Harris said. "I got a great vibe walking out there and seeing some people and getting some cheers. It felt great."
Coach Tom Izzo would like nothing better than for his best 3-point shooter to contribute in a similar way while leading the Spartans to a Midwestern Regional semifinal victory over Duke on Friday night. If MSU wins, it will play the Louisville-Oregon victor on Sunday.
But Harris, who's coming off a 23-point performance against Memphis at The Palace of Auburn Hills last Saturday, has only team objectives in sight.
"I don't feel any pressure, or anything," Harris said. "Our goal is to come here and get this first win and hopefully get the second win so we can get to the Final Four. That's just how we're approaching it."
Still, there's something special about playing in front of family, friends, former teammates and coaches and even some ex-adversaries.
"At first, I just knew we were playing in Auburn Hills, and then Coach came up to me and said, `If we win these next two games you're going home,' " Harris said. "I really didn't know what he was talking about at first, but then I looked at the bracket again and saw we were coming to Indianapolis, so I thought that was pretty cool.
"I'm looking forward to getting some support from some familiar faces in the crowd, and hopefully getting two wins."
Indianapolis has been a second home to Michigan State. Izzo and the Spartans won the national championship here in 2000, advanced to the 2009 Final Four in Detroit after defeating Kansas and Louisville in Lucas Oil Stadium and beat Ohio State in nearby Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the 2012 Big Ten Tournament title.
"I'm comfortable with the city," Izzo said. "I'm not Gary Harris, but I've been here enough to where I'm getting close. I was a little disappointed with him today because I saw hi miss a couple shots. I think he was checking out a few of his old girlfriends in the stands.
"But for the most part, he's been really focused and really good and I know how important this is to him. It's like our guys when we got to play in the Final Four in Detroit. There are certain things you get to do, and certain things you get to do in front of your own people. This is what you dream of and never think is going to happen when you're playing out in the backyard.
"Shazam! Here we are. It's gonna happen. Gary has always risen up to the big-time events and I'm expecting him to have a big game."
Harris' Blue Devil counterpart is freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who's coming off a 21-point performance in the win over Creighton. Both 2012 McDonald's All-Americans stand 6-foot-4, though at 205 pounds Harris is 20 pounds heavier.
"We know each other pretty well just from growing up in the AAU circuit, and especially last summer playing on some of the same teams in all-star games and All-American games.
"He's a very talented player. He can shoot, he can drive. Rasheed does it all and is a key part to their success."
Harris maybe as low-keyed as ever, but Valentine can tell he's stoked about showing the home crowd how far he's come at MSU.
"We were sitting on the bus together on the drive down (from East Lansing) and he was talking about what we were passing along the way and pointing everything out - `Oh, that's where my friend lives, oh that's where my other friend lives' - like that," Valentine said. "He might not say it, but I know he's excited."
What Harris doesn't want to do is disappoint anyone before they even get a chance to see him play, but he's finding that tickets hard to come by.
"We get six, but I'm going to try to get some from some of my teammates so I can get a few more for family members and friends," Harris said. "I'm still trying to negotiate with them right now. I need way more than six, that's all I know."
Said Valentine, "Yup, he hit me up and I might just let him get one."