Titan's Sleepy Eyes Are on the Rim : John Hardy Awakes Himself and Coaches With Top Play

Times Staff Writer

It was a situation that would test the steadiest of nerves.

With 19 seconds left and his team trailing by two points, John Hardy went to the free-throw line Friday night with the noise of a standing-room-only crowd ringing in his ears at Rolling Hills High School.

Plenty of basketball players have dreamed about being in that situation. But when you are there, the pressure can make a accurate shooter toss bricks faster than a mason.

Not this 16-year-old.

Hardy, the laconic, sleepy-eyed center for Rolling Hills, calmly toed the line and sank two free throws. He hit nothing but net on both shots, sending into overtime a game that the Titans won over Palos Verdes, 45-38, in two extra periods.

"I try to hold my emotions," Hardy said. "I've got to keep my cool."

Hardy's laid-back mannerisms on the court have not always earned him admiration. Some interpret his placidity as a lack of desire.

"John can be as good as he wants to be," said basketball scout Don Mead. "But he needs to play with more intensity."

Others say that is no longer a legitimate rap against Hardy, who seems to be maturing as a player at a rapid rate.

"I can't question his intensity this season," said Torrance Coach Carl Strong. "Last year I could have. I don't think he came to play every game.

"Right now he's one of, if not the most dominant, player in the Bay League. I wouldn't be surprised if Hardy is the player of the year in our league. I'd vote for him right now."

This season has marked a coming of age for Hardy, a 6-4, 200-pound junior whose reputation in basketball on the Palos Verdes Peninsula was known when he arrived at Rolling Hills High two years ago.

"He was the best eighth-grader on the Peninsula," said Rolling Hills Coach Cliff Warren. "He had the most potential, by far, of any player."

After a disappointing freshman year on the junior varsity team, Hardy displayed his potential last season as a sophomore. He was the first player off the bench for the Titans, who won the Bay League championship and reached the CIF 3-A finals.

With added responsibility, Hardy has elevated his game this year. He ranks third among South Bay scorers, averaging 23.5 points, and is among the leading rebounders, averaging 9.2 boards. He leads the team in steals with 37 in 19 games.

Hardy's play is one of the reasons Rolling Hills, which graduated all five starters from last year, is off to a 15-4 start and leads the Bay League with a 5-0 record heading into tonight's 7:30 contest at North Torrance.

Warren says Hardy is improving with every game.

"About halfway through the year he picked up his scoring and his defensive desire," Warren said. "It has also helped that we're getting the ball into him better.

"I think he presents a picture on the court that is a little misleading. He has intensity and a desire to win. He is competitive. But he comes across, if you don't know him extremely well, like he doesn't care as much and is not trying. But he is. He's been the key to our improvement.

"Potentially, he's every bit as good as anybody I've coached."

Coaching is something Hardy has never lacked. His first basketball teacher was his father, John Hardy Sr., a guard at South Carolina State. His two older brothers, Doug and Greg, were standouts at Palos Verdes High.

"I've picked up some of my brothers' traits and some of my father's traits," Hardy said. "I had all those teachers to show me how to play."

In recent years his primary instructors have been Benny Davenport, coach of the West Los Angeles Blazers youth team, and Warren, regarded as one of the top prep coaches in the South Bay.

"A lot of his talent comes from the instruction," said Hardy's father. "But a lot of that is because he has a tremendous amount of talent. As a kid, we used to marvel at his ability to pass so accurately."

Hardy and his father, a veterinarian, used to play the older brothers in two-on-two games. Hardy also remembers taking his lumps against Doug, 22, and Greg, 21, in one-on-one confrontations.

"My brothers used to bully me," Hardy said. "I'm used to getting roughed up under the boards. I think it's made me a tougher player."

Hardy's father remembers when Doug and Greg would get the best of their little brother on the court but says those days are over. When Doug, who attends Tuskegee University in Alabama, and Greg, who goes to Morehouse College in Atlanta, come home from school, they no longer dominate the youngest of the Hardy boys.

"He plays at their level now," said the elder Hardy. "The older boys recognized that during the Christmas holidays."

Although he lives closer to Palos Verdes, Hardy says he chose to attend Rolling Hills because of "personal reasons"--unexplained. Hardy's father feels it was the right move.

"The best thing he could have done is be coached by someone like Cliff Warren," he said. "He's not only an excellent coach as far as putting a game plan together but has a fantastic ability to inspire his players."

Attending a different high school than his brothers did also meant changing allegiances.

Said Hardy: "Since my brothers went to PV, I didn't like Rolling Hills."

All that has changed. Warren says Hardy is one of the Titans' most dedicated players. His commitment to a rigorous summer league schedule improved his game. Because he's the tallest player on the team, Hardy made the sacrifice to play out of position at center.

"He is definitely a guard, no doubt about it," Warren said. "That's his natural position. He has the quickest first move of any player I've coached. Few players can defend him. You not only have to be strong, but you have to be quick."

Hardy doesn't mind playing center. He realizes it's a necessity on a team with an abundance of guards. But he would rather play on the perimeter, which might be possible next season if some of the taller players from Miraleste transfer to Rolling Hills if Miraleste is closed.

Playing center "has it's advantages and disadvantages," Hardy said. "I don't like playing with my back to the basket all the time. When I play against taller players, I'm at a disadvantage. I'm best at guard. I just accept that playing center is something I have to do."

Brother Greg, who stands 6-6 and played center in high school, has helped John with inside moves.

It might be difficult to convince coaches in the Bay League that Hardy is not a natural center. In five league games, he is averaging 25 points and 10.6 rebounds and is shooting 51% from the floor.

"Hardy gives them that punch inside," said Strong, the Torrance coach. "When you begin preparing for a team, you start looking at strengths and what you have to do. Against Rolling Hills, the first thing you have to think is, 'We can't let John Hardy beat us.'

"When they beat us, he scored 26 of their 57 points."

Hardy's goals are for Rolling Hills to defend its Bay League title and return to the Sports Arena, where the Titans lost to Saugus in last year's 3-A finals.

After that? He would like to pursue either a career in business or medicine. The B student says playing college basketball is also in his plans.

"I'm thinking about that. But you have to think of other things in case something goes wrong."

Warren believes Hardy can be a success at whatever he chooses.

"I've had a lot of satisfaction watching his improvement on and off the court," he said. "His attitude has been one of steady improvement. One of the most rewarding things of coaching is to have someone show improvement in all phases of life."

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