It seems like a long time ago, and in the life of an 18-year-old, it was.
Zak Irvin was scrawny as a freshman at Hamilton Southeastern High School, all legs and arms. The varsity basketball team was full of upperclassmen and an emerging sophomore named Gary Harris. HSE coach Brian Satterfield could have used Irvin, but knowing minutes could be scarce, sent him to play on the junior varsity for a season.
Out of the limelight and watching from the bleachers; it wasn’t how Irvin envisioned his freshman season.
“I’m a competitor,” he says now. “I wanted to be out on the court for the varsity, not JV. But in the long run, it actually helped me out.”
More than three years later, Irvin has blossomed. The 6-7 forward has been named the 2013 IndyStar Mr. Basketball winner. Irvin, a Michigan recruit, received 101 votes from the state’s coaches and media for the top individual honor. Mishawaka Marian’s Demetrius Jackson was second with 46 votes, followed by Tipton’s Mike Crawford (37), Fort Wayne Northrop’s Bryson Scott (26) and Cathedral’s Collin Hartman (14).
With Irvin winning, Hamilton Southeastern makes history as the first school with back-to-back Mr. Basketball recipients since it was first awarded in 1939. Harris, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year at Michigan State, was last year’s winner.
“That is special,” Satterfield said. “Both guys came in and did the work to improve themselves individually, but they were also great team guys and did it at both ends of the floor. Both of them also excelled in the classroom. So it’s a great award for them, but also our school and community. We were fortunate to have those two guys in our program.”
In three years on the varsity team at HSE, Irvin scored 1,239 points (18.8 per game) and accumulated 402 rebounds, 164 assists and 105 steals. His teams were a combined 59-11.
The first two years, he played alongside Harris. The two have known each other since Irvin was in third grade and have remained close even after Harris left for Michigan State. When Harris won Mr. Basketball last year, they talked about an HSE repeat.
“That was one of the goals that I set,” Irvin said. “We both thought it would be pretty cool to see it happen.”
There were definitely questions about Irvin coming into the season. The main one was this: how would he perform without Harris on the court? The Royals returned very little experience from a team that was ranked No. 1 much of Irvin’s junior year, finishing 22-3 after a loss to Carmel in the sectional final.
Zak’s father, Jimmy, wondered aloud one night at home during the preseason about how competitive the Royals would be.
“(Zak) said, ‘Dad, we’re going to be pretty good,’ ” the elder Irvin recalled.
Irvin made good on his promise, leading the team in scoring (24.6 points), rebounding (9.0), steals (2.1) and blocked shots (1.0). He was second in assists (3.3) and shot better than 51 percent from the field. Irvin also made a concerted effort to become more than “just a jump shooter” offensively and shot 117 free throws, far more than his previous two seasons.
“He improved more than any other player I’ve coached in a high school career,” Satterfield said. “He definitely had some tools as a freshman, but he’s improved greatly in all facets. From not playing varsity as a freshman to starting three years and winning Mr. Basketball, he’s come a long way. Especially his defense; he really took that to heart. For as talented as he is offensively, he’s very versatile and special on the defensive end.”
As great as the season was, it ended in heartbreak. HSE led North Central by 15 points in the second half of a sectional semifinal game. It appeared the Royals were well on their way to a rematch in the sectional final against Carmel, the team that knocked them out the previous year.
Then it all fell apart. North Central rallied, tying the game on a last-second shot by Darius Latham — Irvin’s former travel ball teammate — and won 78-68 in overtime. Irvin was distraught after the game, doubled over near midcourt when he was approached by North Central coach Doug Mitchell, who talked to Irvin for several seconds.
Mitchell’s message: keep your head up; you are one of the best high school players I’ve ever seen.
“I was just shocked,” Irvin said. “We were up by 15 and felt like we were going to move on. We had a lot of high hopes. But everything happens for a reason. I was mad at the moment, but I thought about what (Mitchell) said later. I’ve only watched part of the game once. The more I watched, the more I got upset again.”
But the beginning of another journey has begun, one that will take Irvin to Michigan and the battles of the Big Ten. His parents, Jimmy and Marcia, and sixth-grade sister, Tayah, will follow closely.
When Zak and Tayah were a few years younger, Zak would set up cones in the driveway and teach his sister the same ballhandling drills he’d learned.
“There is a six years age gap, but they are very close,” said Marcia Irvin. “She’s his biggest fan. And he’s more low-key with it, but he’s her biggest fan.”
Tayah would love to see her brother in the NBA some day. That’s what Zak hopes for, too. But he understands there’s a long way to go. All he has to do is think back to his freshman year to see how far he’s come already.
“It’s one step at a time,” Irvin said. “When I was younger, I wasn’t the best player. I wasn’t the go-to guy on my team. But I think hard work pays off, no matter what situation you are in.”