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College is Next in Joe Sharkey’s Basketball Journey

March 1, 2011 Columns 2 Comments

Much of the world’s introduction to Joe Sharkey came about six years ago in the well-known Sneaker Wars series in the Boston Globe. The first thing many knew about him, as a result of it, was that he was a much-hyped kid on the basketball court and perhaps a symbol of the crazy world of grassroots basketball and how young the sneaker companies were starting with kids. Readers also knew he was talented.

Being introduced in such a light raises the stakes with a skeptical public. Knowing how good he was reputed to be then, many would expect to hear his name as a future NBA player as he gets older. In fact, there may be a sense among some that the book is closed and he was all hype, because he isn’t on the national radar like he once was. Those not familiar with the game would think that if he isn’t at the professional level now, he’s a disappointment. Additionally, not becoming a pro in the context in which first impressions are formed might make some think of him as a symbol of all that is wrong with grassroots basketball.

The reality is that none of that is true. As Sharkey finishes his senior year and looks forward to entering the Ivy League in the fall, he has been on a journey that basketball has led him through but not necessarily defined. He is in a good place, and at the end of it all is something for the general public not connected with the game to learn from.

A Team Player in Individual Settings

While the general public will have their own impression of a kid who is highly ranked as a sixth grader, Sharkey thought little of it and the trappings that seemed to come with it. He found it really odd to be nationally ranked at such a young age, with so much ahead of him. “I didn’t really pay attention to it,” Joe says. Pat Sharkey, Joe’s father, said “it didn’t seem right,” and added that Joe didn’t feel like he had a reputation to live up to as a result of being nationally ranked at that age.

A level-headed young man, Sharkey was not just a basketball player growing up. He played baseball, floor hockey and soccer along the way, and has 55 medals and trophies from first place finishes. In baseball, he was the top pick in the Norwood Little League one year. In soccer, he was a goalie, which has helped him immensely in basketball as a guard because in that position, one has to see the entire field and be a step ahead of the play as it develops. He enjoyed playing all of them, but always loved basketball more than the others.

The team aspect of each sport was important, and the experience early on of being at all-star camps provided a surprise. Daryn Freedman, who later became a college coach at Northeastern and Duquesne, got Sharkey involved in Five-Star camps, and he was invited to play in adidas’ Junior Phenom Camp. At the camps, the players were invited to be selfish, especially the guards, who have the ball in their hands the most. The mentality of camps all over is for players to take as many shots as they can, and it wasn’t just the players’ doing. But there was one player who didn’t fit that at all.

“I’m always looking to get my teammates involved,” Sharkey said of his play.

Besides playing in camps and with travel teams, Sharkey has attended prep schools, which have been in the news more in recent years. In his case, there was more than basketball involved; he is an excellent student and wanted the best education. From the seventh through ninth grade, he attended the Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, where he was coached by Greg Kristof. The next step is where things took a turn.

Going Away

The Sharkeys, consisting of Joe and his older sister Samantha along with parents Pat and Denise, are a very close family from Norwood, Mass., about 20 miles south of Boston and not far from Foxboro, home of the New England Patriots. When Joe was considering where he would go to school after the ninth grade, he had two choices in mind. One was Worcester Academy, a rare prep school in an urban setting not very far from downtown Worcester and about an hour drive from home. The other was Northfield Mount Hermon, located just a few miles from the New Hampshire and Vermont borders just off Interstate 91, and about half a mile from the Connecticut River. It is about a two-hour drive from home.

Northfield Mount Hermon is considered by many to be the best combination of academics and athletics in the country. Founded in 1879, the school has an enrollment of 650 students, 80 percent of whom live on campus and 25 percent of whom are international. The basketball team plays in Class AAA, the highest level of the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council, which is the most competitive group of prep schools in the country. This season, eight alums from the school are active Ivy League players.

When Joe visited the campus, he was sold quickly. He met John Carroll, an alum of the school and the head basketball coach since 2001, and suddenly going away from home was what he wanted. That would be where he would spend the next four years, repeating his freshman year at first.

