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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Expanding Horizons

Expanding Horizons
By John Antonik for
March 6, 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Patrick Beilein admits that he sometimes has to pick up his stuff and move to another seat on the bus away from teammate Joe Herber. It’s not because Beilein doesn’t like him or because Herber has a problem with body odor: it’s just a simple matter of Beilein wanting to catch a little shut-eye.

West Virginia's Joe Herber has earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average studying political science.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks

Herber’s overhead light is always on no matter what time of night it is. And when the team wants to watch a movie it is always Herber being the one to offer the most resistance.

“He hates it when we play movies,” said freshman guard Ted Talkington, whom the players credit along with Joe Alexander as Herber’s best intellectual match-ups on the team. “He gets so mad when we put movies on because he tries to study. Everyone pretty much boos him, argues with him and just tells him to shut up and deal with the noise.”

The Darmstadt, Germany, resident admits the solitude of evening bus rides gives him the perfect opportunity to slip into his own world -- a world filled with curiosity.

“(Traveling) is actually the time when I get the most studying done,” Herber, a 4.0 student, says. “When I’m home I have a lot more distractions than when I am on the road. When I’m on the bus or on the plane it’s just a good time to read.”

Not all of Herber’s reading is required, either. He sometimes stuffs his well-worn book bag with German and French titles, classics, and even a fiction or two when he simply wants to kill some time.

Herber does say his opinions can sometimes wear thin on his teammates, who mostly enjoy talking about music, movies or college sports – things most normal 18, 19, 20 and 21-year-olds talk about. When something profound like the United States’ involvement in Iraq is on his mind, or maybe socialized healthcare, Herber has learned to keep his thoughts to himself.

“No one wants to argue with him about that stuff,” says Beilein.

“We don’t really debate,” added Talkington. “He likes to talk about politics and I’m not really into that – I’m more of a math and science kind of guy. I just let him educate me on things like that. He usually makes better points because that’s his thing.”

“I don’t know anything about politics,” admitted forward Mike Gansey. “I don’t even know who the chancellor of Germany is (Angela Merkel – the country’s first female chancellor). Joe sometimes tries to talk to me about that stuff. I ask him what he’s doing and he’s writing a paper on European studies. It’s like it’s in a different language – half the stuff he’s writing about.”

Herber just shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

“I’m trying to expand their horizons a little bit,” he chuckled. “Ted Talkington is a deep thinker. We have some guys who have some philosophical tendencies.”

Herber will be the first to admit that his horizons have also been expanded greatly since he decided to take up Coach John Beilein’s offer and travel halfway around the world to play college basketball at West Virginia University four years ago. What Herber has gotten is a whole lot more than just a wonderful basketball experience.

“This cultural experience has definitely been a big part of it,” he said.


Joe Herber is not only fluent in his native German, but he speaks English well enough that you can barely detect a difference. He also can speak French and Spanish. Herber began taking English in the fifth grade as part of the German school system’s required curriculum.

“We had to take another language so I learned French, too,” he said.

Unlike at West Virginia University where he’s earned nothing but As, Herber says his grades were more ordinary in high school with an occasional B or C in the sciences.

“I had pretty good grades but not as good as here,” he said. “I had to take more sciences which I had trouble with and sometimes I wasn’t really applying myself.”

Self-application has never been a problem for Herber at West Virginia University. There has probably never been a more self-driven and self-motivated student-athlete than Joe Herber, whether it’s learning all five positions in John Beilein’s complicated offense or mastering an international relations course.

“He’s by far the hardest worker on the team,” said Gansey. “Joe is a 4.0 student and on the court he plays four or five different positions. When he played backup five a couple of times (when Kevin Pittsnogle was expecting his first child) he just went in there and knew all of the plays. I’m like, ‘How do you know that? You don’t even play the position.’ He’s just so smart he knows everything that’s going on.”

Beilein isn’t sure he’s ever coached a smarter player.

“When you think about the fact that he’s done what he’s done in a second language, you just wonder how brilliant this young man really is,” Beilein said. “We just feel so blessed to coach him and be a part of his life these last four years.”

Herber ranks third on the team in scoring averaging 9.6 points per game.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks

Herber is a two-time Academic All-American who recently became the first West Virginia University player ever named ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American of the Year for men’s basketball. It’s the highest academic achievement a player can reach in college basketball and he did it at WVU: not Duke, not Stanford, not Northwestern, not Notre Dame or any other place where they like to remind people how smart they are.

