CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Shane Larkin was still in grade school when the Cincinnati Reds began grooming him for the big leagues.
The son of a shortstop, Larkin enjoyed hanging out with the Reds at spring training and receiving tutorials on hitting from such experts as Pete Rose and Tony Perez.
Then one year he returned home to Orlando, Fla., and his Little League coach insisted Larkin’s swing was all wrong.
In frustration, Larkin gave up baseball.
“It kind of crushed me,” says his father, Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. “I laugh about it now, but I’ll tell you, I was bent out of shape about it.”
While dad was mad, the Miami Hurricanes are delighted with Larkin’s decision to focus on basketball.
A sophomore this season, Larkin has blossomed into perhaps the best point guard in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He’s a major reason the Hurricanes are ranked No. 8 and take a 9-0 league record into Saturday’s game against North Carolina.
“Shane Larkin is probably the key to the team,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton says.
Following road victories last week over North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, Larkin was chosen the Oscar Robertson national player of the week and the ACC player of the week.
His season statistics are solid, though not dazzling — 12.8 points, 4.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game, plus 41-percent shooting from 3-point range. But coaches rave about the way he plays defense and runs Miami’s balanced offense.
“I think he’s the best point guard in the league because he makes very few mistakes, he knows his role, he has an unselfish spirit and the ball is safe in his hands,” Hamilton says. “He plays like a coach on the floor. He’ll defer, but you can’t back off of him, and he’s confident enough that when he needs to make things happen, he’s capable of it.”
Larkin contributes in ways big and small. In back-to-back wins over then-No. 1 Duke and Florida State, the 5-foot-10½ guard totaled 19 rebounds. At Virginia Tech, he blocked consecutive shots. Against North Carolina State, he made five steals. And in Wednesday’s victory over Boston College, he had five assists and no turnovers.
Such performances are no surprise to Miami coach Jim Larranaga. He was at George Mason when he started recruiting Larkin, a ninth-grader at the time.
“I loved him then. I love him now,” Larranaga says. “He’s terrific at everything, and he’s having an all-conference-caliber year.”
It’s a breakthrough year for the entire program. The Hurricanes have already matched the school record for ACC wins in a season, and the last time they were ranked so high was in 1960.
Saturday’s game is a sellout, the third this year for a program that historically struggles to attract attention.
“We believe in ourselves, and the rankings have furthered that confidence,” Larkin says. “The way we’re playing, our confidence is through the roof. Hopefully we can just keep it going.”
Miami is a senior-dominated team steered by a 20-year-old sophomore who plays with the poise of someone who grew up around world-class athletes.
As a youngster, Larkin went to spring training with his father every year and attended half a dozen All-Star Games. He visited Cooperstown last year when his dad was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Tiger Woods made fun of his long hair. Deion Sanders gave him the nickname SugaShane.
“I met all these famous people,” Larkin says. “It was a humbling experience knowing your dad was one of the most famous people in the game.”
These days, Barry Larkin enjoys being a fan, and makes the four-hour trip from Orlando to attend most of the Hurricanes home games. He went to the ACC tournament last year, and to Hawaii in December when the team played there in a holiday tournament.
Larkin is proud of the way his only son has handled success and attention.
“To watch him interact with people who appreciate the way he plays the game, that’s the most fun thing,” Larkin says. “To see when he walks in someplace on campus after a game and people give him an ovation, and to see people walk up to him and ask him for his autograph, it’s so fun to watch that.”
In the Larkin family, athletic notoriety is almost a given. Shane’s two sisters have both excelled at lacrosse. Three of his dad’s brothers played a college sport, including Uncle Byron, the leading scorer in Xavier hoops history.
Shane is grateful for his bloodlines.
“I thank my dad — and my mom,” Shane says. “If I don’t thank her, she’ll get on me.”
Barry notes that his wife, Lisa, was indeed an excellent dancer. And he says Shane’s success involves more than mere good genes.
“Growing up the son of a major league player, Shane used to get so incredibly upset when people said he was only given opportunities because of who his father was or because he had money or whatever,” Barry says. “Those things motivated him, and I think Shane does an incredible job of working really hard.”
Barry says he still wonders how good his son might have been at baseball. But Shane says his decision to focus on basketball went beyond frustration with his Little League coach.
“I was a hyper kid, so I didn’t want to play baseball and wait for the ball to come to me,” Shane says. “I wanted to play a sport where I could go get the ball.
“When I was young, it was fun being in the locker room and shagging balls in the outfield in spring training,” he says. “But I couldn’t keep my attention on the games for more than 30 minutes. I would sit there with my Game Boy the whole game.”
Now the sport has changed, and so have the Larkins’ roles. Shane’s glad to be playing, and Dad happily does the watching.