Hoops junkie, local native Harrell heading to hall of fame thanks to innovation, effort

Huntington native John Harrell (left) stands with a plaque presented to him by Huntington North High School athletic director Kris Teusch commemorating his status as the recipient of the 2016 Indiana Fever Silver Medal Award. The award, which is handed out by the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, recognizes outstanding contributions made to high school basketball by someone other than a player or coach. Harrell, the founder of JohnHarrell.net and a longtime sportswriter, received the plaque during a basketball game at HNHS on Feb. 26. He will be inducted into the hall of fame at a ceremony in Indianapolis on April 30.
Huntington native John Harrell (left) stands with a plaque presented to him by Huntington North High School athletic director Kris Teusch commemorating his status as the recipient of the 2016 Indiana Fever Silver Medal Award. The award, which is handed out by the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, recognizes outstanding contributions made to high school basketball by someone other than a player or coach. Harrell, the founder of JohnHarrell.net and a longtime sportswriter, received the plaque during a basketball game at HNHS on Feb. 26. He will be inducted into the hall of fame at a ceremony in Indianapolis on April 30. Photo provided by Patrick Mericle.

Originally published April 21, 2016.

For someone whose life is so immersed in basketball, John Harrell attends remarkably few basketball games.

Harrell, a Huntington native, is too busy running his website, JohnHarrell .net. The site, which he launched in 2000, documents boys’ and girls’ high school basketball in Indiana. Anyone with an investment in the sport – players, coaches, fans – has come to depend on it for schedules, results, standings and more.

It’s Harrell’s work with the site, coupled with his long career as a sportswriter, that has him on the precipice of being inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Harrell received word last December that he’d been selected to receive the 2016 Indiana Fever Silver Medal Award, an accolade from the Hall of Fame that honors outstanding contributions made to Hoosier hoops by someone other than a player or coach.

Harrell, along with eight players, a coach and a team, rounds out the 2016 Women’s Induction Class, which will be honored with a ceremony at Primo Banquet Hall, in Indianapolis, on Saturday, April 30.

Harrell will be joining a hall of fame that includes such basketball giants as Larry Bird, the French Lick native who starred for the Boston Celtics, and Bobby Knight, the legendary head coach of the Indiana University men’s basketball team. It’s something that, months later, Harrell is still having a hard time wrapping his head around.

“The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, I mean, what am I doing in there?,” he says incredulously from his home in Bloomington. “(It’s) for people who really made a difference. Really great players, things like that. Great coaches.”

Still, though, he thinks it’s appropriate that the hall of fame recognizes people in reporting, school administration and other roles who impact basketball without ever setting foot on the court.

“They’re kind of the people that make it go,” says Harrell of the sport. “You need the players and coaches, but you need all the broadcasters who are so avid.”
Harrell developed a love for basketball at an early age. He remembers following Milan High School’s Cinderella run to the state title in 1954, which inspired the movie “Hoosiers.”

“I was 8 years old when they won and we didn’t have TV yet, but everybody was talking about that,” he recalls.

Harrell’s affinity for hoops deepened even further when he became a student at Huntington High School and bore witness to some of the most successful boys’ basketball teams in the school’s history.

“Huntington won the regional, the Marion Regional, all four of my years in high school and went to the final four my senior year,” he says. “So, all of that kept building.”

During his senior year in November 1963, he began his journalism career in Huntington. He worked in town through his graduation from Huntington College in 1968 and took a sportswriting job at The News-Sentinel, in Fort Wayne, that fall. After two years there, he moved to Bloomington where he accepted a position at The Herald Telephone, now known as The Herald Times. He worked there for the next 40 years.

As a sportswriter, Harrell regularly dealt with statistics, using them to write and edit stories. In 1980, he began archiving scores and records from boys’ basketball and football, first in the office and later on his home computer. He started working with statistician and fellow Bloomington resident Jeff Sagarin around that time. Sagarin had expressed interest in applying his rating system to Indiana high school sports and Harrell assisted him to that end, furnishing him with results.

By 2000, with his boys’ basketball and football archives 20 years deep, Harrell became interested in making that information available to people who might find it useful. One day, he discovered a website that was tracking high school basketball in central northern Indiana. That site, etpearl.com, was run by a man named Earl Mishler and inspired Harrell to start a site of his own, but with a focus on the entire state, rather than just one region.

