Carrabino Can't Jump, but Makes an Impact : Flightless Bird Soars at Harvard

Times Staff Writer

Joe Carrabino was a little perturbed last year when a newspaper article reported that he wears glasses to class at Harvard University.

Nothing irks him more than the image of Harvard athletes as bookworms in athletic guise--as if it were somehow incomprehensible that a serious student could be a serious athlete, too.

It's really too bad, he says, that Ivy League athletes are regarded as the exception rather than the rule in college athletics.

Which says a lot about Carrabino, a graduate of Crespi High in Encino who admits to being more passionate about basketball than schoolwork, but still manages to maintain a B+ average in economics at the nation's oldest and most respected university.

He could have played in the Pacific-10, or for a national champion at Georgetown. But he chose Harvard as much for his chances of playing a lot, he admits, as for its academic reputation.

He could have given up basketball altogether two years ago when a serious back injury kept him off the court for several months, he said, but "I would have felt like I was quitting on myself." He rehabilitated himself through exercise and last season was named the Ivy League Player of the Year--the first Harvard player so honored. As a senior this season, he has a chance to repeat.

He was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship and is in line for a NCAA post-graduate scholarship, but for now he's looking forward to a professional basketball career--if not in the National Basketball Assn., then maybe in Europe.

"I'm just as dedicated as basketball players at other schools," said Carrabino, who wears contact lenses on the court. "People think we're special here in the Ivy League.

"I don't think I'm special."

Maybe not, but he's different than a lot of other college basketball players. For one thing, he's more analytical and a lot more articulate. How many other players would describe their sport as "a game of subtle felony."

He's also well-mannered, outgoing and friendly. And interested in other things besides basketball.

But he's no bookworm.

"I would say I'm pretty well-rounded," he said. "I do my school work because it has to be done, but I don't think I'm academic, in that sense. I'm a people person. I like to talk to people, I like to meet people, be around people . . . more than being by myself reading books."

Mostly, though, he likes to play.

If the University of Houston basketball team belongs to the fraternity of Phi Slamma Jamma, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe suggested earlier this season, Harvard's belongs to Phi Landa Locka.

Last season, the Crimson had only one dunk--by senior Ken Plutnicki in the final seconds of the final game of the season. With only two games remaining this season, Harvard remains dunkless.

"How many other teams in the country won 15 games last year with just one dunk?" assistant coach Peter Roby asked Ryan.

None of the Crimson are more earthbound than Carrabino.

There's a story going around campus that, even when Carrabino gets up on his jump shot, the Sunday Boston Globe won't fit under his feet. His nickname, given to him by two of his roommates, is "Emu," an emu being a large, nonflying Australian bird similar to an ostrich.

At 6-8 1/2 and 230 pounds, Carrabino is slow, too. In a game at Duke last month, the Blue Devil fans didn't boo him.

They mooed him.

But, in the vernacular of the game, Carrabino can play.

"Joe is an overachiever," says Harvard Coach Frank McLaughlin.

"I think everybody probably emphasises the negatives with him--he's slow, he doesn't jump well--but he's as good a perimeter shooter as there is in the country. . . . People talk about Chris Mullin (the Olympian and All-American from St. John's). But if you want to play a game of H-O-R-S-E, I'll take Joe Carrabino over Chris Mullin."

Last season, Carrabino made 90.5% of his free throws, the second-highest percentage in the nation behind another Olympian, Indiana's Steve Alford. He makes them when they matter most, too. Since Feb. 3, 1984, he hasn't missed a free throw in the last five minutes of a game--a streak of 64 straight.

He also ranked among the Ivy League leaders in several other categories last season for a 15-11 Harvard team, shooting 56.2% from the field while scoring 22 points and taking 7.3 rebounds a game. This season, Harvard is 15-7, with a shot at making the National Invitation Tournament, and Carrabino's numbers include 21.3 points a game, 8.2 rebounds, 56.3% shooting from the floor and 87.2% shooting from the foul line.

OK, so the Ivy League isn't exactly the Big East, or even the Pac-10. In fact, from top to bottom, it may be the most lightly regarded Division I conference in the nation. But Carrabino lit up last season against Duke and Stanford, too, scoring 30 points against each. This season, he scored 19 against Duke.

