SLAM 30: A lot of people claim to be the best ever, the definition. Billy Harris is the one who is telling the truth.
Growing up in New York, my knowledge of playground basketball was a bit skewed. This was where the writers came to study blacktop ball, this is where the “big names” were. Therefore, we had to have the best players. Joining the staff at SLAM created an instant lesson opportunity from the great Scoop Jackson, our then-Editor-at-Large who was famously based in Chicago and repped it to the fullest. And who did Scoop teach as the greatest of them all? Chicago’s Billy Harris. Harris died yesterday, but thanks to writers like Scoop, his memory should live forever. Here’s a great piece Scoop did for us back in ’98. Enjoy.—Ben Osborne
by Scoop Jackson
Remember. The game is to be told, not to be sold.
He used to make the walk from Dunbar High to DuSable with no fear. Sometimes he didn’t want to make the walk, sometimes he didn’t feel like making it—but he did. He had an obligation. An obligation to many things and more people. Every day of his life was show-and-prove day. If he didn’t made that walk, people would lose faith, lose hope. To thousands he was their religion, the only thing that they believed in. His not showing up would be the equivalent of God canceling church on Sundays. Understand—he had to make those walks.
What he had was beyond the gift that is handed out to those people who play basketball very well. His was something else. His is the most tragic of all playground basketball stories because he was The One. The one that was greater than all of them: Earl Manigault, Pee Wee Kirkland, Ray Lewis, Curtis Jones, Connie Hawkins, Joe Hammond, Fly Williams, Swee’ Pea Daniels, Charlie Scott, James Allen, Freeman Williams, Lamar Mondane, Jackie Jackson. He, beyond them all. He had the greatest chance; he was the one who fell the furthest. That’s why his walks to DuSable High were so important. Because every step Billy Harris took was one step closer to the last step he would ever take. He once said that, “God didn’t make many like me.” He wasn’t telling a lie.
1971. Chicago, IL. Robert Taylor Homes. In the dark solace of a bedroom in the projects, a kid thinks alone: I can play basketball. Others tell me I can play basketball real good. I get a lot of attention. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t. Everywhere I go, I’m recognized. Girls love me. Older people I don’t even know try to be my parents. They advise me to be careful about who I hang around with. They tell me stories about basketball players they knew that played real good when they were my age. They tell me none of them was as good as me. They tell me some succeeded, while others ended up in jail or on a corner on drugs or dead. They tell me I have to make wise decisions because that’s the only way I’ll survive. They tell me I have to make it out of the ghetto, so that I can be an inspiration to those coming up after me. They tell me I’m their only hope.
The mind of a 19-year-old prodigy caught in a life paradox. Unable to embrace his own talents, because he has become more than a basketball player in his world—at 19 he is The One. The fact that he scored 28 on the ACT means nothing. Same for his finishing in the top one-third of a graduating class of over 700. Letters from Harvard, Yale and several other Ivy League schools lie on the floor of his room. But microbiology won’t pay the bills [Uh, yes it will.—Ed.], and computer scientists aren’t heroes. His game is what will feed people, keep them high, pay for their liquor and educate their kids. His personal dreams are eclipsed by the responsibility of carrying the ghetto on his jumper, the underprivileged on his crossover. He was the key for other peoples’ escapism. This is what went on inside Billy Harris’ head as a child. This was the life he had no choice but to live.
“The fact that Billy didn’t make it had nothing to do with talent.” Sonny Parker speaks from experience and love. His NBA run with the Golden State Warriors was legendary in the annals of Chicago playground basketball. He was one of the gods whose game was measured against Harris’. “Politics and many other aspects made it impossible for him to make it. If they had a three-pointer when he was playing, he’d average 60 or 70 points. Easy. Because most of his points came right as he came across half-court. He had character, but he was outspoken. Like Muhammad Ali said, ‘It’s not bragging if you can back it up.’ Billy always did. Honestly, I don’t think they were ready for him.”
“People didn’t understand,” Northern Illinois University Sports Information Director Mike Korcek, who was a senior at NIU when Billy entered as a freshman, says. “[They] didn’t understand the city game, the black game back then. The behind-the-back dribbles, the things done to embarrass other people. That was Billy’s game. I’ll always say that Billy Harris and Dr. J were the two players that were 15 years ahead of their time.”
According to Korcek, Billy came to NIU recently to visit him. Just a visit to talk. They talked about the old days, life and some basketball. “Billy knows that there are some mistakes that he made. He knows this, and he admits it. But I don’t think there’s anything that he’d do differently if he had a chance to do it over again. Billy has a lot of pride, that’s just him.”
Unfortunately, Korcek never got to see Billy do his real thing. Billy Harris’ game was made for concrete, not wood. Chain nets, not nylon. Summer, not winter. The streets, not stadiums. God’s plan for Billy didn’t have Jerry West’s logo attached to it, Chuck Taylor endorsements, or Lawrence O’Brien’s signature. As Lamont Smith, another Chicago ballplayer who grew up idolizing Billy, said, “If there was any player in the history of basketball who embodied what ‘keepin’ it real’ truly means, it’s Billy Harris.”
