When Harrison Cleary began his high school basketball career, he started getting letters in the mail. Little questionnaires from big-name schools like Creighton and DePaul. The 14-year-old Cleary thought it was the coolest thing. Here he was, starting on varsity as a freshman and being recruited — hot stuff.

Then he found out the truth: those letters got sent automatically to varsity players around the country. Those schools weren’t actually after him.

It would remain that way.

Cleary continued getting bucket after bucket, putting Oak Creek High School’s basketball program on the map and developing into one of the best players in Wisconsin. But his junior year came and went, and he still didn’t possess a single scholarship offer.

All his life, Harrison Cleary had been taught to answer to one person and one person only: the person in the mirror. But with his lifelong dream of college basketball at stake, could that mantra yet suffice? How could doubt not start to creep in? Would all those hours in the gym; the missed junk food and pool parties in pursuit of that dream ever prove to be worth it?

***

That summer, Bryan Beamish, an assistant at Minnesota Crookston, was at an AAU tournament in Milwaukee. He wasn’t the first to notice Cleary, and he wouldn’t be the last. He was, though, the most decisive. Beamish called his boss, Dan Weisse, and told him he needed to get down to Wisconsin to see this kid himself.

Two months later, the Golden Eagles’ head coach made it to Oak Creek. He met Cleary, his father Mike and his mother Kathleen. He began making his pitch — laying out the state of the program, talking up the on-campus offerings — and then Mike cut him off.

Coach, you don’t understand.

He doesn’t care about any of that. He just wants to play basketball and get a degree. That’s all he’s gonna do.

Weisse remembers Mike’s response vividly and he’ll remember it forever. It sticks with him now just like it did on that day in September 2015, when it helped convince him to take a chance on an undersized, under-recruited point guard from the suburbs of Milwaukee. It will occupy a section of Weisse’s speech at any future event commemorating that once-overlooked scoring savant, now unquestionably the greatest player in the history of Minnesota Crookston men’s basketball.

Because after all this time, every word of what Mike Cleary said has proven to be correct.

***

For as long as Harrison Cleary can remember, he’s had a basketball in his hands. And for as long as Mike Cleary can remember, it’s been not just a passion, but an obsession for his son.

Harrison would play in youth tournaments where there would be morning and afternoon games, with a break in between during which most players would go home, eat a quick meal, refresh and regroup. Not Harrison. There he’d be, uniform still on, still putting up shots in the driveway. Mike and Kathleen would implore him to just put the ball down.

But Mike let his kids do what they wanted, and he recognized that Harrison’s love for the game was true. At a certain point, there was no fighting that. So at the very least, Mike decided that if Harrison was never going to put the ball down, he was going to learn to use it correctly.

While Mike never played organized basketball, he had played enough streetball to know the fundamentals and recognize where they weren’t being taught properly. Coaches prioritizing winning over development. Kids shooting by throwing the ball at the rim with all their might, their shoulder popping out, kids unable to dribble with their non-dominant hand.

Mike didn’t let Harrison shoot from deep, at least not until later. It’d just create bad habits. He lowered the rim and parked Harrison in front of it, and told him to pretend “like you’re taking a crap on the toilet.” Then jump up and let go of the ball; your wrist, arms and legs all working as one to craft a shot with perfect arc and rotation. Harrison wasn’t going to be one of those kids who had no clue how to use both hands, either. Seven-year-old Harrison spent hours in the driveway dribbling with his left hand, up, down, back and forth. He watched Steve Nash and VHS tapes of Pete Maravich to drive these lessons home: he maybe wasn’t the fastest, he maybe wasn’t the strongest and he certainly wasn’t the biggest, but fundamentals were the one thing he couldn’t live without.

The Clearys moved from Pittsburgh to Wisconsin when Harrison was nine. That’s when Harrison first started playing AAU ball, for a program called Stay in the Game. “For a nine or 10-year-old, he could really shoot the ball,” Mike said. In sixth grade, he joined Playground Elite, one of Wisconsin’s top programs, after a representative approached his family while he was playing for Stay in the Game and liked what he saw.

Over the first few years on Playground Elite, Mike says, Harrison sometimes got frustrated. He wasn’t used to seeing athletes like this; middle schoolers who could dunk the ball while he stood just 5-foot-5. What good was his textbook shooting form and precise handles if he didn’t have the body? But Mike gave him the reassurance he needed. Stay calm, stay in the gym, keep doing your thing. Sooner or later, Mike told him, he’d see the separation happen. His body would catch up, and raw athleticism was only going to take these dunkers so far.

And when it happened, he’d be the last one standing.

***

In 2012, Harrison started attending local Oak Creek High School, enrollment approximately 2,100, basketball program … unremarkable.

The Clearys had discussions with the Oak Creek coaching staff before his enrollment. No promises were made: Harrison would get every chance to play and be a part of turning the program around, but in all their history, the Knights had never had a freshman start on varsity.

“Harrison was like, ‘Just as long as I get the opportunity,’ ” Mike said.

