Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends" Interview Series: Harvard's Joe Carrabino

December 26th, 2010
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Harvard great Joe Carrabino. Carrabino, who is the only player in Harvard history to be named Ivy League Player of the Year, is the school's all-time leading scorer with a total of 1,880 points. A sixth round draft pick of the Denver Nuggets in 1985, Carrabino is currently the managing director at AEA Investors.

Jon Teitel: In the 1980 CIF playoffs against Verbum Dei (the top-ranked hight school team in the nation at the time), you made two free throws with 20 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime en route to a one-point win for your Crespi HS team. Did you think you were going to make both free throws and what did it mean to you to beat the best team in the country?

Joe Carrabino: As I recall, we beat Verbum Dei in regulation (not overtime), but it was a great game to be part of and very exciting for our team and fans. Verbum Dei had an incredible tradition of success in Los Angeles, and that year the team had a lot of talent led by Kenny Fields (who later played at UCLA and then in the NBA). However, our Crespi team was one of the top-ranked teams in LA too, and we were battle-tested against a lot of great competition. We definitely believed we could win the game. Our coach Paul Muff trained us hard, and our scouting reports on teams were as good as that of any Division I college program. I faintly remember making some key free throws down the stretch. I can honestly say that I was always confident when I went to the line because I believed in myself and had coaches and teammates who believed in me too. Additionally, our team shot a lot of free throws in practice under pressure to prepare us for similar situations. Beating Verbum Dei brought our team a lot of publicity but going into the game we believed that we were going to win, so we viewed the win as just another step in our quest to win the CIF title. Coach Muff knew we had the potential to go a long way, and kept us focused on the task at hand.

JT: You chose Harvard after being recruited by such schools as Stanford and Georgetown. Why did you decide on Harvard?

JC: I was fortunate to have been recruited by a wide range of schools early on, but I ultimately chose Harvard for a few specific reasons: (1) the education; (2) the chance to play right away and help lead the school to its first-ever Ivy League title; (3) the opportunity to live on the East Coast and in the city of Boston (I was a Celtics and Red Sox fan); and (4) my feel for the coaches and teammates I met during the recruiting process. My parents always told me that I was one injury away from being a regular student, so I better have a good backup plan. I am lucky to come from a family where education was emphasized. As an 18-year old, I was impressed by the basketball. My father was a professor at UCLA's business school, so I practically grew up on the campus and went to almost all of the Bruin football/basketball games growing up. I am the fifth of six children and I had siblings go to great schools ahead of me (including Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA). My parents did not allow me to consider "basketball" schools with poor academics, so that cut out some schools. As for others such as Stanford, Georgetown, etc., recruiting is a two-way street and a matching process. Each school has its own story as to why I did not end up there, but picking Harvard was right for me.

JT: You were a four-time All-Ivy performer, and in 1981 you were named Ivy Rookie of the Year. How were you able to come in as a freshman and contribute from the start, and how were you able to continue to remain so consistent throughout the rest of your college career?

JC: When I look back on my freshman season at Harvard, I owe a lot to our two captains (Mark Harris and Tom Mannix) for accepting me and at times subordinating their role in the offense. I also owe the opportunity to play a lot to our two coaches (Frank McLaughlin and Terry O'Connor). Mark and Tom were terrific mentors, set a great example, and had no personal ego: they just wanted to win. They both remain close friends of mine today. As I mentioned earlier, I had superb coaching in high school and played against a lot of great competition. We ran our high school program a lot like a Division I college program so I felt prepared to make a contribution right away, but I needed the coaches to give me the chance and the team to accept it. Both of these things happened, and I had some early success in games which built my confidence. As they say, the rest is history!

JT: After sustaining a back injury during your sophomore season you dropped out for one year in order to retain two years of eligibility (because Harvard does not allow athletes to redshirt). What did you do during that year, and were you worried that you might never get back to the level you were at before your injury?

JC: My back injury occurred during my "first" junior year. I got hurt against UMass in early December when I had my legs cut out from under me while driving to the basket for a layup. I finished the game, but was in a lot of pain on the bus ride home and ended up in the hospital where I stayed for almost two weeks with herniated discs and other complications. I flew home to LA for Christmas and saw the famous orthopedic back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who told me that I could avoid surgery but would need nine months of rigorous rehab in order to play basketball again at a high level. By that time I had been out of school for almost a month and had finals ahead of me in January. My "redshirt" decision was an easy one. I loved basketball and wanted to resume my career, and the best chance to make a proper recovery was doing rehab in California under Dr. Watkins' care. Under Harvard and Ivy League rules, I thus had to withdraw from school before finals so as not to lose a year of eligibility. It was too bad because I had a good set of grades going! I honestly never thought that I would not play again. I believed in Dr. Watkins and followed his rehab instructions religiously, and worked very hard to get back into basketball-playing condition.

JT: After returning for your junior year, you converted 90.5% of your free throws (#2 in the nation behind Indiana's Steve Alford) and were named Ivy Player of the Year (the only one in Harvard history). What is your secret for free throw shooting, and what did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor?

