Can't Knock the Hustle
This article appears in the March 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Forget about studying up on the latest accomplishments of Larry Gurganious. All you need to know about the St. Mary's (Berkeley) senior shooting guard can be gleaned from a 10-week period at the start of his sophomore year.
While messing around in a pickup basketball game the week before school started, Gurganious (pronounced gurr-GAIN-ee-us) broke his left leg. But not only did the 6-foot-5, 195-pounder fail to miss a game that season, he didn't even miss a practice, returning ahead of schedule by the second week of November.
This kid is hard core.
"His work ethic, especially given the caliber of player he's become — which is the point when you see some kids start slacking — is amazing," says St. Mary's third-year head coach Manny Nodar, 35. "Sometimes you have to beg him to take time off. He works so hard and he plays through pain. Last year, he played through injuries to both ankles and back pain. He just refuses to miss a game and does whatever he has to in order to get out there."
Even more impressive is that Gurganious doesn't just float up and down the floor when he's playing banged up. He bangs when he's banged up. Flying all over the court is one thing when you're healthy, but total physical commitment when you're not 100 percent is what puts the St. Mary's star among the nation's elite.
"The intensity I bring to a game is my No. 1 contribution," says Gurganious, 18, who averaged 20 points and eight rebounds per game as a junior while anchoring the Panthers' 21-8 run to the North Coast Section Division IV quarterfinals. "My defensive intensity can create offense even if my shot isn't falling. I think that attitude comes from playing on the rough courts of Oakland, sure. But it was more about me realizing how important it is to play with that intensity to separate yourself from other players. It's something colleges are looking for."
And it's something Gonzaga University will have next season, as Gurganious has signed to play his college ball at the perennial March Madness darling.
The success born of his intensity has earned Gurganious plenty of ink and attention. A first team All-CIF Division IV selection last year and MVP of the San Diego Surf 'N Slam Tournament earlier this season, Gurganious has demonstrated a unique ability to score and, in particular, get to the basket almost at will. "He can go to the basket on anybody," confirms Nodar.
That kind of grit has to come from somewhere. And Gurganious doesn't hesitate to reveal the source.
"I have a really big supporting cast from both sides of my family," he says. "Between my two brothers and sisters, my cousins and the rest of my extended family, there are more than 30 of us, and most of them come to all my games. It's really big for me because even if I feel down during a game because of how I'm playing, they pick me up and I start playing better."
So let's get this straight: We're talking 30-plus people, all from the same family and all of whom get along and hang out together? Come on.
"No really, we're a very close bunch," says Gurganious, the oldest of five children. "We're always gathering at one house or another, and it's all centered around fun. We joke around a lot."
It doesn't hurt to feel like you're part of something larger than yourself, either. And not just when it comes to family. Gurganious knows he's part of an Oakland hoops history that's being rewritten.
Once upon a time, Oakland was notorious for shoulda-been, coulda-been guys like Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell. These days, Oakland is forging a new reputation, having produced guys like Cal sophomore Leon Powe, North Carolina freshman Quentin Thomas, Berkeley High senior forward Dior Lowhorn and, of course, Gurganious.
It's a trend Gurganious is keenly aware of.
"I think we're really big on the stuff we've learned from the ones who could have made it," he says. "We've learned a lot from them. From people like Hook. Shoot, ever since I got to high school, I've wanted the respect that kids like Leon got when they stepped on the high school court. I want that, and that's what I play for."
This is clearly a kid who listens at least as much as he opens his mouth.
"He's a special young man," says Nodar. "Off the court, his teachers speak highly of him and administrators speak highly of him. We're such a small school (600 students), and he's the big man on campus, but he doesn't act that way. He's a very inclusive person, and he's eager to talk to anyone."
There is one last piece to the puzzle, and it's falling into place right now. After months of being told he belongs on the same court as the best high school players in the nation, Gurganious is starting to believe it. And he's starting to play like he believes it.
"My coaches, especially (Oakland Soldiers AAU coach) Mark Olivier, have been trying to get that out of me forever," says Gurganious, who helped St. Mary's to the Bay Shore Athletic League title as a sophomore. "They wanted me to understand that I could play at that level against that level of competition. Now I have, and I have that confidence in myself."
Typically, summer visits to the prestigious Reebok ABCD Camp and the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp are just as likely to shake a player's confidence as they are to boost it. But not in the case of Mr. Intensity.
"I think going on the AAU circuit and playing against the kids with big-time rankings and holding his own made him understand that he belongs," says Nodar. "He knows now that he's got the tools."
Of course, there will be a whole new test of self-confidence once Gurganious walks into his first practice at Gonzaga.
"I'm just gonna keep working hard," he says. "Even if I find people are at my level or above it, I'll work to get there. If I find myself saying, ‘Wow, these guys are good,' I'll work until somebody else is saying that about me."