The kid was scrawny. No taller than 5-9 and maybe 150 pounds with his high tops on. He had curly hair and a baby face that made him appear even younger than his 15 years.
Although his father was a Major League Baseball legend, his was not among the names on the college basketball coaches’ watch lists as they gathered in a gym in Orlando to scout recruits at an AAU tournament in the summer of 2009. But Shane Larkin, son of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, is the kid who immediately captured the eye of Jim Larranaga, then the coach at George Mason University.
Larranaga is now coaching the eighth-ranked University of Miami Hurricanes, and is delighted that, through a bit of luck and a circuitous route, Larkin eventually became his point guard. That scrawny kid is now a college sophomore, and on Thursday was named one of 12 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the top point guard in the nation.
He is a big reason the Canes are favored to beat perennial power North Carolina on Saturday afternoon in front of a national TV audience and a sold-out BankUnited Center.
“He made a defensive play in a 3-on-1 fastbreak situation,’’ Larranaga recalled, of the first time he laid eyes on Larkin. “When you’ve got a small point guard back on defense and three great athletes running at him, you think they’re at the advantage. But I saw [Larkin] fake at the dribbler, who was gonna try to make a no-look pass.
“Shane had already probably evaluated that guy, knew he liked to make no-look passes. ... Guy looked right, threw left, Shane picked the pass off, pitched it down the floor, and his team got a layup. For a kid just out of 10th grade to have that kind of defensive presence, you don’t see that very often.
“On offense, he was making high-speed layups going right, high-speed layups going left, shooting threes, and distributing the ball like a real point guard does. First time I saw him, I said, ‘That’s the guy. That’s who we need.’ ’’
Larranaga’s longtime assistant coach Eric Konkol felt the same way.
“He was really small and he was really skinny,’’ Konkol said. “But he had a real quick burst, and was very clever. The game was in slow motion for him at times. He could see things happen before they occurred, and he had a great feel for when his teammates were open.’’
Larranaga continued to keep tabs on Larkin, and was surprised — but relieved — that many coaches doubted his potential. “I’d ask my coach friends, ‘Hey, what do you think of Shane?’ They’d say, ‘Eh, he’s all right.’ And I felt like, ‘Wow, maybe there’s a shot we could get Shane at George Mason.’ ’’
That August, Larranaga called Larkin and offered a scholarship. It was his first offer. Larkin was sitting poolside at his family’s Orlando home when the call came. “I got so excited I slipped into the pool and my pants got all wet,’’ Larkin said, laughing. “I ran in the house dripping, and yelled, ‘Mom! I got my first offer!’ ’’
More offers were to come, from Clemson, Boston College, Florida State, South Florida and Central Florida. The Clemson coach, Oliver Purnell, left for DePaul, and Larkin chose to go play for him. But after a month in Chicago, Larkin started doubting his decision and feeling homesick.
Larkin is extremely close with his family. He has two sisters, Cymber, a high school lacrosse player and aspiring singer, and Brielle D’Shea (in honor of Shea Stadium, where Barry Larkin liked to play), a cosmetology student. He is also very close with a former high school teammate, Isaac Lane, who lived at the Larkin house and whom Shane considers a brother.
He has a special relationship with his mother, Lisa, and makes no apologies. With his father gone so much during his Major League Baseball days, Shane was the only male in the house and was protective of his mom. Still is. The feeling is mutual. He worries when she drives alone from Orlando to Miami for UM games. She reminds him to gargle with salt water when his throat hurts.
Larkin knew his mom worried about him being so far away, and that made him worry for her. There were also undisclosed medical issues in the family, and Larkin was able to get a release from DePaul. Larranaga had just been hired at UM, so it was a match made in heaven.
“My mom’s a worrier, to the point that she sometimes panics, and it’s better for my health and hers if I’m a four-hour drive from Orlando,’’ he told The Miami Herald last year. “I really liked Coach Larranaga, so it all worked out for the best.’’
Lisa Larkin feels her son was meant be a Hurricane. The family has attended every home game but one this season.
“We had some complications when he went to DePaul, and we did a lot of praying,’’ she said by phone Thursday. “It was a really, really tough time for our family. Barry wanted Shane to stay at DePaul and be a man of his word. But Shane really felt it would be best to move back to Florida. We feel very, very blessed that it worked out the way it did.’’
ESPN announcers have been gushing over Larkin all season, as have opposing coaches. “I think Shane Larkin is the best point guard in the league,’’ said FSU coach Leonard Hamilton. “He makes very few mistakes, has an unselfish spirit, the ball’s safe in his hands, and he plays like a coach on the floor even though he’s only a sophomore.’’
Barry Larkin is enjoying watching his son in the spotlight. He knows it wasn’t always easy for his son to live in his shadow. “People put Shane down, said he’d never make it big, said he benefited from my name, and I know how hard that was for him to hear. I told him of my perils in my career, the critics I faced. I told Shane to use it all for motivation.’’
He heeded his father’s advice.
“I had several of the recruiting gurus telling me I couldn’t play at this level, that I was a low D1 player, so coming out here now and proving them wrong is great,’’ Shane Larkin said. “They said that I wasn’t a point guard, all I do is look for my own shot. I was too small. I wasn’t athletic enough. I wouldn’t be able to defend at this level. I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t have the body to play at this level. Everything they could say about somebody who couldn’t play at this level, they said it.’’
But Larranaga always believed in the kid. And his hunch paid off.