Jan. 7, 2008
Of all that DeVon Hardin has learned during his tenure as a student-athlete at the University of California, how to be a leader is right at the top of the list.
Since arriving on campus out of Newark Memorial High School in August of 2004, Hardin has seen his share of team leaders pass through the men's basketball program - Richard Midgley, Leon Powe, Ayinde Ubaka to name a few - and has taken bits and pieces from each of them in order to develop his own style. And now that Hardin is in the midst of his final collegiate campaign, he is using all the knowledge he has gathered to try to steer the Golden Bears back into the NCAA Tournament.
"It is a lot harder than it looks," said Hardin, who is in his third year as Cal's starting center. "When I first came here, my idea was that once you got older or once you are the best player, you are the team leader. People are supposed to respect you. That is not the way it goes at all. In order to get respect, you have to earn it. It was a transition to learn how to be an effective leader."
The physical and emotional maturity Hardin has developed over the past three years has been a prime factor in his growth. Not only has he become a 6-11, 250-pound force on the court, but he has also turned into a young adult who has earned the respect and admiration of his teammates and coaches.
"He came here as a slender player with a lot of potential," head coach Ben Braun said. "He's matured into a strong, dominant presence, working hard on his strength, conditioning and agility. Equally important is the maturity he has had as a person. He's developed into a leader on the team and, as with a lot of seniors, is able to see the big picture."
Much of the credit for Hardin's improvement can be directly traced to Powe, Cal's 2006 All-American forward who averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds during his final season with the Bears two years ago. Battling against Powe every day in practice in 2005-06 allowed both players to improve their skills.
During that one year the pair started together, Cal finished 20-11 overall, reached the final of the Pac-10 Tournament for the only time in school history and earned a berth in the NCAA playoffs. Hardin contributed with a team-best 48 blocks - the fifth-highest total in the Cal record book.
When Powe left for the NBA, Hardin and the Bears hoped to maintain their high level of play and remain in the national spotlight. However, a series of injuries - including one to Hardin - derailed the team's plans barely a month into last season, and Cal was forced to play shorthanded for most of 2006-07.
The Bears jumped out to an 8-3 start, which included a championship in the Great Alaska Shootout, and were playing a tough style of defense that limited the opposition to 60 ppg and less than 41 percent field goal shooting, with Hardin averaging career bests of 10.7 ppg and 8.4 rpg at the time. But on Dec. 11, he suffered a stress fracture to his left mid-foot against Furman, and the ensuing surgery ended the big man's season.
Without its starting center clogging up the middle, Cal gave up nearly 13 more points per game the rest of the way and struggled to a 16-17 finish.
As frustrated as he was, Hardin did not waste away his time on the sidelines. Instead, he used the opportunity from his seat on the bench to gain a new perspective on the game, similar to what Powe did two years earlier when he missed 2004-05 with a knee injury.
"I tried to keep a smile on my face, even though it was difficult for me to do," Hardin said. "I had never missed any games due to injury. I had never missed a single basketball game ever. I know my teammates went out and fought every single night, and they came up with some big wins."
None was bigger, of course, than the Bears' 76-69 overtime upset of top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Tournament. Behind Ubaka's 29 points and 18 points and eight rebounds from Ryan Anderson, Cal earned front-page mention on newspapers across the country. Unfortunately for Hardin, he didn't quite make it to Los Angeles to celebrate in person.
"I was on my way to the Staples Center, listening to it on the radio and driving down I-5 trying to get there," he said. "When I heard about the UCLA win, I pulled over to the side of the road and was screaming and yelling. That was a big win."
Cal's season ended a day later with a loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 semifinals, and Hardin's Golden Bear career nearly was over, as well. On April 9, 2007, Hardin declared for the NBA Draft, although he didn't hire an agent in order to retain his collegiate eligibility in case he decided to return to campus.
Despite not having played in a game in nearly four months, Hardin wanted to gauge his value on the professional level. At last cleared to play, he began training for the private workouts with scouts, coaches and general managers.
"My dream my whole life has been to get into the NBA," said Hardin, now one only four players in school history to block more than 100 shots. With his father, Michael, at his side, Hardin traveled at his family's expense to venues around the league. He spent much of his time on the East Coast, working out for such teams as the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards and New York Knicks. He also had sessions with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers.
"It was a little bit of wear, but it was the first time I had played basketball since December," Hardin said of the process. "It was just fun to me. I was traveling around the country. I was with my dad, my favorite person in the world. I was playing basketball and staying in nice hotels. There wasn't much more I could ask for.
"I felt I did better than I expected in the workouts," he added. "It gave me confidence to be able to do things that impress men like Pat Riley."
The feedback Hardin received led him to believe that he had a chance to be a first-round pick. Faced with perhaps the most important decision of his life - whether to turn pro or go back to Cal for a last season - Hardin leaned on his father and coach Braun, among others, for help. Ultimately, he chose to remain a collegian and put off the professional world for another year.
"Even though it was a huge temptation at the time, it was the best decision for me to come back to Cal," Hardin said. "In the long run, it will be best for my Cal team and best for me and my family. The things that drew me back to Cal were mostly my teammates and my fans. There's no place like playing in Haas Pavilion, and I believe this is one of the closest-knit groups of teammates that we've ever had at Cal."
"I think his decision to come back to Cal was a sign of maturity, toughness and confidence," Braun said. "You don't make that decision if you don't have all those things. He's got strong people around him, and Michael is a great parent in terms of putting things into perspective for DeVon. His family is, obviously, very strong and supportive."
Since fully re-committing to the Bears, Hardin has taken his newfound confidence and become a demonstrative leader. Not only is he the now typically the first person in the weight room or on the floor for practice, but he is also one of the squad's hardest workers.
"For every jump we do, he jumps the highest; for every run that we do, he runs the fastest," said strength & conditioning coach Mike Blasquez. "If you ask me what the biggest difference is between DeVon's training from last year to this year, it has been his consistency, his effort and his willingness to buy into the program. As a result, his voice is now being heard among the team. They value his opinions and they value his thoughts. Every time his teammates see him, they see him give his best effort."
When the 2007-08 season is complete, statistics will show that Hardin was one of the greatest shot-blockers in school history. More importantly, his teammates and coaches will remember him for the leadership and determination he brought to the court every day.
By Herb Benenson