“We have a lot of awards for our coaching staff and players over the 31 years that I’ve been a high school and college coach but this award for Joe … he deserves every bit of it,” Beilein said.

Like his coach trying to come to grips with the magnitude of what Herber has accomplished, Joe is still trying to explain the award to his mother Christiane.

“I’ve gotten a lot of awards lately so she’s a little bit desensitized,” Herber said. “I have to explain to her that it’s like a mixture of academics and athletics. Maybe if it was solely an academic award she would be more proud.”


Herber admits there where times when he wanted to leave West Virginia, its rural setting the complete opposite of what he was accustomed to growing up in a community of about 140,000 not too far from the major German city Frankfurt. After his freshman season in 2003 Herber wasn’t sure he wanted to play for another losing team and pro scouts in Germany were whispering in his ear about the opportunity of him making large sums of money if he returned.

“There were some basketball-related people telling me to go back but that was just for self-interest,” said Herber. “I also didn’t know which way I was going (academically). But I kind of wanted to finish what I started: I don’t like starting something and not finishing it.”

Making Herber’s decision to stay a little easier was the fact that Gansey was sitting out after transferring from St. Bonaventure, and all of the players that weren’t totally signed on and committed to Beilein’s system had either left or were in the process of leaving.

“The prospect of being together with this team … I had a feeling, especially the second year, that we were really coming together,” Herber said. “I knew that Mike was going to play the next year and that was a big part – knowing the success we could have, the team spirit, and the relationship that I had developed with the coaching staff.”

And now … three years later … Herber is more well-known in his adopted home of West Virginia than he is in his native Darmstadt. There isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t get stopped at the grocery store for an autograph or pose for a picture. When fans found out on Beilein’s statewide radio show that Herber was having a tough time finding German food to eat, the emails came pouring in with directions to local German restaurants and recipes for him to try. He even received some German bread from a well-intentioned fan. Herber admits the experience has been both gratifying and humbling.

“Sometimes it’s kind of surreal in a way because you’re out there and everybody knows you,” he said. “You go out and people want to take pictures. Then I’ll go back home and I’m just like the guy next door. It’s a good reality check and I think it’s good that I know that it’s not going to be like this all the way.”

Yet Herber and his family – particularly his mother – are genuinely touched that West Virginians have reached out and accepted him so warmly.

“That’s one of the biggest parts of this experience,” he said. “I walk out on the street and I’ll meet an older person and they tell me how really proud they are with the way I represent the state. That is really a great thing for me, not only to be a basketball player, but also to be a spokesperson for the state who people can identify with.”

West Virginia University showed its appreciation and respect for Herber in a very classy way by playing the German National Anthem before the American National Anthem during his final home game against Pitt. His mother took notice.

“One of the things that stood out for her was the way people took a liking to me and thanked her for sending me here, even though she really didn’t have a big part in it anyway,” Herber said. “It was nice for her to experience walking out and seeing 15,000 people cheering for us.”

Herber may have taught his teammates a great deal during his four years here, but he has taken away a lot from his experience at West Virginia University, too. He found out about school spirit and state pride that he says is lacking in Germany.

“Obviously between the years of 18 and 20 there is a great maturation process that takes place by not even going to a different country,” Herber said. “But I think what I really learned is sometimes you just have to accept things that are different and during those first two years I compared a lot of stuff: I compared this to what it was like at home and I learned to appreciate the differences.”

Joe Herber will leave West Virginia University and the United States much richer for what he has experienced over the last four years.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks

Once his season is finished at WVU (hopefully after another deep run in the NCAA tournament) Herber is planning on returning to Europe to play professional basketball. His four-year journey as a college basketball exchange student is almost completed. After he’s done playing he’s not sure what he wants to do – get a masters degree or enter the very challenging field of international relations or diplomacy.

“I will miss West Virginia,” he said. “I’ve developed some great relationships and it will be hard to cut those ties – but I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with everybody.

“This has really grown on me over the four years and I’m kind of looking forward to taking a new step in my life and enter a new phase, but I’ll look back and be a little sad,” he added.

Herber says when he returns to Europe it will be as a sort of spokesperson for the Mountain State. After all, he does know all the words to ‘Country Roads’ now.

“I’ve had to teach people about the culture, the people, the cities and where (West Virginia) is on the map,” he chuckled. “Most people only know the song and they have this redneck image, but I think I’ve done some good groundwork in Germany for West Virginia.”

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