Joe Johnson’s prep teammate Jarrett Hart is now a British success.
I recently spoke with Jarrett Hart, my high school classmate from Little Rock Central High in the late 1990s. He helped lead the Tigers to a 29-3 record and shared co-MVP honors with Joe Johnson after winning a state championship in ’98-99. Little Rock Central finished the season 17th in USA Today’s Top 25. Earlier this summer, I interviewed him and Coach Oliver Fitzpatrick at Central’s gym. Beneath a framed portrait of Johnson’s No. 24 black and gold jersey, Hart and Fitzpatrick reminisced about that championship team, which was at one time ranked the nation’s seventh-best team by Street and Smith magazine.
“It was the best team that ever played [in Arkansas],” Fitzpatrick says. Ten of its 16 players would receive scholarships to play in college, he added.
While Johnson snared various Arkansas Player of the Year awards and national honors, Hart did pretty well himself. He recalled playing before his senior year in what is now the Nike Peach Jam against Yao Ming. “The thing that was most impressive with his game was his ability to get his own shot,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “He can go in the low post, he can go in the high post.”
At 6-3 and strong, the “rugged” Hart could rebound well, shoot well and distribute the ball, Fitzpatrick says.
I myself saw Hart play many times more than a decade ago, and recall how well Hart meshed with Johnson, then 6-7 but much thinner than he is today. Johnson often played on the perimeter on offense and served as the team’s defensive interior presence. Hart could also bring the ball up court, or punish smaller guards inside. Although Hart didn’t have the same athletic ability as Johnson, he made up for it with savvy. The two stars were also good friends, and set a cohesive tone that the rest of the team followed.
After high school, Johnson went on to star at the University of Arkansas before entering the 2001 NBA Draft. Hart, meanwhile, met injury setbacks among other issues at the University of Oklahoma. He transferred to play junior college ball closer to home, then after two years—in which he garnered JuCo All-America honors in what is now the University of Arkansas at Ft. Smith—he finished his college career at Kansas State University, leading the team in minutes and three-point shooting in ’03-04. In a January 21, 2004 win against Texas A&M, Hart dropped 19 points (7-12 FG), 6 boards, 3 steals and 2 assists on current Raptor Antoine Wright who was held to just 2 points (1-10 FG) and 4 turnovers.
After his senior year, on a tip from Fitzpatrick, Hart—who was born in London to British parents before moving to the U.S. as an infant—decided to use his dual British citizenship to play abroad. So, in 2004, Hart started his career in Sibenik, Croatia, the birthplace of European legend and NBA star Drazen Petrovic. Through the next few years, he pinballed across Europe playing Croatia, Israel, Greece, Switzerland and Russia before finally landing in Cyprus. He plays for Keravnos in Nicosia, on the same team former Razorback Scotty Thurman played. While Thurman and Hart never played together in Cyprus, they knew each other from Hart’s high school days, when he used to practice and pick up pointers from Thurman and Arkansas native Corliss Williamson at the Little Rock Athletic Club.
The practice paid off. Great Britain National Team Coach Chris Finch chose Hart after he was formed in 2006 to prepare for the 2012 London Olympics. The fledgling program, with Luol Deng at the helm, surprised many by winning its group in the EuroBasket qualifiers, giving it the right to rumble with Europe’s big boys in the Division A of EuroBasket this summer in Poland.
The team, without Deng this summer because of a leg injury, was pitted against Serbia, Spain and Slovenia in EuroBasket’s toughest group.
Although it went 0-3, the British almost toppled defending FIBA world champions in what would have been one of the most jaw-dropping upsets in international basketball history. Hart hit a three-pointer with 4:58 left in the Spain game to put the British up 73-69. He finished 4-5 on threes with 15 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists—his best game of the tournament. I spoke with Hart, who came off the bench for Great Britain, about his experiences abroad.
“During that [4th] period, we were real stagnant, and we were running a motion offense trying to move and get the ball swung around and he just told me ‘You get any good looks, knock it down.’
