FORT WAYNE – He got up laughing.
It was Dec. 17 last year and Kevin Harden had a nice little run going up there in the Joyce Center at Notre Dame – eight points, five boards and three assists – and then he went sailing in for a layup, and everything came unstitched. His knee buckled, and he crumpled to the floor. Still, no big deal, right?
I thought it was just another injury, Harden recalls, nine months and change later.
Uh, not quite.
Not long after he went to the doctor, and he got news that was bad not just for him but for head coach Tony Jasick and the IPFW Mastodons: Twelve games into a season in which he was emerging as a player who brought energy and a needed element of toughness to the Mastodons, he was done for the year with a knee injury that would require surgery.
I was devastated to a certain extent, but I knew I had to work through it, Harden says now. It was hard, but at the same time some of the success we had at the end of the season last year kind of helped me get through it. But it was hard to watch, not being able to help your team at a time when they might have needed you.
Now, nine months and change later, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior guard is still making his way back to the floor. Jasick says he’ll be healthy but he’s not healthy yet; he’s hoping Harden will be ready for the season opener against Dayton on Nov. 9.
Like, really hoping.
I think he’s got a ton of leadership qualities in the way he plays, the way he carries himself, Jasick says. I thought our team missed that, quite frankly, when he went down last year.
Before that, Harden started all 12 games he played and averaged 6.3 points and 4.9 rebounds, while dishing 16 assists. Against Eastern Illinois, he scored a career-high 22 points. And he validated everything Jasick saw him in after Harden landed on his radar after earning honorable mention All-American honors as a junior college player.
He was the best player in their league, Jasick says. When I got a chance to see him live, I just really was drawn to his toughness and the way he carries himself.
And here’s the thing: It wasn’t as if Harden was born to the game. He never really played until a coach saw him playing in a physical education class when Harden was in middle school and invited him to join the basketball team.
Until then, he’d played just because it was fun and he liked it. And even afterward, it was never something that took over his life; in addition to playing basketball in high school, he was a cornerback in football and also ran the mile for the track team in the spring.
All of which may or may not have anything to do with his approach to basketball, which is distinctly less about personal numbers than results.
I’m an energy guy, so I’m gonna do everything that nobody wants to do, he says. Even when I was in high school, I was scoring a lot, but I always did what nobody wanted to do – rebound, play hard on D’.
Just what Jasick loves to hear.
How many guys do you interview that when you talk about what they bring to the table, they start with the defensive stuff, the toughness stuff? he says. Most guys talk, well, I got a nice mid-range game or I can make shots. He goes right to I can really help our team on the defensive end.’
So there’s no doubt that I think he has the ability to bring that mentality and the ability to defend to our team.