To the bittersweet disappointment of local and international fans alike, the Tacoma basketball legend has announced he will officially retire after the end of his International Basketball League (IBL) season this year.
Over his past six seasons in IBL, Harris has earned 2,435 points in a total 106 games, making him the all-time leading scorer and a four-time league all-star. He has also gained a reputation as being a hometown hero while representing Tacoma on three of the city’s IBL teams – the Thunder, Jazz and Tide. His best season offensively came as a member of the Jazz in 2007. The power forward averaged 21.2 points in 18 contests.
Harris’ last regular-season home game in the IBL was on June 19. The league honored their star during a special recognition ceremony, where he watched the Tacoma Tide officially retire his jersey.
Although making it official this year, Harris made the conscious decision to start winding down his career about two years ago, after turning down contracts to play in Japan and New Zealand. For the 32-year-old athlete, life on the road has been exhilarating, but stressful. It has also brought back painful memories of a childhood shuttled between numerous homes and families.
“I didn’t even exist”
Harris was in fifth grade when he entered the foster-care system. His mother raised him during his early childhood and his biological father played a very small role in his life.
“When they took me away from my mom, I didn’t know what to do,” Harris recalls. “I was a very introverted child.”
In the foster-care system, he remembers being picked on for being the ‘quiet kid’ and bullying and beatings from the other children were a common occurrence. When he got older, he began running away. Although he did not have many belongings, Harris would never forget to take his coat and basketball.
“All I had for comfort in my life was my ball,” he explained.
At 11, Harris would wind up sitting in front of grocery stores in the middle of the night, where he remembers watching the world through teary eyes and thinking about his life.
“I remember seeing grown people walk right by me like I didn’t even exist.”
Between his elementary and middle school years, Harris remembers attending more than 20 schools. His academics suffered as a result. If school subjects are like completing a puzzle, Harris missed crucial pieces.
“I’d go from Pierce County to Yakima to Spanaway and everyone’s curriculum was different. I could never quite catch up.”
By the time he entered Mt. Tahoma High School, Harris would also enter a more stable living situation with a foster parent, whom he now refers to as his mother. But by then, the floundering student had given up on his studies. Ninth and 10th grades were the worst years.
“I didn’t want to try hard, because I was used to failure and I was scared,” Harris admitted.
During those same years, he was cut – twice – from the basketball team at Mt. Tahoma. By 11th grade, things began to change.
A 5-foot-6-inch Harris had grown into a 6-foot-9-inch prospect seemingly overnight. Coaches began to take notice. And that year, he became the team’s swinging (junior varsity and varsity) center position.
That summer, an alarm went off inside the young athlete. He began waking up at 6 a.m. and conditioning. He would shoot the ball and scrimmage with friends and relatives until dusk. He would review plays of teams on television and in video clips. Basketball became his obsession. And when he came back to school senior year, Harris explained his improvement was like night and day.
“That’s when I started noticing that when you work hard at anything, it will make a difference,” Harris said. “I also realized that basketball could really take me somewhere.”
“I’m going to do me.”
Tacoma was a rough place in the 1980s and 1990s. Drugs and gang violence plagued the East Side neighborhoods Harris grew up in. At 12, he spent time in juvenile detention for fighting in a group home. After that, he promised himself he would never go back to jail and has not since. As a teen, he hung out with a group of friends for protection. While some might have called it a gang, Harris considered it a family.
“I wasn’t running around with a gun, but I wasn’t going to back down if you were coming toward me talking trash,” he said.
During high school, Harris was shot while defending a friend at a party. This event had a profound impact on his decisions about basketball.
“I remember going into shock and hearing people say I was dead,” he said. “It was surreal.”
And while recovering, he had an epiphany that pushed him toward achieving his goal.
“The guys I was protecting and getting in trouble with didn’t come to see me or call. It was the oddest thing to me,” Harris said. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to do me. I’m leaving.’”
So, at the end of his senior year, Percy Carr, a basketball coach from San Jose City (Junior) College, encouraged him to come play basketball in California.
So, he did.
Over the next four years, Harris would go from California, on to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. After graduating from Drake in 2000, he began playing for basketball teams in Europe. He joined the Basketball League of Norway in 2001, as a member of the Oslo Kings. He earned all-league first-team honors and claimed the league’s championship after defeating the Kongsberg Penguins. And after briefly playing for Germany’s Basket Esch, Harris chose to come back to the United States to be with his family.
Back home, Harris took on positions playing for the American Basketball Association’s Bellevue Blackhawks and Tacoma’s three IBL teams. Playing in his hometown is something Harris says he will never forget.
“For the first time you actually saw Tacoma guys taking a chance and getting a shot to get noticed. I was excited for them to have that opportunity.”
Although never quite making it to the pinnacle – the NBA – Harris says he is proud of what he has been able to accomplish during such a short career.
“No, I didn’t make it into the NBA and hurt for a while,” Harris said. “But, I’ve seen over 10 countries, played all over the world. I’ve met and built relationships with people in different countries. And it was all because I’ve played basketball.”