By Jonah Bronstein
NIAGARA FALLS —
The higher you jump, the harder you dunk, the further your shooting range, the further you go. ¶ Further from the Falls. ¶ That’s the mindset many of the most blessed basketball players born to this impoverished city used to progress in life, to get a good education, to embark on a career. ¶ Paul Harris always saw himself and his city in a different light.
A JAW-DROPPING prodigy who was breaking baskets by the time he was in middle school, Harris was earmarked for the NBA before he left high school. He could’ve gone anywhere in the country to play college basketball. Of all the premier programs courting him, he chose the one closest to home. Had there been Big East banners hanging in a supersized dome at Niagara University, Harris surely would’ve went there.
Now, Paul Harris is the first one to tell you that “Syracuse was too close of a college for Paul Harris.” A three-hour drive wasn’t far enough from Niagara Falls. “I was always in a hurry to go home, like I was missing something,” he says. “It was a distraction.”
Three tumultuous years in Syracuse dimmed his professional prospects. The first major injury of his life, a severely sprained ankle, left him limping around his hometown for the duration of what was supposed to be his rookie year in the pros. He was unable to play basketball, and falling back into old habits.
One year later, “We Are The Champions” is blaring through the arena where Ali and Frazier fought the Thrilla in Manila. Harris is cutting down the nets, standing on a podium at midcourt, holding a championship trophy for the first time since he was in high school. He’s the best all-around player on the best team in the second-oldest professional basketball league in the world.
Those who know him best and love him most knew Harris needed to get far away from the Falls to flourish. Harris knows that now, if he didn’t realize it when he was younger. He’s found happiness and success beyond what was ever available to him at home, or in the American professional leagues. He’s literally halfway around the world. The final horn sounds on the Philippines Basketball Association Commissioner’s Cup finals at 8:37 p.m. It’s 8:37 a.m. in Niagara Falls.
TO APPRECIATE WHY Paul Harris has such a hard time separating himself from Niagara Falls, visit with his mother and father, his sisters, his uncles and cousins, the few friends he genuinely feels are family. The people who call him “Dugga” and swell with pride when they see him flying around the basketball court, displaying the natural athletic ability in the Harris bloodlines, and another, God-given layer of talent that always made him special. That support means everything to Harris. “I feel it in my heart,” he says. “That’s true love.”
Harris has vivid memories of his first game at the Wolverena. During warmups, he was struck by the size of the crowd, but also by how many family members he recognized, from both his mother and father’s side, sitting together in the front rows. He could hear their voices cheering above the rest when he broke away for a dunk.
When he was in college, Harris had teammates who played in front of family members once or twice a season. Since the Orange rarely venture too far away from home to play, Harris had friends and family in the stands for almost every game, as many as 20 people on occasion. His cousin and biggest fan, Dexter Harris Jr., lived with him in Syracuse.
Harris says when he’s in Niagara Falls, if he tells family members he’s going to play pickup games at Gluck Park, a dozen people will come out to watch. There’s no shortage of supporters who will go up to Niagara University just to rebound while he does monotonous shooting drills. One night last winter, while Harris was home in Niagara Falls nursing his ankle, his uncle Dexter Harris Sr., a die-hard basketball fan who used to run around the Gallagher Center waving the Niagara Purple Eagles flag during timeouts, told his nephew he couldn’t bring himself to watch any more games. Not even his beloved Knicks. It hurt too much that his nephew wasn’t out there playing.
Midway through Harris’ season in the Philippines, Uncle Dex learned he could watch the games live online. Only problem was, he didn’t have a computer. So he set his alarm for 6:30 a.m., walked to the corner store to be there when it opened, and watched the game on a laptop at the counter. “A family like ours, we came up real, real hard. It was a struggle. We learned how to survive,” Uncle Dex says. “My nephew has a lot of push and determination. After all he’s been through on and off the court, it just feels so good to see one of our family members doing something beautiful like that.”
DURING THE PBA playoffs, Paul Harris’ family gathered at the Michigan Avenue home of his mother, Emma McCall. The lone wall decoration in the living room is a framed picture of Harris playing at Syracuse. In a room barely bigger than the painted area on a basketball court, they huddle around a laptop perched on a kitchen chair to watch the game.
The weekday games start at 7 a.m., so Harris’ two young sons, Paul III and Nakyhi, aren’t able to come up from Buffalo to watch. When they’re there on weekends, they shriek at the sight of their father on screen. Harris’ little sister, Careen, leaves at halftime to go to school. She’s the one who best knows how to work the computer.