He may not look good doing it, but he gets the job done.

"Some people get off on slamming and jamming and all of that," said Columbia Coach Wayne Szoke, "but the person who does the little things and gets the job done--that's the one that's the most efficient.

"I don't know, can he dunk the ball? I doubt it."

Yes, he can dunk, but he never has in a game. His roll-up-your- sleeves-and-get-the-job-done style is built more on fundamentals than flash.

He's a smart, intense player. He may not be able to run or jump, but with his burly build and strong, muscular legs, he is able to move people around inside.

And he sets a mean screen.

How it is playing against Carrabino every day in practice?

"Very painful," said Harvard freshman Scott Wolf.

Said McLaughlin: "I think when you first look at him, you say, 'He's a nice player, but he has limitations.' But I think he's learned to play within his limitations. . . .

"If there's anything negative about him, he's too demanding on himself and too demanding on his teammates at times. He doesn't mean it--I think they respect him for it--but he's a perfectionist.

"He works unbelievably hard."

Carrabino, 23, grew up in a large family with parents who stressed academics and athletics.

His father, Joe Sr., played football and baseball in high school and college and is now a professor of management in the graduate school of management at UCLA. His mother, Marilyn, is assistant manager at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades.

All of his five brothers and sisters played sports in high school.

"It was a very, very important part of the curriculum and of our life style as a family," Marilyn said. "They still tell stories at Our Lady of Grace in Encino of myself arriving with children in baby carts to watch each succeeding child perform in the various sports."

Joe started in T-ball at age 5 and by the time he was in elementary school he was playing flag football, basketball, track and baseball. As an eighth-grader at St. Cyril's in Encino, he was about 6-4 and could palm a basketball.

At Crespi, he played football for one year and baseball for three, but it was in basketball that he excelled, twice earning all-Southern Section recognition. In the classroom, he did well in almost everything, doing less than "A" work in only two classes and graduating No. 2 in his class.

Clearly, he had heeded the advice of his father, who told him: "You're one injury away from being an ex-ballplayer. The name of the game is to get an education."

Dozens of colleges came after him. So did the military academies. Georgetown Coach John Thompson visited him at Crespi, but that was in the days before Pat Ewing. And, Carrabino said, "I got the feeling that I wasn't the type of player he really wanted."

UCLA never recruited him. And several others were lukewarm.

"The big rag on Joe was that he was too slow," said Crespi Coach Paul Muff. "But the people who said that don't really understand the game because they didn't see the net result. He's a lot more effective than kids who are quicker than him. There aren't too many people around who shoot the ball better than he does.

"I always thought he could play anywhere in the nation, given the right combination."

Roby, a former Stanford assistant, said there is "no question" in his mind that Carrabino could have played at UCLA--or anywhere else in the Pac-10. "He's no savior," Roby said. "But when you have four cobras surrounding one slow white guy, that one slow white guy can really play."

Carrabino visited Stanford, Santa Clara, St. Mary's and Harvard.

Although Ivy League teams do not give athletic scholarships, he ultimately chose Harvard over Santa Clara because, he said, "I wanted to go somewhere where I could play for four years . . . and, obviously, the education factor."

In his third game at Harvard, he was a starter. He set a school scoring record for freshmen, averaging 14.6 points a game, and was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. As a sophomore, he averaged 14.8 points a game and was a fourth-team Academic All-American.

Having made the adjustment from high school to college basketball rather easily, Carrabino said he had second thoughts about not choosing a school with a more visible basketball program.

"I always wonder, 'How would I have done if I'd gone to a Pac-10 school?' " he said. "I've seen guys who are lesser players than me playing for those schools.

"Everyone misses playing on national TV or regional TV, but that's fleeting. Twenty years from now, no one's going to remember that you played on regional TV against Oregon State. But if I have a great job 20 years from now--where I'm vice president, or doing something really exciting that was probably a result of my coming to Harvard--that's more important.

"But it's human nature to miss the fan attention and the media attention and the hero worship."

His basketball career almost came crashing down on a court at the University of Massachusetts in the fall of 1982.

One injury away from being an ex-ballplayer, indeed.

He originally hurt his back in practice, although he never did discover exactly how. Doctors, who originally diagnosed the injury as a pulled muscle, speculated that he might have twisted the muscle as he turned to make an outlet pass. He missed two weeks of practice.

