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Doing the right thing: TMC's Raphael Harris

Life has been tough for Harris, but family and his own determination have him flying high again

Posted: December 6, 2009 9:18 p.m.
Updated: December 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The Master's College forward Raphael Harris has encountered many obstacles in his life, including the death of his father at a young age, a move across the country and the struggle to balance family life and basketball. But he hasn't let any of it beat him.

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When Raphael Harris left the gym in Malibu on Nov. 7, 2008, he thought he was done with The Master’s College basketball team.

Frustrated by his play against Pepperdine, distracted by agonizing trouble in his personal life, Harris made a decision to leave the team after only playing 10 minutes of his senior season.

Mustangs head coach Chuck Martin thought the team was enjoying the 82-79 exhibition win over the NCAA Division-I Waves on the road. He had no idea he was about to lose one of his best players.

“We lost (Harris), and we were never able to replace what he gave our team,” Martin says. “We lost him and then we lost (Dean Hadley) to injury, I think that’s why we went from being the 22nd-ranked team in the country to a team that finished sub-.500.”

He was shocked and didn’t understand why Harris was walking away.

“The reality is, we didn’t know everything that was going on and how that was affecting Raphael,” Martin says.

Harris felt like it was his only option at the time. But eventually, he would overcome his obstacle the way he always had: with perseverance.

    
The importance of education

Raphael’s mother, Connie Harris, says the death of Raphael’s father when Raphael was only 5 years old had a profound impact.

He was close to his dad, she says, and more than his two siblings, the already-shy child became very spiritual to help him cope with the loss.

It also brought him closer to his mom.

“He was always that way from a young age — quiet, spiritual and determined,” Connie says. “When he would see me get down, he would say things like, ‘Don’t ever be discouraged, Mom,’ or ‘Don’t fight evil with evil.’”

Connie remembers going back to school to finish her teaching degree and having to bring Raphael with her to when he was only 7.

Raphael trudged along, she says, through the snow of winters in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where the family lived at the time.

“It was very hard, but we made it,” Connie says. “He was learning then the importance of education, and that time in the classroom was a good thing.”

When Raphael was 12, the family moved across the country to the city of Los Angeles.

Connie took her son to a recreational basketball league at Rodeo Park near Dorsey High School so he could make friends and learn the game.

She says Raphael was so bad she wondered if she was doing the right thing.

“He was no good at first,” Connie says, with the same playful laugh as her son. “I thought, ‘What have I done to my son?’ He was tall and quick, but he didn’t know anything about the game, so he would just run up and down the court.”

After one of the coaches at Hamilton High School asked him, he tried out for his school’s basketball team. Apparently both were dissatisfied with the result, and Harris never went back.

“I was doing pretty good, but I didn’t understand the game at that time,” Raphael says. “Organized basketball was kind of overwhelming for me.

“I always played at the park with my friends, I just never really, I don’t think, had the confidence back then. I didn’t really have the guidance of my father, I moved from Pennsylvania to L.A. and I was going through high school not knowing my full potential.”

But Raphael stuck with it. He honed his craft on outdoor courts.

Eventually, he got good enough to play with the local legends at Robertson Park. The famous indoor/outdoor rims in West L.A. helped shape the NBA talents of former Los Angeles Lakers Cedric Ceballos and Mike Penberthy, Washington Wizard Nick Young and Cleveland Cavalier Chris Mills, among a littany of talented players.

However, in his drive to better his game, his classroom duties at Hamilton were neglected.


Growing up quickly

Raphael says shortly after turning 18, he discovered high school attendance was optional. He’d rather be on the basketball courts.

“I was goofing off,” Raphael says. “When I found out I didn’t have to go to class anymore I was like, ‘OK, see you later.’ I didn’t understand the ramifications of not having my high school diploma and how that can limit your opportunities.”

Raphael had been a security guard for almost a year after marrying his high school sweetheart. In 2003, shortly after Raphael turned 20, his first daughter, Destiny, was born.

“I wasn’t even thinking about basketball anymore at that time,” he says.

To help take care of his family, he got a job with the Transportation Security Administration, working at the Kennedy International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

“Every type of creed of people came through there,” Raphael says. “We had to check everybody’s luggage and deal with their attitude, and respect their tendencies and culture. Nobody wants their luggage checked, and the fact that somebody could have a bomb in their bag wasn’t a great way to go to work every morning.”

The stress, heavy-luggage lifting and what he felt was a dead-end job environment made him yearn for his education.

It wasn’t the easy choice by any means. His salary allowed him to financially support his wife and the birth of their second daughter, Alana. But he knew in the long term, it would be the right move.

His family had already moved out to Palmdale, where his mom also now lived nearby, which helped make things easier.