You can guess what happened next.

Harrison became a team captain as a sophomore, a position he held each of his last three years. By his junior year, he was averaging 20 points and five assists per game and was named first-team All-Conference.

AAU was a different story. The summer after his junior year, Harrison moved up to the Playground Elite’s highest-level team, which competed on the prestigious Nike EYBL circuit. He took the court and saw future NBA players like Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk on the other side. He looked to the bench and saw just about every Division I coach in the nation. Once, Mike couldn’t go to a tournament in Louisville. He remembers his oldest son calling him to deliver an ecstatic update: Harrison had knocked down three 3-pointers right in front of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

But Harrison wasn’t “the man” on Playground Elite — he wasn’t even starting. His role was to spot up and shoot off the bench, while the high-major prospects with high-major bodies drew the starting spots and the attention. The aforementioned shooting display and others of that nature were simply met with shrugs.

Furthermore, for as many records as Harrison set at Oak Creek — he finished as the school’s all-time scoring leader and second in assists — the school’s basketball reputation was still catching up, and Harrison could only take it so far outside of the suburbs of Milwaukee. People just weren’t coming to Oak Creek to recruit. Some Division I coaches inquired, and Harrison sent letters and reached out on his own, but nothing concrete ever materialized.

“I think he looked at himself in the mirror and thought, ‘OK, wait a minute, I’ve done everything,’ ” Mike said. “ … ‘How the hell did I get to the point that nobody’s knocking on my door? Something’s not right here.’ But at the same time, he didn’t play the ‘oh, woe is me’ card. He said, ‘Alright, I’m gonna go where I’m wanted.’ ”

So Harrison was ready when Crookston came calling.

A Wisconsin native, Weisse knows how to recruit to Milwaukee. He knew that the sheer amount of talent in the area might cause a player like Cleary to fly under the radar. He didn’t care about what other schools saw, or didn’t see — he was going to go after this kid.

Weisse’s visit to Oak Creek, in which he saw Harrison individually work out and met with his family, had both parties sold. The Clearys remember Weisse as composed and forthright in his approach, not promising anything or selling a bill of goods. For Weisse, Harrison’s work ethic jumped out, and he could tell there was a comfort level for everyone involved.

Usually, Weisse prefers to wait a bit to see how things will shake out. But this time, he says, he couldn’t make a move fast enough — and by the end of that day, Harrison had his first scholarship offer.

Harrison and his family talked over his options: he could sign with UMC right away, or play out his senior year and see if anyone came calling, and if not, try to walk on at the Division I level. Meanwhile, Weisse felt sure that some of his NSIC rivals — Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth or Winona State — were going to pull the trigger. But only one other school, South Carolina Aiken, offered a scholarship, doing so at the 11th hour.

By that point, Harrison Cleary was already a Golden Eagle.

“I ultimately couldn’t be too picky,” he says. “ … I was just grateful that somebody believed in me.”

***

Weisse didn’t hide the fact that Crookston was 10 hours from Milwaukee, that winter temperatures dropped to 40 below, that the program itself wasn’t in great shape. It had won just 10 games in his first two seasons before Cleary arrived — and you could call even that many wins encouraging. Weisse knew how good Cleary might be, but he didn’t expect him to be the savior: he was only one piece.

Cleary blew the doors off that notion as soon as he stepped on campus.

Before Cleary’s freshman year, the Golden Eagles played a preseason, closed-door scrimmage at Concordia College in Moorhead. They were struggling to find their rhythm on offense until Cleary knocked down a 3-pointer, came down the court on the next possession and did the exact same thing. In the season opener against Southwest Baptist, Cleary drew the start at shooting guard, playing 38 minutes, scoring 34 points on 15-of-22 shooting and 4-of-7 from three and leading UMC to a 73-64 win.

“As soon as Harrison showed up, you could tell that he was better than everybody,” said Darin Viken, a Golden Eagle guard from 2015-19.

It’s no guarantee that a team will just hand the reins to a freshman, even if it had gone 3-24 the year before. But the Golden Eagles were ready for something different, and they had no problems embracing Cleary’s scoring prowess in full.

To Chase Johnson, a redshirt junior forward and Cleary’s best friend since the start of his college career, that was only partly due to his skill. Cleary carried himself like a typical freshman, only because that’s what he was naturally: quiet, hard-working, willing to let his play do the talking. His scoring turned his teammates’ heads; his personality earned him their respect.

“He still had confidence, but he kept it to himself,” Johnson said. “He’s shy until you make a connection and he opens up to you. … That just took time for him to break out of his shell.”

By the end of an NSIC Freshman of the Year campaign in which Cleary scored 22.1 points per game and broke UMC’s single-season scoring record, there was no going back. Weisse moved him to point guard the next year in order to put the ball in his hands more. Every subsequent alteration Weisse has made to his offense — switching from his favored swing to a ball-screen dominated offense, and finally a Villanova offense — has been made to better suit Cleary, as has every recruit he’s gone after. As a sophomore, Cleary boosted his scoring to 24.2 per game, leading the conference and making the All-NSIC first team. People began to notice — in 2018, the Grand Forks Herald ran an article that declared “The NSIC’s best scorer resides in an unlikely place in Crookston.”