“John and the whole campus blew me away when I saw it,” he recalls.

So off he went for the next chapter of his life. But all was not well at first, and it wasn’t with Joe, who found the school to be everything he felt it would be. Pat Sharkey remembers the day when Joe left for Northfield as a “sad day” because Joe was no longer a short drive from home. Pat made the long drive to the campus often in the early going on weekends, hoping to spend time with Joe much like what might have happened had Worcester Academy been the choice. Gradually, that changed and the long trips were less frequent, but Pat and Denise attempt to see any of his games they can get to.

The family closeness would later come into play with the college decision. It would both help and benefit from the result, as it turns out.

The College Decision

Joe has always been an excellent student, which was another draw to Brimmer & May and then Northfield Mount Hermon. One thing basketball could ultimately do is lead him to a good academic school for his college education, and that was always the goal. For a long time, the mindset was that a school in either the Ivy League or Patriot League would be a desirable result.

As Joe’s junior year was about to start, college coaches could contact him per NCAA regulations. Naturally, Ivy and Patriot schools were among those who were in touch, and there were a few more. He had a long talk with his father about college now that this was squarely in front of him, wanting the advice of someone who has been there and who cared about him. He had his choice of good academic schools, and there were ones relatively close to home. But one thing helped seal the deal.

Pat remembers talking with Joe about the college level of play. Most young players figure they can play at Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, or any other national powerhouse until they start hearing only from schools well below that level. Plenty of them will, if they get offers from mid-majors and one high-major, choose the high-major school because it’s the highest level. In many cases, those players either eventually accept that they won’t play, or they transfer in a year or two to a school at a lower level where playing time would not figure to be at such a premium.

Joe was more astute, understanding the value of the college education as well as the situation he would be in. Naturally, he wants to play as well. From that, a conclusion was reached: if the top half of a BCS conference was unattainable, go to an Ivy League or Patriot League school. It was a simple matter: if you can’t play at a school where a national championship is a possibility, worry first about getting a world-class education. It wouldn’t be a worthwhile experience to play at a school that is a perennial cellar dweller in a conference like the Big East or ACC. He knew he didn’t want to be too far from home, much as that has brought benefits during his time at Northfield Mount Hermon.

With that, Joe became the youngest player ever to commit to an Ivy League school when he committed to Brown early in October of his junior year. Because of that and how Ivy League schools handle early applications, asking students to not consider any others at that point, it is difficult to gauge what kind of college interest Joe really had before ending his recruitment. We will never know if one day he might have landed a high-major scholarship offer or if he would have still chosen Brown. But at the end of the day, it worked out. He has since been accepted into the school.

Having a Chance to Enjoy the Game

One reason Sharkey has not had a lot of buzz since the Sneaker Wars story came out is that he was not very active in the travel basketball scene. He played in some tournaments with the Rhode Island Hawks, a handful with the newly-formed Expressions Elite and some with the New York-based New Heights program, but he wasn’t someone you saw playing every weekend in the spring and every day in July like a lot of players. As mentioned earlier, the camps didn’t really fit him, anyway, with the emphasis on individual play and Joe’s desire to play within a team concept.

Perhaps that had a couple of unexpected benefits. For one, if he had been very active on the travel team and camp scene, it’s quite possible that he would not quietly be out of the public eye. A big reason Sharkey was so highly touted in the sixth grade was that he was taller and more physically mature than a lot of his peers. He was already close to his physical ceiling, the opposite of what has happened to players who reach high school and suddenly have a growth spurt or two that changes their game and their recruitment. This isn’t the first time that has happened and won’t be the last, because young people mature physically at different paces. There will always be players who are physically mature at a young age and dominate the competition early, until others start to catch up to them physically.

Another possible benefit is that not being there may have kept any outside pressure to live up to being on the scene at such a young age at bay. While he handled that well all along, many a highly-touted prospect has at times played as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. When that happens, it’s not uncommon to see that player no longer enjoy the game, as if it becomes a job because anything less than a spectacular performance is seen as evidence the player is overrated. It is often said that potential can work against someone, and it is true. When a player doesn’t live up to that potential, judgment from the general public is often harsh.

