CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Joe Carrabino was a little perturbed last year when a newspaper article reported that he wears glasses to class at Harvard University.
Nothing irks him more than the image of Harvard athletes as bookworms in athletic guise--as if it were somehow incomprehensible that a serious student could be a serious athlete, too.
It's really too bad, he says, that Ivy League athletes are regarded as the exception rather than the rule in college athletics.
Which says a lot about Carrabino, a graduate of Crespi High in Encino who admits to being more passionate about basketball than schoolwork, but still manages to maintain a B+ average in economics at the nation's oldest and most respected university.
He could have played in the Pacific-10, or for a national champion at Georgetown. But he chose Harvard as much for his chances of playing a lot, he admits, as for its academic reputation.
He could have given up basketball altogether two years ago when a serious back injury kept him off the court for several months, he said, but "I would have felt like I was quitting on myself." He rehabilitated himself through exercise and last season was named the Ivy League Player of the Year--the first Harvard player so honored. As a senior this season, he has a chance to repeat.
He was nominated for a Rhodes scholarship and is in line for a NCAA post-graduate scholarship, but for now he's looking forward to a professional basketball career--if not in the National Basketball Assn., then maybe in Europe.
"I'm just as dedicated as basketball players at other schools," said Carrabino, who wears contact lenses on the court. "People think we're special here in the Ivy League.
"I don't think I'm special."
Maybe not, but he's different than a lot of other college basketball players. For one thing, he's more analytical and a lot more articulate. How many other players would describe their sport as "a game of subtle felony."
He's also well-mannered, outgoing and friendly. And interested in other things besides basketball.
But he's no bookworm.
"I would say I'm pretty well-rounded," he said. "I do my school work because it has to be done, but I don't think I'm academic, in that sense. I'm a people person. I like to talk to people, I like to meet people, be around people . . . more than being by myself reading books."
Mostly, though, he likes to play.
If the University of Houston basketball team belongs to the fraternity of Phi Slamma Jamma, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe suggested earlier this season, Harvard's belongs to Phi Landa Locka.
Last season, the Crimson had only one dunk--by senior Ken Plutnicki in the final seconds of the final game of the season. With only two games remaining this season, Harvard remains dunkless.
"How many other teams in the country won 15 games last year with just one dunk?" assistant coach Peter Roby asked Ryan.
None of the Crimson are more earthbound than Carrabino.
There's a story going around campus that, even when Carrabino gets up on his jump shot, the Sunday Boston Globe won't fit under his feet. His nickname, given to him by two of his roommates, is "Emu," an emu being a large, nonflying Australian bird similar to an ostrich.
At 6-8 1/2 and 230 pounds, Carrabino is slow, too. In a game at Duke last month, the Blue Devil fans didn't boo him.
They mooed him.
But, in the vernacular of the game, Carrabino can play.
"Joe is an overachiever," says Harvard Coach Frank McLaughlin.
"I think everybody probably emphasises the negatives with him--he's slow, he doesn't jump well--but he's as good a perimeter shooter as there is in the country. . . . People talk about Chris Mullin (the Olympian and All-American from St. John's). But if you want to play a game of H-O-R-S-E, I'll take Joe Carrabino over Chris Mullin."
Last season, Carrabino made 90.5% of his free throws, the second-highest percentage in the nation behind another Olympian, Indiana's Steve Alford. He makes them when they matter most, too. Since Feb. 3, 1984, he hasn't missed a free throw in the last five minutes of a game--a streak of 64 straight.
He also ranked among the Ivy League leaders in several other categories last season for a 15-11 Harvard team, shooting 56.2% from the field while scoring 22 points and taking 7.3 rebounds a game. This season, Harvard is 15-7, with a shot at making the National Invitation Tournament, and Carrabino's numbers include 21.3 points a game, 8.2 rebounds, 56.3% shooting from the floor and 87.2% shooting from the foul line.
OK, so the Ivy League isn't exactly the Big East, or even the Pac-10. In fact, from top to bottom, it may be the most lightly regarded Division I conference in the nation. But Carrabino lit up last season against Duke and Stanford, too, scoring 30 points against each. This season, he scored 19 against Duke.
He may not look good doing it, but he gets the job done.