Herman Harried says basketball is in his son’s genes, deep in his soul. A lot of players say they were raised in a gym. In Armon Harried’s case, it was literally true.

“He was actually raised in a gym,” Herman said last week from Baltimore, where he’s the boys’ basketball coach and athletic director at Lake Clifton High. “His day care was the gym. His toys were the gym. He learned how to walk and ride his bike in the gym. We had to pick him up from school and he goes right back to the gym again. He played with a basketball and a football. It was all he knew.”

Armon, a guard at Canisius College, got good genes from his parents. Herman played at Syracuse, where he was a reserve on the 1987 team that lost to Indiana in the NCAA title game. He had a fine pro career in England before coming back to coach at Lake Clifton, where he has won five state titles and the court has been named for him.

Armon’s mother, Delora Walker, played four years at Coppin State, where she was a point guard and set the school record for steals. Walker later coached the boys’ hoop squad at Southwestern High in Baltimore and the girls’ team at Lake Clifton. 

They raised their son well, not just as an athlete, but as an honor student and a team leader who set a standard for the other players. In elementary and middle school, Armon had to sit in his father’s office and finish his schoolwork before Herman allowed him to venture into the school gymnasium.

“It would take an hour, two hours. Once I got my work done, I could come out and shoot around,” Harried said last week after helping Canisius to a 97-90 overtime victory over Florida Gulf Coast University. “I had my own hoop in the corner, so I didn’t disturb practice. It was great. 

“But I had to get that schoolwork done,” he said. “I carry it over now. Academics come first.”

Harried, a 6-5 junior, had just played in a dramatic victory — the second in five days in which the Golden Griffins rallied from four points behind in the final seconds. But Harried, who majors in sports and exercise health care, seemed even prouder to have learned earlier in the day that he’d gotten a 3.75 GPA for the fall semester. 

Armon Harried is second on the team in scoring and minutes played. (Courtesy of Canisius Athletics)

That’s what appealed to Reggie Witherspoon when he recruited Harried a few years back. He loved his athletic ability — his size and leaping ability and dogged defensive skill. But he also recognized the sort of leader who can inspire his teammates with his hard work, selflessness, and resilient competitive character.

Witherspoon said assistant Chris Hawkins, who recruited Harried, came to him Wednesday and asked if they needed to change the captains. Witherspoon said it wasn’t necessary. “We know he’s the leader, though,” Hawkins said. Reggie agreed. They knew they were talking about Harried, without saying his name.

“Armon Harried, no matter what we’re doing in practice, he’s going to have complete enthusiasm for it,” said Witherspoon, who is in his sixth season at Canisius after 14 years at UB. “Every drill. I could be pissed off and put him through the most grueling thing in the world. He’s going to act like it’s the most fun thing he’s ever done.”

As his parents could attest, the young man is a coach’s dream. 

“That’s what he does every day,” Witherspoon said. “He was valedictorian of his high school. He’s locked into his schoolwork. I don’t know how much more you could ask for, how much more effort you could ask.”

The Griffs have asked a lot of him in recent days. Harried suffered a deep thigh bruise about two weeks ago. Witherspoon wondered if Harried would be available for the big UB game at KeyBank Center on Dec. 18. Canisius was already without leading scorer Malek Green (COVID protocols) and Jacco Fritz (ankle), leaving the Griffs with eight scholarship players. 

“We called him in with the whole staff,” Witherspoon said. “The day before, he couldn’t move. He said, ‘I can’t run.’ He got through practice. He said, ‘Coach, I’m going. You can see how I am in practice today. But count me in.’”

The Griffs were on a five-game losing streak. Of course, Harried was all-in. He played all 40 minutes against rival Buffalo and scored a game-high 20 points. Canisius scored with 13.5 seconds left to draw within two. Harried then drew a charge on Jeenathan Williams with 4.5 seconds left. He threw the ensuing inbounds pass to Ahamadou Fofana, who hit a three pointer to give the Griffs a 65-64 win.

Afterwards, Harried said he learns from the wins and the losses. That dramatic win could be something to build on. Sure enough, they did it again Wednesday night. Canisius took a 21-point lead against a talented Gulf Coast team, then squandered it all and fell behind by four points with less than a minute to go.

Harried, still hampered by the sore thigh, had a rough night, shooting 2 of 12 from the field. But he exhorted his team and was there for them again in the clutch. He grabbed an offensive rebound, got fouled and made both shots to pull Canisius within two, 80-78, with 13 seconds left in regulation. 