Sharkey has never had body language suggesting that this has happened. He has always looked like someone who is enjoying the game, and that can’t be underestimated. He’s never been caught in the trappings of being known at a young age in a sports world where talented kids get hyped up at younger and younger ages. He isn’t a big-time prospect getting scholarship offers from one high-major school after another, and it’s not because he’s really a bad player who was over-hyped or didn’t get better. The primary reason for that is that he reached his physical ceiling at a young age, something many not familiar with the game can easily miss.

In addition, because the team aspect has always been the most important to him as well, as opposed to what he as an individual can accomplish, he has never been one to play selfish basketball just to try to improve his own reputation. As he sees it, his role “is to do anything asked” whether it’s a travel team or his school team. He has been able to continue that right up through his high school years, and the results have been pretty good thus far. His teams have had more than their share of success.

Looking Forward: Basketball, Education and Family

Joe Sharkey’s last hurrah as a high school player is coming up. On Wednesday, Northfield Mount Hermon will open the NEPSAC Class AAA Tournament against Maine Central Institute at Endicott College. After that is done, Northfield Mount Hermon will then compete in the 2011 National Prep Championship next week. They had quite a run there last year, coming in as runner-up after a close loss in the title game.

It’s been a good senior season for him, as they have had to rely on him at times with a frontcourt-heavy team and play small forwards in the backcourt at times. A highlight was being named MVP of their 72-66 overtime win over Bridgton Academy at the National Prep School Invitational in Rhode Island, scoring 18 points, grabbing eight rebounds and handing out three assists.

The high school years have been quite a journey not just for Joe, but for the entire Sharkey family. Pat can be spotted at college and high school games in the area, oftentimes with other families of players he has come to know from Joe’s playing experience. He takes in the games like an aficionado and is very engaging, giving you the sense that he’s learned a lot about the game and enjoys the people he has met because of it. One can expect to see more of him at Brown once Joe enrolls there next year. No one is happier about the family being all together, as he knows how precious family time is. His own father passed away at an age not far beyond his current age and he would love to have had more time with him.

The last four years have been one of incredible growth for Joe. This year, he has been a student leader on campus, something he always thought about once he got there. There are only about 30 of them in the school. He also became a deacon last year and started running church services. His father notes that he has learned how not to follow the crowd, a benefit of being away from home at an impressionable stage of life. On that, Joe noted, “Living away from home has made me independent and confident.”

A career in the NBA doesn’t appear to be in his future, but that’s not what anyone should judge him on even with the early attention he received. Sharkey didn’t ask for it and didn’t try to ride it for all it would be worth; he simply found a way to use it to his advantage. Cynics would read the Sneaker Wars series and lump him in with the many questionable elements and outcomes of the grassroots basketball scene, and that would be unfortunate. He was simply one player in the grand scheme of things, not a mover or shaker of any sort.

Sharkey has grown up with the game and the benefits of playing it at a high level, and it’s a process that appears to be going quite well thus far. He isn’t sure of his career desires yet, noting that one attraction to Brown is that the school has flexibility in choosing an academic concentration. But basketball has helped lead him to something that will set him up for the rest of his life. And it’s given him and his family something positive.

“Basketball has taken us for the right kind of ride,” Pat Sharkey reflected.

A ride that has one chapter about to end and another ready to begin in a few months.

Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. This was a great story about Joe Sharkey – thank you! It was also a breath of fresh air after recently reading George Dohrmann’s “Play Their Hearts Out.” I know Joe and his family well and it’s great to see a young, focused, student-athlete with an understanding of the real prize – college and an Ivy-league college for that matter! All the hard work has paid off Joe …continued success with your journey.

  2. Sue Lucia says:

    I have known Denise my whole life and am so proud of Joe for reaching such high goals for himself, getting into Brown, and being a really good kid! Nice article..go Joe!!

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