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The biggest recruiting coup of Jim Hayford's career wasn't a result of shrewd talent evaluation at a grassroots tournament or timely advice from a trustworthy high school coach.
It came via a tip from an airplane seatmate.
One year before Hayford left Division III titan Whitworth College for Division I lightweight Eastern Washington in 2011, he bumped into longtime referee Frank Harvey as they boarded the same flight out of Spokane. Harvey eventually asked Hayford if he'd consider watching game film of his son, a late-blooming guard with a smooth jump shot but no scholarship offers. Hayford politely agreed as a favor to a longtime friend even if he wasn't optimistic it would be worth his time.
"You don't last long going on other people's opinions — especially not a father's opinion of his own son," Hayford said. "But once I saw him, I was pleasantly surprised by his ability to drive and to shoot. I said, 'This kid's going to be pretty good.'"
Though Hayford had the foresight to invite the referee's son to walk on at Eastern Washington when he landed that job, the Eagles coach is the first to admit he had no idea how good Tyler Harvey would become. The younger Harvey has since evolved into college basketball's ultimate underdog story, living proof that anything's possible with hard work and good fortune.
The same kid who didn't receive a single scholarship offer in high school now leads college basketball in scoring at 24.0 points per game. The same kid who stood barely 5-foot-4 after eighth grade has since grown a foot and added muscle to his slight frame. The same kid who didn't make his high school's varsity team until his junior year now has Eastern Washington eying its first league title in 11 years and NBA scouts traveling to remote Cheney, Wash., to see him play.
"If you had told me all that when I was still in high school, I probably would have laughed at you," Harvey said. "I would never have thought any of this was possible. It's just a blessing to be in the position I'm in now."
It's a testament to Harvey's passion for basketball that he didn't give up the sport years ago.
Harvey attended Bishop Montgomery High School, a prestigious Southern California basketball power that has won three state championships and produced numerous Division I prospects. His own father suggested entering ninth grade that he focus on baseball, a sport more forgiving to an athlete whose parents both are 5-foot-7 and whose extended family features nobody taller than 6 feet.
Though Harvey tried out for the Bishop Montgomery baseball team, he gave up the roster spot he earned the next day because he preferred to focus exclusively on basketball. He didn't want to give up on a sport he'd grown to love from playing it every day and from attending the college games his dad worked up and down the West Coast.
"My thing was, whatever my kid decides to do, I'm going to support him," Frank Harvey said. "At that time, I thought he was going to be a good JV player and that might be it, but I figured it was fine as long as he was happy."
What altered Harvey's basketball trajectory was his insatiable work ethic, his tremendous feel for the game and a late growth spurt nobody saw coming. By the end of his freshman year, he eclipsed his parents' height. By the end of his sophomore year, he was pushing 6 feet. By the end of his junior year, he was growing too fast for his own good as coordination issues and knee pain forced him to take a few months off from basketball to let his body recover.
"I definitely was that clumsy guy falling all over the place in practice or tripping over my feet in games," Harvey said. "But it all paid off in the end because I became a much better player and I was able to change my shot. I learned to release it over my head so people couldn't block me anymore."
The growth spurt helped Harvey evolve from MVP of Bishop Montgomery's JV team as a sophomore, to an all-league selection as a junior, to an 18-point-per-game scorer as a senior. The one thing that didn't follow was scholarship offers, which was surprising considering Harvey was the best player on a high school team well known to college coaches in the talent-rich Los Angeles area.
One reason Harvey stayed below the radar was he didn't play much AAU basketball. He didn't view himself as a college prospect until midway through his growth spurt and by the time he did most top Los Angeles-area grassroots programs already had made promises to more highly touted players.
Another factor was his slender frame and late-developing athleticism. Even the coaches who did see Harvey play worried that a combo guard who stood just over 6 feet and weighed barely 150 pounds might not be able to defend bigger, stronger guards or finish through contact at the rim.
"When you're growing that fast, you can't fill out," Bishop Montgomery coach Doug Mitchell said. "I think a lot of people looked at his frame and wondered if he was going to be able to withstand the rigors of Division I basketball. He could shoot the rock and he could do some things, but I think that was the question with him was whether he had the body strength and the athleticism.
"I really did think he was going to be a good college player. I really did think he was under-recruited. But there was no way I could have predicted he'd be as good as he has become."
What initially made Harvey more appealing to Hayford than other coaches was that he was an ideal fit for the fast-paced, offense-oriented system the coach favored. Hayford coveted outside shooting more than any other skill in recruiting and was not as concerned about the physical pounding Harvey would take at the Division III level.
Harvey accepted Hayford's offer to join him at Whitworth with mixed emotions because it meant giving up his dream of going Division I. Thus when Hayford took the Eastern Washington job in March 2011 and offered Harvey the chance to walk on and someday earn a scholarship, the guard eagerly jumped at it even though he knew so little about the school he initially pronounced the town where it's located incorrectly.
"I was praying he'd give me a shot to play Division I," Harvey said. "I'd never heard of Cheney, Wash., or Eastern Washington and I was not used to living in snow, but all I cared about was that it was Division I basketball."
To give himself the best chance to succeed, Harvey redshirted as a freshman, spending that year improving his nutrition, honing his revamped jump shot and lifting weights daily to fill out his slender frame. By the time the year was over, he had grown to his current height of 6-foot-4 and added about 20 pounds of muscle.
Opportunities to play were scarce for Harvey as a redshirt freshman until Hayford was scrambling to find a spark late in Eastern Washington's visit to Northern Arizona on Feb. 9, 2013. Harvey entered with his team trailing by 13 with 3:42 to go and erupted for 14 points the rest of the way, leading the Eagles to an improbable 77-74 overtime victory.
"It was a surreal feeling, like I was floating in a dream, honestly" Harvey said. "I do like to shoot and guys weren't playing me that hard because I was a freshman coming off the bench who wasn't in their scouting report. I figured I might as well keep shooting to try to get us back into the game."
The days of Harvey not being the focal point of opposing scouting reports are long gone now. He forced his way into Eastern Washington's starting lineup by the end of his freshman season, led the Big Sky in scoring as a sophomore at 21.8 points per game and has increased both his efficiency and his scoring output this season as a junior.
A huge reason Eastern Washington is 15-5 overall and 6-1 in the Big Sky Conference is because Harvey is shooting an absurd 48.6 percent from behind the arc despite attempting more than nine threes per game. Defenders have to respect his ability to sink catch-and-shoot threes and pull-up jumpers off the dribble, yet they can't crowd the arc too much because he is so adept driving and finishing at the rim that he shoots 54 percent from inside the arc.
If one of the questions about Harvey entering the season was if he could be effective against high-major defenders, he has answered that too so far this season. He torched Indiana for 25 points in Eastern Washington's 88-86 upset of the Hoosiers in Bloomington in November and he lit up Cal and Washington for a combined 52 points in a pair of narrow December road losses, serving notice that the Eagles could be both a fun watch and a tough out if they reach the NCAA tournament.
"I've been watching March Madness since I was four or five years old and I never thought I'd have a chance to play in it," Harvey said. "To be able to do that this year with this group of guys, it would be a dream come true."
The way Harvey's career has gone, anyone would be crazy to count him out. The same guy who stood 5-foot-4 eight years ago, who couldn't make his high school's varsity team six years ago and who had zero scholarship offers four years ago is now one of college basketball's feel-good stories.
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