The lights are brought down at the KFC Yum! Center for another Cardinal basketball game.
“The 6-foot-8 junior from Tarboro, North Carolina,” says the announcer, before introducinging star forward Montrezl Harrell.
This begs the question: What about this small town in the heart of Tar Heel country produced a player who is already set to go down in Cardinal basketball history?
“He was in fifth grade when I first started at the middle school, and I had teachers that said ‘This kid’s going to be special,’ and I believed it,” said Jason Miller, who coached Harrell in middle school football, basketball and baseball.
“In basketball and football, you could definitely tell that he was head and shoulders above everybody else,” said Miller.
Even as a middle schooler, Harrell brought a strong work ethic to his athletics.
“He was always one of those kids that I could rely on and count on,” said Miller, who could only recall one time when Harrell got into trouble and had to miss a game.
“It tore him apart so bad … he came in and had his head down. He was all upset. He said, ‘I’ll never let y’all down again. I’m sorry,’” said Miller. “After that one time, he was probably the model player that I’ve ever had in my program.”
By the time he was in seventh grade, Harrell was already playing at a higher level than most would expect.
“When he was in seventh grade was the first time I saw him dunk,” said Miller.
While Harrell mostly dunked while practicing, he once dunked against an opponent in a real game, the first dunk of many in his career.
At North Edgecombe High School, Harrell played football, basketball and track. According to football coach Keith Parisher, Harrell, who played tight end and defensive end, was getting attention from recruiters for football before basketball.
“They didn’t want to run to his side of the ball,” he said. “When he’d stick his arms out, they couldn’t block him.”
Parisher traced part of Harrell’s athletic talent back to his family ties. He coached Harrell’s father, Samuel, when he played high school football, and he currently coaches his younger brother.
However, Parisher says he is not surprised by Harrell’s success because of the strength of his work ethic.
“I tell people when he came into North Edgecombe, he could only probably lift 95 pounds, and then by the time he left he was doing 235,” said Parisher. “That says something to me to his work ethic. He pushed himself to get to where he’s at today.”
On the basketball court, Harrell was just as active as he was on the football field, and he focused most of his energy there.
“He just worked so hard, and he loved the game, and what made it good was he was a student of the game,” said Danny Ward, who coached Harrell in basketball. “He understood basketball. He was a fan not only watching but he read about it and he could talk to you about it.”
Ward was initially concerned that a ninth-grade Harrell would not be strong enough to play varsity because of the contrast between middle and high school. Harrell exceeded expectations and was able to play right away as a rebounder.
“He worked really, really hard,” said Ward, who saw Harrell’s potential.
“Coming into the high school, I thought he was gonna be a real good high school player and have a chance to play in college, but after his sophomore year, I’m like ‘Wow, this guy is gonna have the opportunity to go somewhere and really be effective,’” said Ward. “I really thought he could play Division I and be successful.”
Harrell was conference player-of-the-year in two of his three years and was all-area his junior year. He was mostly known for a high number of triple-doubles in points, rebounds and blocked shots.
Ward cited his participation in track and field as a source of Harrell’s development as a basketball player.
“We had him training for the 400-meter, and it just taught him to get his legs up and his endurance,” he said. “Running the bleachers out on the football field elevated his game between his sophomore and junior year.”
After his junior year, Harrell accepted an offer from then-Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg. He chose Virginia Tech over offers from Wake Forest, South Carolina, Xavier, Clemson, Miami and East Carolina.
After this, he decided to leave North Edgecombe and attend Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia.
“He needed more competition,” said Ward. “I think it was the opportunity to go down to Hargrave to have better competition and to get his GPA up and make sure that he was eligible to play around high school.”
Maturity was also a factor in spending a year at Hargrave before moving on to the collegiate level.
“It took a long time for his maturity to catch up with his size,” joked Ward. “He loved his friends, he loved his family, he loved his grandma. He was the average homegrown guy.”
“They did a great job down at Hargrave to help him to mature,” he added. “When you put that maturity along with his athletic ability, that’s how he developed into that great Division I player.”
In April 2012, Greenberg was fired from Virginia Tech in a surprise decision. Harrell was then allowed to leave his commitment at Virginia Tech and committed to Louisville shortly after.
“When Coach Greenberg ended up getting fired and they didn’t give a reason as to why, I just felt like if I was going to be able to go here, and play for another coach in his first time being a head coach,” said Harrell. “I felt like it was better off for me to start somewhere fresh.”
Harrell played against Virginia Tech for the first time on Jan. 13 at the Yum! Center, and after the game, Harrell said the fact that he was almost on the other side had crossed his mind.
“Everything happens for a reason, and it happened for a reason for me to be here at U of L,” he said. “So this is where I’m at; this is my team. I won’t be anywhere but here.”
Through all of his success, Harrell has not forgotten his roots in Tarboro.
“Every time he’s home, he stops by the school,” said Parisher. “He was at our scrimmage game this year, the first week we did football. He was there on the sidelines with us.”
“He’s always been a great kid, and his dad is a great guy, and he’s always our strongest supporter,” said Miller. “It’s nice as a coach to hear that.”
Before concluding the interview, Miller noted that his wife had just shown him a TV guide which featured Harrell, Miller’s dunking seventh grader.
It made clear that Tarboro has not forgotten its hometown hero either.