ALBANY, Ky. (WBKO) --- On Thursday, the Lexington Herald released their all-state boys basketball team as voted on by coaches across the state. The list acts as a who’s who of the best basketball players across the state including Xavier signee KyKy Tandy and Dontaie Allen who became the first in-state player to sign for Kentucky since 2013. Another name featured on that list is future WKU Hilltopper Jackson Harlan who has been rewriting the history books for the small community of Albany, KY.
In the past two years, Harlan was known as a silent assassin on the court whose midrange jump shot sliced through the hearts of his opponents. Throughout the Bluegrass, people have been talking about his silky smooth jumper that led to him becoming the first athlete from Clinton County to be named to the All-State First Team.
What sticks out more is his incredible well-roundedness. His head coach at Clinton County, Todd Messer, said it best by explaining why Jackson is the model for a student-athlete at Clinton County
He said, “Jackson succeeds at everything he does in basketball… Off the court, he’s respectful, he’s encouraging to others, and he does the right things.”
If you ask any Clinton County basketball fan about Harlan, they could tell you exactly when they first saw him play because of his incredible natural talent that he displayed at a young age. Long-time Clinton County basketball Coach Mike Beard can think back on all the players that have come through their program, but no one has left an impact quite like Harlan.
Beard said, “Just the way he moved on the floor made it look like he played with no effort. What’s unique is his ability to put the ball in the hole…". He continued saying, “It’s been about 24 years that I’ve coached on the varsity team, and we haven’t had anybody in those years that could score the basketball quite like him.”
At the foundation of the Mr. Kentucky Basketball candidate’s ability is his basketball-obsessed family who ignited his passion and joy for the game of basketball.
Harlan said, “I would have never put in the work if it wasn’t fun just playing horse and around-the-world with my dad. Both of my grandmas had basketball goals, so I mean it was always around me.”
Harlan had always been surrounded by the game of basketball. His obsession for the sport came at an early age through a slice of American culture that has fueled the game of basketball for all ages, the YMCA league.
His first taste of organized basketball began with his friends in the rec-league, but after finding so much enjoyment playing together, his team decided to embark on a marathon of basketball one summer playing travel basketball.
“We went everywhere!” Harlan exclaimed. He continued on saying, “I think one year we played about 80 games in the span of two months. Every weekend we had five or six games, and we played nonstop over the summer.”
According to Messer, the future Hilltopper had always been a natural athlete. Through his first two years of high school, Harlan looked for anyway to compete as he played soccer, tennis, and ran cross-country. It wasn’t until a talk with Coach Messer after his sophomore year, that he really put into perspective how important basketball could be for his future.
Messer said, “you need to decide if you want to play four or five different sports and be a really good high school basketball player that will play for a low-end college... or do you want to be something special and play at the highest level.”
For Harlan it was simple, basketball had been so ingrained in his life that there was no other option than to do whatever it took to play at the highest level. He said, “I was good at a few sports – I guess – but I wasn’t the best. Basketball is what I loved the most, so I wanted to put the most time into that, and it was just unlike anything else.”
Once he made that commitment, then the work ethic came naturally to Harlan. Basketball went from being a hobby to a lifestyle as he pushed himself to become a name that people around Kentucky would know for years to come.
It didn’t take long into his junior year for Harlan to get a taste of success. In the third game of the season, they came up against Louisville Male who held Clinton County to 43 points and won by 20 in the previous year. During that game, Jackson unleashed to score 44 points by himself and led a fourth-quarter comeback that sent the game into overtime.
Mediocrity wasn’t an option for Harlan, even though he had an incredible natural feel for the game, it was his persistence that made has taken him to the next level. If he had a bad game, then the only way to recover was to work through it until he was satisfied.
Messer said, “There was a game during his junior year where he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well. I noticed him standing by his locker after all the kids left, and I asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘I stunk today, I want to get up some shots.’ So, I told him to get his gear on and let’s go, and we ended up staying in the gym for another hour.”
All the work that Harlan put in culminated during the summer before his senior season. Coming from a town of just over 2000 people, Harlan didn’t have many chances for exposure to college coaches. So, Coach Messer decided to bring to Clinton County to a WKU team camp over that summer to give Harlan a chance to play in front of the WKU coaching staff. Harlan knew that he only needed one chance to show a college coach that he deserved a spot in their program.
Harlan said, “I wanted to let everyone know that I was for real, and get my name out there, but I can’t really describe it. I played better than I ever have – I was making everything – I could pull up from anywhere on the court and it was just money.”
On the day, Diddle Arena turned into Harlan’s House as he obliterated every defensive look thrown at him. He emerged in the first game of the day against Pendleton County dropping 47 points, then went deep into his bag against KyKy Tandy and University Heights scoring 40 points. Harlan came to Bowling Green to impress that day, and he left with a scholarship offer from WKU.
Harlan said, “Stansbury told me that he noticed me during the first game to liking me in the second game, then to loving me by the end of the day. He talked to Coach then Coach told me, and I was all about it.”
The offer from Rick Stansbury wrote another page in Clinton County athletic history as Harlan became one of the only players in school history to receive a division one athletic scholarship. Although success is never guaranteed at the next level, Harlan has already accomplished an unthinkable feat with the help of a whole community. So, when you hear the name Jackson Harlan announced in Diddle Arena, you can think of the lifelong journey that a kid from Albany, KY went on to earn a future as a Hilltopper.