Harrell launched his site in December. Information about boys’ basketball and football, as well as girls’ basketball, which he started following that year, was featured on the site.

As for the site’s appeaance, Harrell admits it wasn’t much to behold in those early days.

“I just threw some things up there and it was very crude,” he says, laughing. “I would have, instead of each team’s record on a different page, I had all the A through Ls on one page.

“And it took forever to load. This is 2000; everything was much, much slower.”

The site’s audience was equally slow to develop. It did, however, catch the attention of Jim Russell, who worked for the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Russell liked what he saw and put a link to Harrell’s site on the IHSAA’s. It proved to be a pivotal development in the site’s history.

“Athletic directors and coaches were able to find my site then,” says Harrell, “and that really helped build it up to what it is today.”

Harrell pulled double duty for many years, working at The Herald Times while also putting in the time necessary to track three sports statewide for the site.
“It was difficult,” he confesses. “It was long, long nights.”

In 2011, however, Harrell retired from the newspaper. Now the site is his sole focus.

“I’ve been able to invest a lot more time in it,” he says.

Harrell’s favorite aspect of running the site is getting comfortable in front of his computer on an evening when he knows results will be pouring in.

“Getting scores on a Friday night and everything’s coming in real fast, that’s just kind of fun,” he says.

Each season, Harrell’s goal is to get every score in the state posted by the end of the night. Striving to achieve that reminds him of working on deadline at a newspaper, which he always enjoyed.

“When you’re really crunched is when it’s really fun,” he shares. “You’re pulling your hair out, but you feel great when it’s over.

“A lot of people can’t work until they’re on deadline.”

Social media platform Twitter has been a big asset to Harrell, supplying him with results faster than he ever could have imagined, especially in the site’s early years.

“Twitter has been the biggest advancement,” he says. “When I started in 2000, 2001, newspapers did not have websites. Schools did not have websites. It was in the dark ages. You just had nothing out there to go to and look for a score or something. You just had to rely on the wires or a couple of other websites.”

All that has changed, though, because of Twitter, where Harrell tweets at @JohnRHarrell.

“More and more schools are getting on Twitter,” he says. “Every year there’s another 100 schools that’s joined Twitter, it seems like, and getting scores out to me quicker.

“It’s been great.”

While Harrell enjoys the score-gathering part of running the site, he’s less enthusiastic about tracking down dates for basketball games that get postponed due to inclement winter weather.

“If you get a couple weekends of bad weather, you just think you’ll never get caught up,” he says. “That’s one of my most difficult things is getting rescheduled dates.”

Regardless of the task, nothing can prevent Harrell from tending to the site. When he and his wife, Martha, hit the road to see their children, he brings his laptop with him. Even hospitalization on the opening night of football sectionals a couple of years ago didn’t derail him.

“I called my daughter and she brought my laptop and I was able to keep up from the hospital bed and really didn’t miss a beat,” he says. “I was released very late. I actually probably stayed longer than I should have, but they were in the process of releasing me, and I left about 11:30 p.m.

“I had all but maybe one score, so I said, ‘That’s OK. I can take 15 minutes to go home now.’”

For Harrell to bump his site down a spot or two on his list of priorities, it’s a big deal. Huntington North asked him to do just that this past boys’ basketball season. The athletic department invited him to the Vikings’ regular-season finale on Friday, Feb. 26, where it planned to recognize his impending hall of fame induction with a halftime ceremony.

Initially, Harrell was hesitant to accept the invitation, not wanting to fall behind on getting results posted to the site.

But the athletic department helped allay those fears. And Harrell gladly made the trip back to his hometown.

“They set me up there with my laptop and I was able to get some scores right after the game,” he says. “I was there a good 45 minutes after the game was over. They were sweeping the floors, but I was still up in the corner, updating.”

Harrell recently turned 70. Fielding questions about how much longer he intends to run the site is something he’s gotten used to. As for the future of the site, he knows a vast number of people depend on its content. Because of that, he’s confident that someone will step forward to succeed him.

But if Harrell has his way, that won’t be for a while yet. The soon-to-be hall of famer is still just having too much fun.

“I think I get more benefit out of this than the people that look at it,” he muses. “It’s a lot of fun for me. It keeps me going. Gives me something to do. I think that’s what you kind of want in retirement.”