Emma, or “Sis,” as everyone is calling her, nervously drinks four cups of coffee throughout the game, boiling a new pot of water for each cup, because she prefers the instant variety. She stands in the background and doesn’t say much. But every time the screen shows her son, she smiles.
Paul Harris Sr. sits directly in front of the computer, fixated on the game. Normally jovial, he’s easily agitated by poor plays, dubious officiating calls, web video buffering. When the picture freezes, he scrubs the touchpad mouse to try and revive the broadcast. People call his cell phone for updates, and he barks at them to call back at a commercial. He’s too engrossed to realize they aren’t watching themselves, so they don’t know when the commercials come on.
“I sit there on pins and needles,” he says. “Seeing Dugga tearing stuff up again, I get so doggone emotional.”
After Harris’ team, the Talk n Text Tropang Texters, win Game 1, the Harris family bounces outside to enjoy the spring-like weather. It’s hardly past 9 a.m, but they’re talking about having a barbecue. When the Texters lose Game 2, it’s a rainy day, and they stumble out of the house in a disconsolate daze.
PAUL HARRIS HAS a close bond with both of his parents. He tries to emulate his father as an emotionally involved and supportive parent. He’s motivated to take care of his mother financially. “They have been there for me all of my life,” Harris says. “They’re the people I’ve counted on through all of the trials and tribulations I’ve had.”
But the photograph Harris has been carrying around with him for the past two years is of his paternal grandmother, Eloise Foster. He kisses it before every game.
“My grandma was the No. 1 person that I trusted more than anybody,” Harris says. “I’m not a person that tells people everything. When things are going on, I always hold it in. But I always told her things, because her feedback was so good.”
Foster’s advice to her grandson usually boiled down to this: “No matter what happens, always keep a smile on your face and have fun.”
Paul Harris Sr. says his mother is smiling from above while watching her grandson do so well in the Philippines. She has the best view, better than any online feed. He says it’s only fitting that Harris and the Texters won the championship on Mother’s Day.
At Foster’s funeral in 2008, Harris stood up to eulogize her. With tears in his eyes, he promised her he’d make it to the NBA.
Harris’ best chance to make it to the NBA came in September, 2009 when he was invited to participate in the Utah Jazz training camp. Because of their payroll, the Jazz were looking to fill out the end of the roster with an undrafted rookie or two, low-paid players on non-guaranteed contracts. Harris hurt his ankle on the eve of training camp and never got on the practice floor. The Jazz waited until the very last day to cut Harris. The undrafted rookie they kept, Wesley Matthews, became a starter by season’s end and went on to sign a lucrative, multi-year contract with the Portland Trailblazers.
The Maine Red Claws made Harris their first pick in their first draft to field an NBA Developmental League team. A hopeful Harris moved to Maine because the D-League, despite very low salaries, is an ongoing showcase for young players to try to break into the NBA. There are more than 100 players in the NBA who have spent time in the D-League. But Harris aggravated his ankle injury in Maine and wasn’t able to play during the 2009-10 season.
Harris was invited to play on the Utah Jazz summer league team last July. But after being inactive for so long, he was far out of game shape and didn’t get many minutes. He eagerly went back to Maine last October to begin playing pro ball. Harris averaged 15.7 points and 9.6 rebounds during the first nine games of the D-League season, but was moved to a reserve role in December and his minutes fell sharply.
One reason for Harris’ limited playing time was that the Red Claws’ top returning player, Mario West, broke out of an early season slump and entrenched himself at power forward, the position Harris had been playing. West and Harris grew close during their short time together. “He was a great teammate,” says West, who has been called up to the NBA four times, most recently by the New Jersey Nets in March. “He’s one of the guys you hate to play against but you love to play with him. We ended up having a saying on the court, ‘I’m riding with you.’ It means I’m with you ’til the wheels fall off. He’s a friend and a brother for life.”
When West was struggling early on, he vented his frustration to Harris. When Harris’ playing time dwindled, he went to West. He told him about an offer to make significantly more money playing in the Philippines. West told him that with two young sons back home needing financial support, he should go overseas. “A lot of guys get called up, but there’s no guarantee, and it’s a hard grind,” West told him. “Don’t chase the dream and let a great opportunity to provide for your family slip away.”
TIM WINN, A cousin Harris has always looked up to, starred in the United States Basketball League and the Continental Basketball Association after graduating from St. Bonaventure. He came close to getting a contract with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. When that fell through, he took jobs playing basketball in France, England and Venezuela.