Then, in a game at Massachusetts, he took "three or four really bad falls" and twice had his legs cut out from under him.

In church the next day, he could barely sit and stand. Pain was shooting down his legs and he had spasms in his back and buttocks.

"It got worse and worse as the day wore on," Carrabino said. "The pain kept increasing."

He went into the hospital, thinking he would be there only a few days. But he couldn't even get out of bed for several days. The first doctor he saw recommended surgery.

"I've never experienced pain like that," he said. "Someone once told me that you'll never know the pain of a back injury until you have one--and that's true.

"There were times when I felt like giving up and saying, 'Forget it.' All I wanted was a painkiller. I'm a fairly tough person when it comes to pain, but it was so intense.

"I thought I was an invalid. I couldn't walk. I couldn't go to the bathroom normally. I couldn't eat. It was ridiculous."

When he returned to Los Angeles a few weeks later, Carrabino was examined by Dr. Robert Watkins, who told him he wouldn't be able to play again that season, but that surgery was not necessary if he was willing to put in the time to rehabilitate his back through exercise. Watkins told him it would be a long, arduous project, but Carrabino was willing.

Because Harvard undergraduates must complete work toward their degrees in eight semesters, Carrabino chose to drop out of school for the remainder of the year to retain two years of eligibility. If he hadn't, he would have graduated last spring and his college career would have been over. Harvard does not redshirt athletes.

He moved back home with his parents, worked out three times a day--although for several months he couldn't run or jump--and took a part-time job at Warner Electra Atlantic, a division of Warner Bros. Records.

Six months later, his back was stronger than ever and he was named--partly on the recommendation of Georgetown's Thompson--to an all-star team of Italian-Americans that toured Italy in the summer of 1983. In eight games in Italy, he averaged about 21 points and 11 rebounds a game.

"I knew I could play again," he said. "I knew I hadn't really lost anything. It was just a matter of getting my timing back."

In his first game back at Harvard in fall of that year, Carrabino scored 30 points.

"I was really excited to play," he said, "so I was really motivated the whole year."

Harvard wound up one game out of first place--in 52 seasons, the Crimson has never won the conference championship--and Carrabino was a nearly unanimous choice as Ivy League Player of the Year.

And now . . . the pros?

Five or six NBA teams have sent scouts to Harvard games, McLaughlin said. And Carrabino is one of 64 college seniors who were invited to play in the 33rd Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a proving ground for professional prospects, April 3 to 6 in Portsmouth, Va.

He probably won't realize his goal of leading Harvard to the Ivy League title--the Crimson trails Penn by two games with only two left to play--but last week he became the Crimson's all-time leading scorer and was named a first-team Academic All-American.

As for his NBA aspirations, McLaughlin said, "I think it would be a long shot, but there is a chance if he got with the right club. I think he has a tremendous opportunity in Italy. He's Italian, plus they just put in a three-point shot."

Said Carrabino: "I'd have to play on a team that needs my type of talents. I think I'm one of the best shooters around--both from the foul line and from a distance. That's a rare combination from someone my size. . . . I'm not comparing myself to Larry Bird or Dr. J because I don't think I'm that caliber at all. . . .

"I think I could make a good role player for a team. I'm certainly going to work hard for them. I don't think I'd be an attitude problem."

If he doesn't make it--or even if he does, and sticks for a few years--Carrabino eventually will return to school to study law or business. From there, he'd like to become an investment banker. He has talked about trying politics.

He'll come highly recommended. John Fox, a Harvard dean, calls him "a first-class citizen of this community. He's really contributed to this place in a wonderful way."

A family friend calls Carrabino "the kind of guy who will be President some day."

Said McLaughlin: "I don't know if he'll be President, but he will have an impact somewhere. He'll impact a lot of lives. I think he's had a tremendous impact here.

"It's a subtle leadership kind of thing. We have six freshmen on the varsity. Here's Joe Carrabino, the Ivy League Player of the Year, and he's breaking his back every day in practice. . . . And the freshmen look and say, 'I guess that's what's expected. If that's what the best player in the league does, then I must have to do that.'

"He's a tremendous example to everybody."

With or without his glasses on.

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