Joe Harris Cashes In…

Everyone in Wahoo Nation has a special place in their heart for Joe Harris. When news leaked out Saturday that “Joey Buckets,” a nickname Harris picked up for his ability to score while at Virginia, had agreed to a two-year,$16 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets, there was as much joy among UVa fans as Brooklyn’s.

While Harris has been gone from Charlottesville since the end of the 2013-14 season, he left behind an everlasting legacy.

Yes, he was a prolific scorer. Yes, he was a team leader. Yes, his All-American good looks made women swoon. What he might be best remembered for was a drive over to Tony Bennett’s house on New Year’s Eve in 2013.

That moment is arguably the most important in Bennett’s glorious nine years at Virginia.

No Wahoo worth his salt will ever forget that night. Only 24 hours earlier, Virginia had been embarrassed at Tennessee, losing 87-52, leaving Harris and his teammates, and the Cavaliers’ fan base totally stunned.

However, that nightmarish trip to Knoxville fueled a dramatic turnaround for UVa’s program.

The Cavaliers went on a tear, winning 19 of the next 21 games, including their first ACC Tournament championship since 1976 and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Ever since then, UVa’s program has beenone of the ACC’s best.

Could that trip to Bennett’s house have triggered Virginia’s extended run? Of course, none of this would happen without Bennett’s expertise, coaching and his overall knowledge in building a program. But every team needs a fire lit along the way.

Most fans aren’t aware that as soon as Virginia’s plane returned to Charlottesville that night, Bennett and his coaching staff had an emergency meeting in the reception area of the airport. He decided changes had to made, including simplifying the offense, intensifying the defense, and creating more defined roles for the players.

Harris followed up with his own input, calling Bennett the next evening and driving over to his coach’s house.

“I told Coach I felt like we had underachieved up to that point of the season and I had higher expectations and I envisioned the season being different to that point,” Harris told me later that season. “From that point on, guys who used to get [ticked] off when they were put on the scout team in practice, instead embraced their role without question and realized it was their job to help get everyone better.”

Teammates appreciated Harris going the extra mile out of concern for how the team had underachieved. Being a senior, that team was essentially Joe Harris’ team.

“Joe going to Coach Bennett’s house showed a great deal of leadership,” teammate Thomas Rogers said. “He had grown into a great leader. He’s so unselfish.”

While covering Harris during his Virginia career, I always noticed that he had a greater knowledge and interest in the history of the program than most any other players of his era. He had studied Cavalier hoops history and appreciated where the program had been, where it was during his time, and where it was headed.

That’s why it was no surprise that this past March in Brooklyn, Harris attended Virginia’s games en route to the Cavaliers’ ACC Tournament championship, the first since his senior year. It was no surprise that “Joey Buckets” was on the floor to celebrate with the Wahoos as confetti fluttered in the air.

Harris was just as happy as if he had been a member of the team.

“We have been trying to keep this thing going,” Harris said with a wide smile. “It boils down to once you’re part of the Virginia program, you’re part of the family forever.”

That’s one reason why Wahoo fans delighted in the fact that the Nets recognized Harris’ efforts this past season and offered the free agent the new, two-year deal.

The 26-year-old swingman experienced career highs in most every category this past season for Brooklyn: 3-point field goal percentage (41.9); field goal percentage (49.1); scoring average (10.8 per game), and rebounds (3.3). Just like at UVa, Harris worked on expanding his game, and according to one NBA stat tracker, his 62.7 percentage on drives to the basket was the highest in the league, showing that he’s more than just a perimeter threat.

But then again, if you’re a Wahoo, you’ve known that for a long, long time.