“The whole game I just wanted to be aggressive. This year Coach [Finch] has put me in a different role than last year [when he sometimes started at the point]. My minutes went down, but he felt that I could be that spark of the bench to bring consistent energy, whether it be scoring, defense, controlling the flow of the game. He puts me in many different roles.”
After Hart’s shot, Spain would go on a 12-0 run to fuel an eventual 84-76 victory. Despite faltering in this year’s EuroBasket first round, the Spanish team, with 10 players with NBA experience or drafted by NBA teams, is Europe’s most feared. Hart gave his take on matching up with a Spanish backcourt—although without Jose Calderon this summer—was not lacking for talent with Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, Raul Lopez and Serigo Llull.
“They seemed to play well together, even though they’re all-stars in their own right… just like me and my team—everybody’s role changes. The first time we played against Spain this summer (in a warm-up tournament in Seville), Rubio didn’t even start. To me, they’re not the high-flying guys you see in the NBA and all this different stuff, so I think it’s more of a compliment to them that they can play on that level and play together just by chemistry and knowing the game.
“It was a good experience for me also to play with these guys, show what I could, show I could compete on that level.”
SLAM: What makes the highly hyped Rubio so special?
Jarrett Hart: I have guys on the team who play with me now who have played with him. They said the thing about him is even in practice, he goes out there and plays like it’s a game. I mean, he works so hard. You have to respect players like that. He made himself better and every year has improved because of this.
On the court, seeing him play, he’s just very aggressive. He’s only 18. He doesn’t take a play off. Defensively, he has a lot of energy and that’s rare these days. He’s very humble. Off the court, we went out with [the Spanish players] when we were in Spain, talked with those guys, and they’re very humble.
SLAM: During the tournament, you led the team in rebounding with 4.3 a game. The team’s strength, however, is its post play, with big men Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Andrew Betts, Joel Freeland and Robert Archibald, who’ve all been drafted or picked up by NBA teams. How do you explain a guard leading in rebounding?
JH: It’s just the way the ball bounces. [The opposing big men] are very smart, very physical. Some of the keys to the game are the big men and the guards putting their body on their men and then going in there to get it. A lot of times they’re boxing out a Gasol, and we (guards) have to come in there and sneak in there and grab something.
SLAM: The team went 1-8 in warm-up games before going winless in the tournament. How did Deng’s absence affect the team?
JH: Of course with Lu in our lineup, they was a lot of consistent scoring and leadership from him. It helped us a lot. But I didn’t regret anything that happened this year and I think he would say the same thing. We played hard, we tried to be just as physical as some of these other teams. This was our first time playing in this tournament. For us to move up so fast after three, four years ago not having a team to being in Group A, is a great accomplishment.
SLAM: What other national team’s backcourt stood out to you?
JH: Slovenia caught my attention, especially Jaka Lakovic. He plays for some of the high-end Euroleague team—Panathinaikos, now he’s in Barcelona. I watched him on TV a couple of times, and it just didn’t look like he’s the type of player he really is. He’s a small guy, you kind of overlook him, but he controls that team. He’s a pure point.
SLAM: Basketball is the only Olympic sport that does not give automatic qualification for the host nation. Do you think Great Britain will qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, and how do you foresee it advancing in the next years?
JH: I’m pretty positive about that. You set goals and you work hard to achieve those goals. Our competitive drive is going to push us over the edge and I think we will be there in 2012. We still might have a qualification round next summer for the World Games.
SLAM: Great Britain’s basketball team is so new it isn’t yet listed on FIBA world rankings. Where do you see it ranked once Deng plays for the team again, and possibly Ben Gordon, who was also born in London to Jamaican parents?
JH: I think we can get up there. I don’t want to get into numbers, but I think we have a really good team. Even though we didn’t win, people are starting to notice us. I think we will be in Olympics, meaning we’re going to be in the top echelon of European basketball.