“One day, I just walked on to Antelope Valley (College) campus and saw there was two guys in the gym in short shorts and Wilson socks watching basketball and I thought, ‘These guys must be the coaches,’” Raphael says.

He introduced himself and found he could try out the following week, in the summer of 2005.


Getting back to school

For Raphael’s first season at AVC in 2005-06, he was, by his own admission, still a raw product of the outdoor game.

The fact that he was able to walk on to a Marauders squad that would later make a run at the California Community College Athletic Association Championship in 2006-07 said something for Raphael’s athleticism.

But making an impact would be even tougher.

Raphael’s mom says her son contemplated quitting the team early. He was frustrated and stuck playing behind Marcellus Robertson and Ade Dagunduro, who are both in the top four on the school’s all-time records list for single-season rebound totals.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Raphael says. “We ran a specific offense and my skills didn’t pair that well with the offense.”

Soon thereafter, another door would open. Harris stumbled upon TMC.

He didn’t even know Master’s was interested in him at first. At the time, his post-AVC plans included potentially getting his teaching credential.

Martin says he scouted the team, but he was really looking at Dagunduro, who ended up playing at the University of Nebraska.

“Raphael was just terrific in the post, though,” Martin recalls. “He was still the athlete and the shot-blocker that he’s always been, but he needed a lot of skill development. Our league is a league of skill players, but his athleticism was way above what you normally see (in the Golden State Athletic Conference).”

It was an unusual courtship, as recruiting processes go.

TMC assistant head coach Chris Connolly invited Raphael to play in the school’s open gym, where Martin and Raphael first met.

Shortly thereafter, he read an article in the Antelope Valley Press about how The Masters had offered him a scholarship. It was the first he’d heard of it.

But Raphael was looking forward to studying in a Christian environment where he could also continue to play.


New set of challenges  


Raphael says he gained an understanding and respect for the organized game while at AVC. He also earned his high school diploma while preparing for Master’s.

“I bothered him about it every day until he put it in my hand,” Connie says.

On the courts at TMC, things progressed at a pace that seemed slow for Raphael. His first year at TMC, his junior year in 2007-08, he averaged 7 points, 6 rebounds and started 26 of 29 games.

He was frustrated again, and told his mother that he felt like an eagle that had had its wings clipped.

“It was a big learning curve,” he says.

Her advice?

“I always told him, ‘Keep pressing on,’” Connie says.

However, the time, energy and commitment of playing for TMC began to put a strain on Raphael’s personal life as well.

Raphael says the time away from his family due to his commitments at TMC began to affect his marriage.

“Through the preseason I was really struggling, our relationship was struggling, and it started to spill over onto the court,” he says. “Everything kind of came to a point, and I don’t know, my emotions got the best of me and I had a breakdown. At that point, I was like, ‘I can’t play basketball right now. I need to get my life together.”

“I was trying to be a part of the team, but you know in basketball, when you play the game and you love it, sometimes it’s good to you and sometimes it’s bad. But when it’s bad and you’ve got a lot of things going on, it can be tough.”

It all came to a head in Malibu.


Getting back on track


There was no blow-up. Raphael says he left the program without ever really discussing the situation with Martin.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “I did stay in school (at TMC). I just wasn’t even thinking about (basketball), really, for about six months.”

In time, Raphael attempted to reconcile basketball in his life.

He ran sand dunes in Santa Monica to stay in shape and went back to Robertson Park to work on his game and played on a summer league team at Hollywood High’s gym with Penberthy, who also played for TMC.

Eventually, Raphael reached out to Martin. So did Connie.

Martin and Raphael had multiple talks that lasted hours, as Raphael was still trying to figure out what he was going to do.
He says during these discussions, he realized something.

“I needed to stop messing around and finish where I started,” Raphael says.

Once things were straightened out with Martin, Raphael researched his eligibility to see if he could get his year back.

In general terms, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics rules dictate that if an athlete plays for even one minute on a team, it is considered a year of eligibility.

The NAIA granted the petition due to his circumstances and that he only played a fraction of an exhibition game in 2008-09.

“We felt pretty good about his petition from the beginning,” Martin says. “It was just a matter of the NAIA having to punish him for playing those 10 minutes last year.”

Raphael sat out the team’s first two games and then made an immediate impact for The Master’s College.

In the next two games, both Mustangs wins, Harris tallied a combined 11 blocks while coming off the bench.

On Dec. 1, TMC beat Azusa Pacific University at APU’s gym for the first time ever. Harris led the team with 24 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks.

One of the first things he did after the game was send a text message to Connie with his stat line and the result.

“I texted him back, ‘I guess the eagle has busted loose,’” Connie says.

Raphael’s text back?

“The eagle is flying high.”

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