Minds were blown last March when St. John's coach Steve Lavin, with three games left in the regular season and his team in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid, suddenly suspended star D'Angelo Harrison indefinitely for disruptive behavior.
That move had disastrous consequences in the short term as the Red Storm lost four straight, including their Big East Tournament opener, and wound up in the NIT. But as it turned out, it was the right thing for Harrison and for St. John's.
Recalling the meeting where Lavin dropped the bombshell, Harrison recently said, "I was frustrated, but Lav was looking at the bigger picture. I thank him for what he did even though I didn't want to be suspended. It changed my life . . . I'm a completely different person."
Harrison recently was named first-team all-Big East, and his 17.6 scoring average leads the Red Storm (20-11), which is on the NCAA Tournament bubble as it enters its Big East Tournament quarterfinal against Providence (20-11) Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
That outcome seemed far-fetched at the time of the suspension. "It got to a point," Lavin said, "where my view was that the only solution was to do something dramatic that would force D'Angelo to do some soul-searching and find out if he really wanted to be at St. John's.
"We had used other methods along the line that were not proving to be effective . . . To me, it was distracted emotional energy toward officials, opposing players, coaches and teammates, fans in the stands."
He gave him three options. "I offered him the chance to transfer or pursue professional basketball or to return if he earned his way back," Lavin said. "At that moment, he said he wanted to come back to St. John's and earn his degree."
They eventually agreed Harrison would go home to Houston to attend a camp run by former NBA star John Lucas, who knew Harrison well. More than basketball, the camp involved anger-management counseling for Harrison, who was forbidden his cellphone and essentially was cut off from even close friends.
"Lockdown," Harrison called it. Through counseling, his view of the world began to shift.
Describing his problems, Harrison said, "I was not accepting criticism, trying to figure out how to win games my own way. I had a lot of pressure last year. I felt like I had to do everything. When I do terribly, I take it upon myself. You hear it from the people in the crowd. They don't like you. I was in a different place."
Struggling to reprogram his emotions, he asked Lucas if it was all right to still display excitement after a big play. Lucas said it was fine so long as it didn't hurt his team, his family or himself. In short, Harrison developed a new self-awareness that not only allowed him to channel his on-court energy but also helped him get to know himself away from the game.
"I go on walks. I go to dinner twice a week by myself. I hang out with the team twice a week when we have a group thing . . . It clears my mind," he said. "You get to see a lot of different things on your walk, interact with different people."
The revelation for Harrison came last August after he returned for the Red Storm's preseason European tour. He found himself on the bench with four minutes to go in a close game and wondering why he wasn't playing. Then, it dawned on him as his teammates won without him.
"That's when I was like, 'I want to be a part of this team,' " he said. "You could see me on film. I was going crazy on the sidelines. Lose yourself to the game, and stop worrying about how you can affect it. You can affect the game by sitting there and encouraging your team. I wouldn't have done that last year. I would have been mad I wasn't in the game."
That attitude has carried Harrison through this season without a glitch. Lavin said he turned weakness into strength by channeling his emotions positively.
"It feels good, knowing you put in the work and you're getting results," Harrison said. "I haven't had any problems. It's a big change, and I'm happy."