Back in Business
Sally Miller surely knows how fondly her grandson, DeVon Hardin, thinks of her. But even though she is Stockton's only female bishop in her capacities with the Faith Christian Fellowship inter-denominational church, she may not fully realize her daily influence upon the Newark Memorial High senior power forward.
Hardin, a 6-foot-10, 224-pounder who's rated the nation's No. 61 overall recruit in the Class of 2004 by SchoolSports.com, often repeats his paternal grandmother's words of wisdom as he goes about preparing himself to be the best person and player he can be. And if you ask Cal-Berkeley, that combo is already a pretty good package: After averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds per game as an inexperienced junior last year, Hardin has earned a full scholarship to play college hoops for the Golden Bears.
Still, Cal coach Ben Braun probably ought to send a thank-you note to grandma Miller for good measure. It's clear she continues to cast a long shadow on Braun's prized frontcourt recruit.
"When I was about 11 or 12, she told me to be true to myself and to work as hard as I can at whatever I do," says Hardin, who won't turn 18 until Aug. 7. "She's always loved to tell stories, and she's told me a lot of stuff over the years, but the thing that really sticks with me was that. She said, ‘DeVon, if you're going to be a businessman, own the biggest business. If you're going to be a lawyer, be the next Johnny Cochran.'"
Perhaps not coincidentally, Hardin's favorite animal is a fox. He's drawn to their complexity. They are peaceful and yet predatory. Which is precisely how Hardin plays the game. He lopes around the court with the air of a guy who'd rather shoo a fly out the door than swat it, but he has no trouble accessing the snarling predator within.
"I think I'm always in touch with my killer instinct," says Hardin. "I'm a very competitive person when I'm on the court. But even when I'm dunking on someone or hammering on someone, I'm still trying to be the nice, humble guy that I am. I'll hand the ball to a ref or help someone up. I'm a monster. But I'm the nicest monster you'll ever meet."
Of course, that couldn't be too reassuring to anyone driving the lane against a guy who spent this season focused on leading the Cougars to their second straight Mission Valley Athletic League title. It is Hardin's razor-sharp awareness of where he is, where he's been and where he wants to go that makes him such a spellbinding new sensation. Let's not forget this kid was playing for the freshman team in 2001 and averaged about three points and three boards per game as a sophomore.
"DeVon brings so many things to the table outside of basketball — he's so diverse, he has such maturity," says Newark Memorial head coach Craig Ashmore, 39, now in his 14th season with the Cougars. "I just enjoy being around him. Never mind basketball. He's just a great kid. On the court, he's showing a new love for the game. Before, he was just a tall kid who played. Sometimes, you see kids with his ability get burned out. But he's still on the up climb in terms of his intensity and passion."
Not in terms of his loyalty, though. That's already reached a peak. The moment he was informed he would be a SchoolSports cover subject, Hardin insisted a list of Newark's key players appear within the text of the story. Teammates he mentioned by name were senior forward Cameron Jackson, senior guard Matt Jones, junior swingman Kyle Spain (a top national recruit in the Class of 2005), junior guard Trae Clark, junior swingman Korey Hutchinson and sophomore guard Ben Washington, along with "all the other guys."
Hardin has also demonstrated himself to be strong-minded in other departments. As recently as two years ago his GPA was wallowing at 1.8, but he entered this year with a 3.6. Maintaining his focus, however, remains a daily challenge.
"My mind is applesauce because school is challenging and basketball takes up a lot of my time," says Hardin, who helped lead the Cougars to a 25-5 record and the Division I North Coast Section semi-finals last year. "I have to think about how something I do today can drastically change my future. If I put the work in, I could put myself in a tremendous position.
"It's easy to play in front of a packed house," he adds. "What's hard is going into an old, cold gym with dim lights and a terrible floor and still playing your best game. That's an aspect of being a great player."
So is resilience. Hardin showed that by bouncing back strong from the disappointment of missing last summer's prestigious adidas ABCD Camp with debilitating patellar tendonitis in both knees. And he continues to make breathtaking progress as a player despite persistent soreness in his right knee.
"Every time someone doesn't see him for a month, then catches a game, they're like, ‘Wow,'" says Ashmore, whose 2000 squad reached the Division I state finals.
"He's filling out and maturing into his body, and he's gaining the body awareness to take full advantage of his size and strength. He doesn't look like a 6-10 guy when he moves anymore; he looks like a 6-5 guy. It's exciting to see his body control catch up with his athleticism."
In the end, Hardin knows it's his explosive physical talent that will be the difference-maker as he continues to progress. As grandma Miller might say, he must embrace the notion of becoming the best athlete he can be.
"The one thing I really rely on is not any one skill — I'm constantly working on those," says Hardin. "My athleticism has been a great asset over the years. Even if I'm having an off game, I can go out and jump and run and grab 12 rebounds. I'm more agile than a lot of big men, and that's what's going to get me where I want to go."