JC: I was always a good free throw shooter throughout my career. My high school coaches always reminded us that the shots were "free", and thus not expected to be missed! My high school JV coach Frank Ryan had each of us develop a routine to use at the line, and I never changed it throughout the rest of my career (it was modeled after Adrian Dantley's routine). Good free throw shooting is a combination of a sound routine, practice and confidence. If you look at our Harvard team that year, we had four of the nation's top 11 free throw shooters, and our team mark of 82.2% set an NCAA free throw shooting record that still stands today. Therefore, we had a lot of momentum and confidence each time that we stepped to the line. We definitely expected to make our free throws, so we were a dangerous team to foul. Being named Ivy League Player of the Year was obviously a great honor, but basketball is a team sport and you cannot have success alone. I played on a very good team that came within one game of winning the Ivy title. I would trade the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards for that first title. I was very motivated all year long and worked hard every day in practice. Coming off of my back injury I wanted to succeed, and was pleased with my consistent play and proud that it was recognized by the coaches in the league.

JT: That same season you scored 30 points in a three-point loss to Duke. Do you think that you should have won that game, and could you tell at the time that Coach K was going to become such a legend?

JC: Of all the games that I played, the Duke game is the one people remember the most. Our team was very motivated to show that we could play with the top college teams. We had talent and were playing well as a team. Our team was not intimidated by Duke and we were playing to win the game. You should not play sports if you do not come to win. However, we knew that it would take a great effort to challenge Duke because of their talent and Coach K's skill. I had played against Jay Bilas in high school and knew that he was a good player who had a lot of talented teammates (including current Harvard coach Tommy Amaker). The disappointing thing about that game is that we had a real chance to win, but I missed the shot that would have won it. Everyone remembers my 30 points and the close call, but I remember the missed shot. I even remember the play Coach McLaughlin called. It was named "Shue" (after former Notre Dame great John Shumate) that worked perfectly and led to the shot. As for Coach K, even back in the early 1980s he already had a strong reputation, and it was clear that he was building a dynasty. His teams played hard, had talent, and were classy guys.

JT: You graduated as a First Team Academic All-American, and you remain the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,880 points. What importance did you place on academics, and do you think anyone will ever break your scoring record?

JC: People mention my scoring record because it has lasted so long and came before the advent of the three-point line. I never expected it to last this long because I assumed someone would have a career similar to mine. Get a chance to play right away, be involved in the offense, and stay consistent. I still believe that it is only a matter of time before someone breaks it, as all records are meant to be broken. As for academics, I come from a family where school was important and you were expected to perform up to your talents. Good grades were emphasized by my parents, and I did not want to disappoint them. Being recognized as an Academic All-American was a nice way to show that I could balance school and sports.

JT: In the summer of 1985 you were drafted in the 6th round by Denver (one round ahead of Mario Elie), but you were cut after three days of mini-camp. Were you thrilled to realize your dream of getting drafted or disappointed that you did not make the team?

JC: Getting drafted was a dream come true: as a kid shooting baskets alone, you fantasize about the opportunity to go all the way to the NBA. I was a little surprised both that I was drafted by Denver and by the round in which I got chosen. I had heard that other teams were interested in me, so I thought that I would be picked in a higher round. The actual day I got drafted our Harvard team was in Europe on a foreign tour. I was heading out of the hotel to go jogging when Coach Peter Roby grabbed me to tell me the news. It took a minute to register, but he gave me a big hug and a smile. I was not disappointed about not making the Nuggets. I knew the odds, and thought that I played pretty well in camp, but I was not good enough. The top of the pyramid is quite narrow, and I was mature enough to know that I had taken my talent as far as it could probably go. When you can look in the mirror without any regrets about your effort, you generally do not end up disappointed.

JT: Instead of giving up on basketball, you went abroad to play professionally in Belgium and Australia. What did you learn from the experience, and how did it compare to college basketball?

JC: Playing professionally in Belgium/Australia were tremendous experiences, and provided the perfect transition to the "real world". I travelled extensively, played against some great players, and made lifelong friends. The quality of the competition in Europe and Australia was excellent. I could have built a career playing in Australia but decided against it because I knew that it was time to use my education and start a career back in the US. It was the right call, and I have not regretted it at all.

JT: You currently work as managing director at AEA Investors. How do you like the job, and how has the economic crisis affected your life/work?

JC: I have been in finance since I stopped playing basketball. I got a job at Credit Suisse First Boston while I was a senior at Harvard, and they agreed to defer my start while I pursued professional basketball. I ended up working there as an investment banker for 12 years, and then moved over to the private equity industry 11 years ago. I like my job because it is a lot like sports. We work in teams, hard work is rewarded, you build relationships that last, and you have clear goals. I am fortunate that I fell into something that I like in my 1st job and never left the industry. The financial crisis has adversely affected everyone in finance, but like in sports, you just pick yourself up and try to do better the next day.

Carrabino is also on Jon's list of best fantasy players in Ivy history.

Brown: Earl Hunt (2003) 2,041 PTS (#1), 81.1 FT% (#4), 158 3PM (#3)

Columbia: Jim McMillian (1970) 1,758 PTS (#2), 743 REB (#2), 3-time All-American

Cornell: Ryan Wittman (2010) 2,028 PTS (#1), 377 3PM (#1), 43.1 3P% (#1), 84.4 FT% (#4), All-American, conference POY

Dartmouth: Jim Barton (1989) 2,158 PTS (#1), 242 3PM (#1), 89.5 FT% (#1)

Harvard: Joe Carrabino (1985) 1,880 PTS (#1), All-American, conference POY

Pennsylvania: Ernie Beck (1953) 1,827 PTS (#1), 1,557 REB (#1), 3-time All-American

Princeton: Bill Bradley (1965) 2,503 PTS (#1), 1,008 REB (#1), 87.6 FT% (#2), 3-time All-American, national POY, Final Four MOP

Yale: Tony Lavelli (1949) 1,964 PTS (#2), 4-time All-American, national POY