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Raphael Harris: Hoops dreamer, Part I of III

Former TMC forward Harris believes he can play in the NBA — and he’s doing something about it

Posted: July 10, 2010 10:00 p.m.
Updated: July 11, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Raphael Harris’ basketball career has been anything but typical so far. But the father of two is doing everything he can to make sure that career continues in the NBA. Raphael Harris’ basketball career has been anything but typical so far. But the father of two is doing everything he can to make sure that career continues in the NBA.
Raphael Harris’ basketball career has been anything but typical so far. But the father of two is doing everything he can to make sure that career continues in the NBA.

Raphael Harris pounds the dunes of Southern California’s coastline every morning from the start of the piers in Santa Monica to where the rocks begin to form on Muscle Beach in Venice.

With each of the 34 lifeguard towers he’ll run by, his calf muscles tighten a little more against the resistance of the sand. His shirt gets heavier with the sweat from the summer heat.

When Harris tires, there are millions of reasons he can look to for motivation, but none is stronger than the need to take care of his two young daughters.

So he pushes on.

The former power forward from The Master’s College wrapped up his collegiate basketball career on March 4 in an 80-56 loss to Azusa Pacific in the quarterfinals of the Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament.

But the devoutly Christian athlete has a premonition that basketball will remain a part of his life. He works and prays to make his professional hoop dreams a reality — his “manifest destiny.”

His goal: the National Basketball Association.

It’s something he will keep working to achieve, he says, whether it happens this summer or the next, until it becomes a reality. However, he says he’s not “closing any doors” when it comes to the possibility of playing overseas. After all, a 26-year-old doesn’t have forever to chase a career in professional athletics.

“It’s funny because you get to the end of the road and think, ‘Should I just stop and get a job?’” Harris says, reflecting on the end of his collegiate eligibility.

“Especially after the season, you go through so many ups and downs. … It can be tough. People don’t realize that one day it just stops, and it’s just done.”

Harris talks as though not having basketball in his life would leave a void, and he seems to have a more intimate relationship with basketball than most.

Harris’ mother, Constance, can see the passion that drives her son on the court. She describes his chasing of this loftiest of professional goals as something he has to do. She said she’s been expecting him to try this since his first season at Antelope Valley College. 

“If you have a dream, I say remove the box that you’re in and go for it with the Lord on your side,” Constance Harris says. “If you don’t have dreams, then you’re not really living.”

She can’t see how she could do anything but encourage him, especially seeing the dramatic impact the game has had on her son.

Basketball has been a cornerstone in his life since the shy 12-year-old and his family left Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for Los Angeles. Recreation-league play there helped the East Coast transplant make friends. Harris’ father passed away when he was 3, and the game provided coaches who became role models giving him crucial support, guidance and confidence.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 12, and I don’t know, I just caught a bug,” Harris says, describing his love as a sort of incurable basketball infection.

“If you mention my name to anybody who knows me, the game of basketball will come up,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t say that I’ve always been on the right track, but I feel like this is the track that I’m supposed to be on.”

The affable, 6-foot-7-inch, 195-pound forward was nicknamed “Mantis” by friends at Hamilton High of Los Angeles for the way his long, spindly arms hung from the net-less, metal rims on Los Angeles’ outdoor courts.

As a teenager, though, the extent of his game was an unruly, run-and-dunk style crafted from pickup games. The lanky youth was asked to try out for his high school team by the coach, but Harris admittedly says he wasn’t prepared for the game’s organized version.

So his high school career lasted less than a day. He grew bored with school and yearned to play basketball wherever he could, so he did — neglecting his studies in the process.

After he dropped out of high school, he married and got a job as a security guard. After 9/11, fear from terrorists prompted development of the Transportation Security Administration, and a rash of hiring saw Harris working security at Kennedy International Terminal, despite the fact that he hadn’t yet earned his diploma.

Soon after, his first daughter, Destiny, came along. And then a second child, Alana. Harris says the LAX gig wasn’t that bad. It had great benefits, and the salary was more than enough to pay the bills for the self-described family man who enjoyed time at home.

But working security wasn’t what he wanted to do. He yearned to have basketball in his life. If a professional career didn’t work out, then at least he would get a chance to finish his education.

The lure of the courts drove Harris from a steady, well-paying job to the hardwood. He earned his GED, and then began to learn and understand team basketball at Antelope Valley.

When Harris finished at AVC, he moved from Lancaster to Valencia for a chance to play on scholarship at TMC. He says it took a toll on family time, but it was something he had to do.

