Jillian Harmon Stands Tall

Senior F Jillian Harmon must have thought the world was as upside down as the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere when she suddenly found herself with the chance to be an Olympian representing New Zealand. Harmon made the most of this unexpected opportunity.

Did you know that Kiwifruit is not native to New Zealand? The tangy fruit was introduced to New Zealand from China early in the 20th century and picked up the name kiwi from the flightless bird that is the New Zealand national symbol. Like the kiwifruit, Jillian Harmon did not originate in New Zealand and like the kiwifruit, she took to the Southern Hemisphere right away, though thus far nobody has exported her for profit or used her as a garnish. Nor does Harmon serve as a natural blood thinner or have mild laxative effects as kiwifruit does, but you can't have everything. The New Zealand national team, the Tall Ferns, did not have everything either. They won only one game at the Beijing Olympics. They did beat regional rival Australia for the first time ever this spring and they did gain Harmon, who rapidly became a go-to player for the Tall Ferns and was one of their leading scorers and rebounders.

The story of Jillian Harmon's unlikely Olympic journey has been well told. Briefly, former Cardinal teammate Clare Bodensteiner, who was born in New Zealand, stumbled across the website for the Tall Ferns while researching opportunities to play professionally. Bodensteiner was invited to try out for the team. Upon hearing Bodensteiner's story, Harmon asked her mother, who is originally from New Zealand, whether she just might have taken the trouble to file the appropriate New Zealand citizenship papers for her daughter. Mama Harmon found said papers in the basement, the New Zealand coach felt he had been sent manna from heaven, and Jillian Harmon was enthusiastically welcomed to the New Zealand national team along with Bodensteiner. Our heroines then jetted off to play in various international tournaments and ultimately the Olympic Games in Beijing. It really was an extraordinary turn of events. The Bootleg chatted with Harmon about her amazing Olympic experience.

What was it like traveling as part of the New Zealand Olympic team and living in the Olympic village?

"I went to New Zealand at the beginning of July and trained there for about a month and then the first of August we went over to Beijing. We were there for a full thirty days and moved right into the village. It was an incredible experience. You live with your country so we lived with about two hundred other New Zealand athletes. That was the largest group they've ever brought. I lived in the same apartment with the team. You walk past superstar athletes and you have to pretend like it's no big deal. Roger Federer was staying next door with Switzerland. Being in the village was one of the best parts of the whole experience."

Did any athlete she met particularly impress her?

"We met Michael Phelps. We actually saw him before he got his eight golds. We met the US Dream Team. We met everyone. But my favorite was Roger Federer. He's such a great athlete. He's maintained a high level of success for so long."

Did Harmon get to see any Olympic events as a spectator?

"We went to all the men's basketball games, the US men. I saw the 100-meter men's final. That was incredible. We saw different sports like handball that I've never seen before. I went to a tennis match. I did a little bit of everything."

Did she learn anything new while playing international basketball?

"I just found out how great the rest of the world is. All the best players aren't just in the US. The different styles every country played… The Europeans are really fit. Their big players can shoot and dribble as well as their guards. And then the Koreans and the Chinese can all just shoot so well from the three-point line. Every country is different. I just took away how competitive the rest of the world is."

What was Harmon's role with the Tall Ferns?

"We weren't exactly the Tall Ferns. I was probably the second or third tallest player on the team. Even though I was one of the younger ones, I was one of the most experienced on the team. Only about half the team came over to play basketball in the US. I started as a "4" type of player but that changed. We ran a motion offense. I had a lot of responsibility on the court and it kind of reminded me of high school a little bit in that sense. I think it was good. It gave me a little bit of confidence coming into this year."

How did the international coaching compare to what she is more familiar with here?

"It was different. I think no one knows basketball as well as Tara (VanDerveer). I would have to say she really knows her X's and O's. And I really mean that. I had a coach down there that was great. It was a little different style. You just have to know that every coach is going to be a little bit different so it's good to play for someone else and still get to come back and play for Tara."

Might Harmon go live and play basketball in New Zealand one day? New Zealand did have a team in the Australian League but that team was disbanded this year.

"That (team) has been scratched for the year. I never knew about the Australian League down there. I got to stay with my family, so definitely playing in New Zealand or at least visiting is now an option. The Tall Ferns program is still alive so that will be going on and the World Championships are in a year or two years. There's still a lot going on with that program that I plan to stay a part of. I'd love to play professionally there, if it works out, whether it be in New Zealand or Australia. It's summer time during the season over there because the seasons are reversed. That would be great if I could do it."

Where is her New Zealand family?

"My mom's brother actually still lives on the dairy farm my mom grew up on. That's in Taranaki, which is kind of near New Plymouth. I've got a couple of relatives down at the very bottom of the South Island, a lot of dairy farmers."

Did she get to travel in New Zealand?

"I got to visit family for a little bit, but a lot of it was just training. I definitely want to go back and really explore the country more. We were based in Christchurch. It's on the South Island. It was snowing there-winter time."

Changing the subject to the Stanford Cardinal and the upcoming season, we asked Harmon how she sees her role as a Stanford senior, considering that she has so much experience at Stanford and now internationally?

"I think just to bring leadership. This summer was a great experience for me and a great chance to build some confidence. I'll just help out the younger players, fill whatever role I can like I've done in the past. I think we're going to have a great year. We have a lot of talent. We're going to be really deep. I'll do whatever I can. I would assume I'll be more of a "3" this year because we've got such great size, especially in the freshman class coming in. I'll probably be moved out to more of a guard."

And just for fun, we asked what was the strangest thing Harmon has ever seen on a basketball court? She answered without hesitation.

"It would have to be when we were watching film of the five-on-two Oregon State/Arizona game last year when everyone fouled out. That's by far the weirdest thing. I didn't know that was possible. They actually end the game when it is five-on-one because you can't inbound it to yourself. That's definitely the weirdest thing I've ever seen."

Since Harmon can do just about everything on a basketball court very, very well we would not be surprised if she could in fact inbound the ball to herself, and probably score on the play too. The Tall Ferns struck gold when they landed Harmon, even if they did not win gold in Beijing. The kiwi is a flightless bird that lays the largest eggs in relation to body size of any avian species. Jillian Harmon may now be a Kiwi, but we think she will not lay any eggs for the Cardinal this season. A little noodling on the internet and some digging through family files set Harmon off on a summer journey that may have changed the course of her life. Isn't it grand?

To view a slide show of Don Anderson's photos taken during this interview with Jillian Harmon, click HERE.

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