Thursday, November 23, 2017

Larkin's game doesn't fall short for Miami



He is an athlete, born and bred. Forget the sport. Forget the nuance.

Even now, you can see the DNA of a famous father in Shane Larkin. Watch as he glides down the floor, as if he is chasing a baseball into the hole. Watch the way he runs, like a hitter who has mashed a ball into the gap and is determined to beat it to second base.

Watch his anticipation. Watch his poise. Watch his eagerness to make the big play in the big moment.

Later, you can figure out exactly why Shane is playing … basketball.

He grew up on a baseball diamond, for crying out loud, a son walking in the footprints of Reds Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. As a child, he learned to hit from Pete Rose and Tony Perez. He shagged fly balls against the wall. He played in father-and-son games. He got his nickname, Sugar Shane, from Deion Sanders. At an early age, it figured that baseball would claim him.

Ah, but baseball never quite touched the soul of Shane Larkin, a notion that more or less mystifies his father, who still maintains that there is a fine shortstop inside of his son.

Perhaps. But there is a fine point guard there, as well, one who has led the University of Miami to perhaps its finest season as it plays tonight in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

It is there, on the basketball floor, that Shane Larkin is at home. It is there, in the middle of the free flow of the game, with the ball in his hands and the team at his direction, that Shane Larkin has found his own direction. Baseball? Despite his dad, that's for someone else.

"Of course, he would want me to be out there playing baseball," Shane said. "But he's a supportive father. He loves what I'm doing now, too.

"Baseball just wasn't the sport for me. It's kind of boring. I'm glad I'm playing basketball. I love basketball. I think I could go out there and catch the ball pretty well. But batting … I never really liked batting."

Try to explain to Barry Larkin how he ended up with a son who doesn't like batting. Larkin was a 12-time All-Star, a Hall of Fame player who had 2,340 hits and 198 homers.

And Shane didn't like batting.

"Baseball just wasn't for me," Shane said. "I had a good swing, but it was never appealing. Even when I went to spring training, I didn't take batting practice. I just wanted to go out there and chase the ball down. I guess it's because when you bat, you have to stand still and wait for something to happen. Maybe that's what it was. You can't go get it."

For Shane, the point of crisis came early in his hometown of Orlando. He was 7 years old, and he was trying to hit. His Pee Wee coach tried to change his batting stance, saying "whoever taught you to hit doesn't know anything about baseball." Seeing as how that was Rose, who had more hits than anyone, Shane had a differing viewpoint.

So he called his father, and he cried, and he said he was quitting.

"I don't think he thought I meant forever," Shane said. "I think he thought I meant for the rest of the season."

By now, however, other sports made Shane happier. Until he broke his ankle as a high school freshman at Orlando Dr. Phillips, he liked playing football. That left him with basketball, where his uncle Byron Larkin had been a star at Xavier.

Shane, too, has become a star. The sophomore has led Miami in big plays the entire season. His skills, his vision, his approach all make you think that his genes have simply changed sports. What Barry Larkin was to baseball, his son is to basketball.

"When you grow up in a family of athletes, there is a certain message that is delivered about what's acceptable," said Jim Larranaga, the Miami coach. "The perfect example is growing up in a family of great students. You're expected to earn A's. You wouldn't expect your child to get a C. That's the way it is with Shane's family. 'You're not just going to be okay. You're going to be great. Why is that? Because everyone's great in our family when it comes to athletics.' "

Ah, but could Barry be right? Could Shane really play shortstop?

"He'd be awesome," Larra­naga said, laughing. "His basketball skills translate immediately to baseball. He's got tremendous lateral quickness. He's got tremendous anticipation. He's got great hand-eye coordination. He's got great speed. It's very, very possible he'd be a better shortstop than a point guard."

On the other hand, Larranaga isn't giving him up.

Oh, there are ways in which his family has helped. From his father, Shane has learned to carry himself, to be humble. Somewhere along the line, he also has learned to swallow the pressure that comes with being an elite player.

"With five seconds left, I want the ball," he said. "That's the most fun time of the game. Everyone is looking at you. Whenever there is a big situation, I like it."

For the son, that sounds a lot more like fun than, say, chasing down a ground ball.

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