Those free throws proved crucial when Gulf Coast missed the second of an ensuing one-and-one, giving the Griffs a chance to tie the game on a three-pointer, which they got from Akrum Ahemen with 4.6 seconds left. Canisius won in overtime, 97-90, for their second straight breathtaking win.

Armon Harried “was actually raised in a gym,” his father said. (Courtesy of Canisius Athletics)

Harried is second on the Griffs in scoring at 12.2 points a game, but shooting only 34.4 percent from the floor. He contributes in so many other ways: he had a block and assist and two more big free throws in overtime. He also drew six fouls, a subtle but vital statistic that’s now part of the NCAA box score. 

“When I first came in, Coach ‘Spoon said, ‘Take charges,’” Harried said. “It stops the momentum. I didn’t take many as a freshman, but now I take pride in taking charges. I always took pride in defense, but I’ve added the charge aspect to my game. I really enjoy doing that.

“It’s a skill,” he said with a wide smile. “You can’t fall because it’s a flop. You have to wait for the contact. I do it in practice. I do it all the time.”

His dad said Armon had a high basketball IQ and an instinct for leadership as a young player. He wasn’t surprised to hear that the Canisius coaches considered him the team’s leader. 

“He’s a born leader, a gifted leader,” Herman said. “I told him, ‘If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to do things right yourself first. You cannot lead someone if you’re not working hard in practice, or if your grades are poor. You can’t be a leader if you don’t conduct yourself properly off the court’. It’s easy for his teammates to embrace his leadership, because they can look and say, ‘Yeah, he’s an honor student, he practices hard, he plays hurt.’”

Witherspoon was the ideal coach for Harried. He’s a strong teacher of the game and Harried was a sponge for knowledge. Though he’d been raised by coaches, he realized there was a lot more Reggie could show him about the game. 

“As a freshman, I was good, but I wasn’t knowledgeable about everything,” Harried said. “I was new, fresh. I bought into everything he was teaching — the extra pass, how to play the game the correct way. I learn something every day. There’s nuances of the game that he teaches you. It’s amazing.”

Harried was also drawn to Witherspoon’s bright, engaging personality and infectious sense of humor. Harried said Witherspoon picked him up at the airport for his recruiting visit. They drove down the highway in high winds with the car trunk open, and Reggie telling stories the whole way.

“We laughed about that,” Harried recalled. “It’s a family atmosphere here. He just made it happen. We laughed the whole visit. My parents came and they loved him as a man. I wanted to come play for a man who’s going to help me become a great man.”

At Canisius, Reggie Witherspoon has won nearly 60 percent of his games in the conference regular season, only to falter in March (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

Herman wasn’t entirely sold on Canisius, which has limited resources, modest fan support and a sketch post-season history. Armon had an offer from the Naval Academy and other MAAC schools wanted him. But when he and Delora Walker walked into the Koessler Center and saw their son with the coaches, he knew.

“I looked at his mom and said, ‘He’s coming here,’” Herman Harried said, “because I saw the expression on his face. I’m very observant. I watched how he interacted with Coach ‘Spoon and Coach Hawkins. I said, ‘They got him.’ He’s like me; he’s hard to impress. He has very high standards of people. When I knew they’d met his standards, that said a lot to me about them.”

Harried is constantly talking during a game, exhorting his teammates, pointing out where they should be in the defense, telling them to push through the fatigue of a long, grueling game. Witherspoon said he’s the classic ‘coach on the floor.’ 

Witherspoon believes his team is beginning to reflect Harried’s personality. These last two games suggested that the Griffs, who were picked for last in the MAAC pre-season coaches’ poll, could be better than people realized. 

He’s waited a long time for a special team that make a run to the Big Dance. Witherspoon came close at UB, most notably in a crushing Mid-American Conference final in 2005. At Canisius, he has won nearly 60 percent of his games in the conference regular season, only to falter in March. 

Canisius hasn’t reached a MAAC Tournament final since losing in Buffalo under Mike MacDonald in 2001. The Griffs have made it to the NCAA tourney just once in the last 64 years, when John Beilein was the head coach in 1996. 

Harried did a lot of winning as a kid. He won state titles with his father at Lake Clifton as a junior and senior. He knows all about the lack of post-season success at Canisius. It’s been a tough road. Last year, the Griffs spent more time in pandemic quarantine than almost any team in the nation. He said they fought through it together, and it helped them bond through adversity.

“We all want to be the ones (to get Canisius to the NCAAs),” he said. “We have the collection of guys to do it. This might be a turning point for us. We have to build on it now, really buy in, buy in to each other. It’s not about me, it’s about each other. 

“We say it in every game: ‘Who? Each other.” We’re really buying into that now, and it’s going to be really special.”

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Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.