“Now, as older Tim, I think, why not go get your money first, then take a shot at the minor leagues,” Winn says. Emphatically, he declares, “the minor leagues have never done anything for anybody financially.”
Winn thoroughly enjoyed his time overseas, he recommends the experience to all players outside the NBA, and he says the Philippines is the perfect place for Harris to be right now.
“When you’re so far away, you can’t go to the old neighborhood,” he says. “It’s you and your hustle, you and your grind. At the end of the day, there’s nobody else that has an impact on your thoughts. There’s nobody looking over your shoulder. It frees you of the conversations that aren’t always good for you.”
“Now you can see, you can hear it in his voice, he’s at the ultimate level of comfort and happiness,” Winn says. “Being happy and having the opportunity to play plays a huge role in your performance on the basketball court. Especially in professional basketball. If you don’t choose the right situation, you can be stressed out for years.”
If Winn alludes to the fact that Harris needed to get far away from Niagara Falls to reach his full potential, Paul Harris Sr. bellows it.
“My son is a people person, and when he’s in Niagara Falls, he’s around certain people, certain areas that’s not good,” Harris Sr. says. “I tell him, ‘Son, there’s nothing for you in Niagara Falls. Just stay gone. I don’t want you to be here, up in these people’s houses.’ When he was at Syracuse, he always wanted to be back home. I told him, ‘You don’t need to come home, you just need to call and let everybody hear your voice and know you’re OK. Your family is going to be alright, as long as they can see you in the game.’”
His son has gotten the message.
“I miss the people at home, I miss my sons, I miss my mom, I miss my dad, I miss my sisters, my uncles, my cousins,” Harris says. “I love some of my friends, but I know their routine. ...
“I still love Niagara Falls, and I claim the Falls, and I want to do something big for the Falls. But I don’t miss the Falls. Ain’t nothing to miss but my family.”
Though he doesn’t miss being home, Harris is eager to come back and do something for the community. He’s planning an event in August that will be dedicated to former Niagara Falls teammate Miguel Respress, who died playing basketball in 2005. Harris wants to get a gym to hold a youth clinic and a celebrity basketball game featuring not only his former Falls teammates, but friends from Buffalo, the D-League, the NBA, and even the Philippines. He’s already reached out to Joe Mihalich to see if the Gallagher Center could be the venue.
“I think this can uplift the city,” he says. “People don’t have much to look forward to in Niagara Falls. That’s where I’m from and I want to do something for everybody. I’ve been thinking about it for three years actually, but I’ve never been in the predicament to do something like I am now.”
Advanced technology has also eased the separation anxiety Harris used to feel when he was far from home. He learned how to use Skype to see and talk with his sons, and chats regularly with people through his computer. He’s become so active on Facebook, keeping in touch with family, friends and fans, spreading links to the online broadcasts of his games, that he could teach a seminar on viral marketing. “When I was in college, I had Facebook, I never used it,” Harris says. “I never knew nothing about tagging photos, or posting on your wall. Now, I’m on there all the time.”
Notorious for being unreachable on his cell phone over the years, Harris now takes time to talk and text with dozens of friends and family members every day. And not just the usual suspects. Last week, Harris was relaxing in his apartment when he started thinking about Angelo Morreale, a basketball lover in Lewiston he befriended while working out at Niagara University. When Harris’ ankle was hurting, Morreale used his tips from tending bar at the Crowne Plaza to bring Harris over to Canada for acupuncture treatments. Around the globe and in the midst of a championship series, Harris took time to call Morreale and express his gratitude.
“Out of nowhere, I thought of him and wanted to tell him that was a real reason I got healthy,” Harris says. “He’s got genuine love for me. When I called him, he was so happy he could hardly talk. He told me he was reading all the articles, and he was proud of me. He was one of the people that was always telling me to go overseas. And he’s a person in my life that his word meant a lot to me.”
When Harris was deciding whether to go overseas, he says nobody from Niagara Falls tried to talk him out of it, even though it meant they wouldn’t have much access to him, and wouldn’t be able to attend his games. But ultimately, the decision came down to what was best for two people in Buffalo who didn’t want him to go, but aren’t yet wise enough to know they needed him to. His sons.
PAUL HARRIS HAS spent the better part of 24 years in Niagara Falls, so it’s no wonder living there has lost its appeal. In the Phillipines for four months, he’s had the experience of a lifetime almost every day. "I’m actually having the time of my life,” he says just a few days after arriving. “I feel like this is really meant for me to be here.”