His journey from a raw athlete with no high school basketball experience to an National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics-level player who ranked eighth in blocked shots nationally as a senior is proof that his athleticism and devotion to the game provide potential for success.

Having followed an unorthodox basketball game plan his whole life, and having finished his time as a Mustang, he now feels closer than ever to realizing his professional goal. It’s a sort of natural progression from an unnatural course.

But he says he talks about his dream with precious few outside his family.

Harris isn’t naïve to the challenge of playing professional sports; this is his way of avoiding inherent doubts.

Only 87 players have ever made the jump from the NAIA — the organization TMC plays in — to the NBA, according to the NAIA’s website.

And only one person has ever made it from The Master’s College in the NBA’s 64-year history.

As the Mustangs’ sole NBA rep, Mike Penberthy is a useful friend and ally to Harris. He graduated from TMC in 1997 and then earned a championship ring with the Lakers during a two-year stint that ended in 2002. He understands the obstacles facing Harris better than anyone.

Now he uses his experience to try and help different levels of players achieve basketball goals through several different business ventures meant to aid in a players’ skill development, marketing efforts and financial management.

Penberthy stops short of discounting Harris’ NBA chances, but he makes it clear just how difficult the leap to the pros can be.

He said the biggest challenge, obviously, is attaining the skill needed to earn a look. The next hardest part might be actually getting that look.

“There are so many good players that come through the schools,” Penberthy says. “If you think about it, there are only about 1,000 jobs out there for basketball, and you can imagine how many people want to play. And then you’ve got to think about all the players in Europe, but there’s only about two or three American players that will play on each of those (European and Asian) teams.”

Despite averaging 30 points per game in the NAIA tournament and making a strong showing at the Portsmouth Invitational, a well-known NBA predraft camp, a hamstring injury sidelined Penberthy’s American pro debut for a couple of seasons in Europe.

Harris averaged only 11.6 points per game and 5.5 rebounds his senior season, numbers that didn’t earn him an invitation to Portsmouth. TMC didn’t visit the NAIA postseason his senior year.

His lack of exposure to major competition in college means any route to the NBA would likely be a long, circuitous one through the ranks of a European or Asian league.

“Anybody who thinks it will be easy to go from The Master’s to the top division in Europe or get one of the top salaries making over a hundred thousand a year is a fool,” Penberthy says.

“It’s going to be a bumpy road, and (Harris) is going to have to take some difficult paths,” he says. “It’s going to be a tough road, but he knows that, and I think he’s willing to do it.”

One NBA scout put it a little more bluntly.

“I don’t want to discourage (Harris). He’s going to do what he’s got to do,” the scout says. “But making the leap from The Master’s to the NBA — whew,” he whistles for emphasis.

Penberthy says coming from a small school will be a formidable obstacle for Harris, but there’s not much he can do about it at this point.

Instead, Harris plans to spend his time working on a challenge facing him that’s just as imposing.

At TMC, Harris was a natural fit at power forward given the Mustangs’ dearth of height in the post.

According to a survey the NBA took in 2007-08, the average player height is 6 feet, 6.98 inches. While Harris’ size is slightly above that, it’s a few inches short to garner looks as a professional power forward.

That means he’ll have to learn to turn himself into a small forward quick enough to defend against shooting guards, while making his jump shot automatic.

It’s another formidable obstacle.

“To go from being an undersized post player to guarding on the perimeter is going to be tough for him,” the NBA scout said. “That’s probably the hardest transition there is to make. He’s really fighting an uphill battle.”

To do that, Harris is spending most of his summer playing in leagues that vary in their degrees of competitiveness — from one filled with overseas hopefuls to another stocked with more than two dozen NBA players — trying to move, play and think as a natural small forward does.

But between the leagues and a training regimen that can include several multiple-hour workouts in a day, Harris has little time to find a steady source of income.

Mustangs head coach Chuck Martin provides Harris a little help in that respect — an opportunity to coach at TMC’s annual summer basketball camp provides a small but welcomed stipend for Harris. Martin also lets him bring three kids from a local Boys & Girls Club chapter where Harris volunteers.

The chasing of kids around the court is a welcome distraction for Harris. A break from his rigorous workouts, he relishes the opportunity to spread his love of the game with kids eager to learn.

But after working the camp and, if he can find the time, a trip to see his own kids, Harris usually turns in before it gets too late.

He knows he has an early rise the next day.

This is part I of a three-part series. Part II will appear in Monday’s Signal.

Click here for Part II of three-part series


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