But no matter how much he’s achieved, Cleary has dutifully maintained the belief that he can get better and the drive to put those words into action.

This is the part of Harrison Cleary’s story where, from the outside, it becomes difficult to separate platitude from reality. It is true that he received just two scholarship offers, and at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, he perfectly fits the mythology of the undersized dynamo. Players like that are often pigeonholed as grit-infused gym rats at a frequency which renders the entire legend meaningless.

Except that in the case of Cleary, all of it is true.

On the bus back from road games, Cleary anxiously waits for game film to be uploaded, and when it is, he immediately starts dissecting it to look for areas to improve. In the mornings, Cleary makes his way to Lysaker Gymnasium on his own. There, he works to make sure his shooting form, his handles and his layups are all perfectly refined. In the afternoon, he’ll make his way back to the gym, where Beamish puts him through the ringer. After all that, it’s time for actual practice, but his day’s not done then — he’s been known to sneak back in the gym at 10 p.m. or later.

Just as Mike tried to do all those years ago in the driveway, Weisse soon found himself trying to kick Cleary out of the gym. He wanted Cleary to fully recover from a foot injury he suffered in a pickup game back home after his sophomore year, a game that no coach would want their star playing in — “but that’s what he does.”

“He’s got that Mamba mentality,” Johnson says, referencing the late Laker great Kobe Bryant. From a young age, Cleary idolized Bryant’s legendary work ethic and his no-holds-barred killer mindset on the court. It’s apparent in Cleary’s play now — he rarely shows excess emotion on or off the court, employing his rare displays of braggadocio like he’s guiding a missile to its target. “I think I’m the hardest worker out there,” he says, and no one is inclined to disagree.

***

By Cleary’s sophomore year, something interesting was happening: he was being recruited again.

People that were in Harrison’s circle throughout AAU and high school started inquiring, asking if Harrison might be interested in transferring. They knew guys who knew guys at bigger schools, they said. They knew Crookston wasn’t exactly the most desirable place in the world — Mike even admits that it “probably wasn’t where (Harrison) saw himself going.”

Father and son talked it over, but in the end, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made. They both knew Harrison could play DI basketball and succeed. He could sit a year, play his junior and senior seasons, and get a different type of college experience. But the Clearys are a loyal family, and Harrison’s life consisted of just two things: basketball and school. Would a bigger school really change that?

“He felt he owed it to everybody that he wasn’t gonna take his talent and go somewhere else,” Mike said. “He was gonna do whatever he could to continue to change that program and change that culture and leave a stamp.”

The Golden Eagles have won double-digit games for an unprecedented three straight seasons. Cleary’s averaging 27.0 points and 4.3 assists per game in his final season, and he’ll surely be named to the All-NSIC First Team for a third year in a row. But that, alone, would be an incomplete legacy for him. Leaving a stamp on a program means making sure that the program can survive without you. It’s why he’s taken to mentoring freshman guard Tyrese Shines, who was recruited almost as his protege. When the two don’t have class, they’ll go to the locker room and break down film, and Shines shadows Cleary in practice, doing whatever Cleary does, as hard as Cleary does. “He’s like the ideal basketball player,” Shines says with complete reverence.

But rest assured, the chip on Cleary’s shoulder remains as big as ever. He grins as he rattles off names of NSIC rivals that recruited him but didn’t offer: St. Cloud State. Bemidji State. Minnesota Duluth. Minot State. Mary. When he was a freshman or sophomore, Mike motivated him by sending him reminders when the Golden Eagles were about to play a school that passed on him. Now, because of Cleary, those schools have to do something they’ve never done before: regard Minnesota Crookston as an equal.

“Just putting our name on the map, I don’t know if that could be done without him,” Johnson said.

Cleary became the Golden Eagles’ all-time leading scorer midway through his junior season. He broke the NSIC’s all-time scoring record earlier this year. Yet Weisse thinks Cleary’s best basketball is still ahead of him.

This is, of course, assuming his body holds up — Cleary and his father joke that although he’s just 22, he has the body of a 40-year-old with his countless hours in the gym and countless beatings, double-teams and triple-teams that he faces every game. But “it’s the nature of the beast,” Mike says, and if Cleary doesn’t know and embrace that, it’s hard to imagine who does.

Most assume that if Cleary plays professionally, it will be overseas — the assumption, of course, being that undersized guards from unknown Division II schools don’t usually make their marks playing in the United States. That’s fine with him.

“He knows he’s not the best player that’s ever played Division II basketball,” Mike says. “He wasn’t the best player in high school, he knows there’s always people out there trying to outwork him.

“His mantra’s always been: ‘Just give me the opportunity. Put the ball in my hand, put me on the floor, and let me show you.’ ”

After all, it’s what he’s been doing his entire life.

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