Harris went overseas four weeks before his season started and watched the Texters win the Filipino-only championship. He woke up early every day for the first month because he couldn’t wait to get out and explore his new surroundings. He cradled crocodiles and fed baby tigers. He went white-water rafting and jet skiing. “Things he never would’ve done at home,” his father says. The type to mostly eat fried foods from the same restaurants when he was in the states, Harris has tried exotic cuisine in the Philippines and watches his diet.
One afternoon, Harris went to an amusement park and befriended two young boys who reminded him of his sons. They went on rides and played laser tag. He let them win at pop-a-shot. “They were two of the most respectful kids I’ve ever met,” he says. Harris gave the boys a lift home. They took him to an alley, where they lived in cardboard boxes. “It was just so sad,” he says. “They literally reminded me of me when I was young. I used to go a lot of places by myself.” He gave the boys his number and they text messaged him the next day.
Harris also grew close with his driver, who lives in a rough neighborhood. Harris introduced the driver to Facebook, and he quickly send friend requests to all of Harris’ friends. “I hope one day my friend Paul Harris can get me to the USA,” the driver wrote. In his profile picture, the man was holding a machine gun. “I’ve seen some hard sections and I can tell that people don’t have a lot,” Harris says. “Hopefully one day, I can change the world a little bit.”
Harris still hopes to play in the NBA one day, but the fantasy no longer dominates his thoughts. He knows an NBA team will find him overseas if it desires to. Denver Nuggets guard Gary Forbes played for Talk n Text last year. Harris has also developed a close relationship with Norman Black, a Baltimore native who played in the CBA and, briefly, the NBA. Black came out to the Philippines when he was 24 and never left. He played in the PBA for a decade, then transitioned to coaching. He now runs the Ateneo Blue Eagles, what Harris calls the Duke of the Philippines. At halftime Sunday, Black gave Harris an expletive-laced pep talk because he only had two rebounds.
Harris sees business opportunities for him and his girlfriend Gianna if he continues playing in the Philippines. “My future can be bright over here,” he says. “I don’t necessarily have to be in the NBA.” This week, a documentary crew will begin following Harris for a program that will air on the National Geographic Channel. Harris curtailed his tourist activity as the PBA season progressed. With his sister Barbara and girlfriend there with him, and the championship conquest complete, Harris intends to go out exploring the Philippines again. He’s also going to bring his own video camera along, so he can show family and friends the footage in case the documentary doesn’t come out for a while, or doesn’t show everything. Harris sys he wanted to study videography in college, but he was told the class schedules would conflict with basketball practices and travel.
PAUL HARRIS SET two main goals when he went out to the Philippines: stay the duration of the season, and win a championship. He knew that while putting up big stats might impress NBA scouts, the Filipino fans would evaluate him solely on wins and losses. He could get sent home if the team lost too many games early on. He wouldn’t be brought back again if they didn’t contend for a championship. He was brought in to defend and rebound, lead the high-scoring Texters to their first import-inclusive crown, or take the blame if they fell short. His coach told him to take a long look at the practice facility on Saturday. This was his last day there, Chot Reyes told Harris.
“I’m really proud of myself for coming so far, literally on the other side of the world, and helping this team make history,” Harris says the following morning after celebrating all night with the teammates that have become his surrogate family members. “I did everything right, how I was supposed to do it. The way I handled myself, the way I evolved as a person.”
“He’s learned so much about life and himself and the way the world is,” Uncle Dex says. “Being over there in the Philippines has shown him so much about being a good man, a man of wisdom, a man who doesn’t try to show off.”
On Sunday, Talk n Text entered the fourth quarter trailing by 15 points. They had been leading the series 3-1, but were now on the verge taking a losing streak into Game 7 against a confident opponent that would have the crowd on its side. The Texters fought back to force overtime. Harris came up with a crucial blocked shot with 2:14 left to play, then hit a pair of free throws to tie the game. He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, bringing his season averages to 25.6 points and 11.2 rebounds. When the game ended, Harris was in shock. “I honestly didn’t even know if it was real,” he says. “That was one of the biggest wins I’ve ever had in my life.”
Back in Niagara Falls, Paul Harris Sr., the proudest father on two continents at this moment on Mother’s Day, yelled toward the sky, “Thank you Lord! Thank you Jesus!”
Then, at the computer screen, “Thank you Dugga!”
Contact sports editor Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2264, or firstname.lastname@example.org