Glady’s Restaurant. The Sylvia’s of Chicago. Billy Harris steps inside my ride. “The only reason I’m talking to you is because I trust you,” he says. “I can look in your eyes and tell.” We give each other a pound, shake hands, hug. We’ve spent the last month making incidental contact. Me finding out more about him, him finding out more about me. Two niggas of the same mind, unblind. I ask him if he wants to eat, he says, “No, let’s just ride. I ain’t got time for no bullshit like food.” I press on the gas.
“You know it’s a curse,” he says to me, somewhat out of nowhere. “People think it’s a good thing being able to read other people, be able to smell bullshit. But it’s not. Because what happens when you sense that bullshit inside your family? When it’s right next to you every day? What do you do then?”
The career of Billy “The Kid” Harris is unlike that of any other basketball player. The life of “Wild” Bill Harris is something the rest of the world ain’t ready for. The drugs, the women, the exchanging of cash for favors, the pimping, the dependency, the need to take care of others. Been there, represented that. “He lived the limelight,” says Ed Curry, another Chicago basketball spokesplayer who has made his living off of winning damn near every playground tournament in the city’s history . “[But] he got caught up in his own Hollywood strip scene.”
A strip scene that embraced one of God’s “chosen” children too tight and turned his life into a series of tests. Continuous tests that will not end until he places the basketball on the concrete and never looks at it again. Until his eyes are closed forever. Until his soul sleeps.
The story: Billy Harris led the Chicago public league in scoring for three years while in high school, averaging 33.3 points a game as a senior. His “obligation to others” (10-15 scholarships were apparently offered to other ballplayers on the back of Billy’s signing) forced him to attend Northern Illinois University. By the time he was a senior, he and another Chicago product, center Jim Bradley (“whom Julius Erving said on the front page of the Sun-Times was the best player to ever come out of Chicago. Check the books.”) took a nowhere squad to a number-19 national ranking. Billy averaged 24.1 points a game in college and came home every summer to keep his legend intact.
He tested his game against the best. At 6-3 there wasn’t a position or person he was afraid of playing. He dropped 35 on Ed Ratliff in Madison Square Garden, took Los Angeles playground legend Raymond McCoy for 26 (sitting out the entire second half) in a blow-out game and embarrassed Doug Collins (who at the time had the Budweiser jingle re-written in his honor) so bad once—35 points—that when reporters swarmed Billy for comments, he simply said, “Go make up a song about me, then I’ll talk to you.”
“When The Kid dies, his headstone should read, ‘The Best There Ever Was, The Best That Ever Will Be,’” an older gentleman said about 20 years ago. I remember that statement, because at the time I hadn’t seen Billy Harris play yet. I had simply heard the stories.
The streets never lie. In search of Billy Harris, I found one thing extraordinarily eerie, almost unreal. I’m searching for the one story that will make Billy’s legend an honest one. I’m seeking that one player who outplayed Billy, got him for 50. I want the bad game where he didn’t come through, that game where he lost some of his shine. A bad shooting night, a missed jumper to lose a game with (literally) money on the line. I’m looking for one segment of the downfall. Just one.
“You won’t find it,” Curry acknowledges. “The son of a bitch never had a bad game, and he didn’t lose. I can say that I have seen every great ballplayer that’s ever played in this city—played against most of them—and there was no one like Billy. There’s no one in the pros today like Billy. He was one of a kind, and he didn’t care. He didn’t care about the other four players that played with him, and he didn’t care about the five guys that used to try to guard him. People think Michael Jordan is one of a kind? No. Billy Harris was one of a kind.”
“One time,” said Sky (Robert Hunter), who played on one of Curry’s squads that tested the Kid’s game back then, “he came into our spot [gym] talking shit. I’m not going to lie, he was on his downswing then, but he could still get you. So I started talking shit along with him. He looked at me and said, ‘You must not know who I am.’ I said, ‘I know who you are, but you don’t know where you are.’ Still, he got like 30-35 on us.”
“I came to play every time,” Billy told me, constantly placing emphasis on certain words. “I had to. There was no choice. Never saw me have a bad game. N-E-V-E-R! I was a nigger that averaged—averaged—30 points. That means every time I played, I’m going to get 30. From high school on, that’s what it was about. And it was never a problem for me to do it. So today when I see these guys putting up 30 shots to get 30 points, am I supposed to be impressed? Nigger shoot 16-32, or 17-37. Man, if I put up 37 shots I’m going to hit 31 [of ’em]. Easy. Check the books, the stats will prove me out. Anytime I put up those kinds of shots, I was 21-28, 19 for 27. You won’t ever catch me missing 10 shots.”
No one has ever claimed to have seen, heard about or witnessed Billy having a bad game. Not one story, not one game. And this did not come from Billy. None of his coaches, not one of the players who played against him through high school and college, playgrounds and projects, even people who didn’t like him (and there is a contingent of them) could commit to telling that lie.
Now I love who I am. Why not? Every time I step on the court, I hear people whisper my name. I hear my defensive man’s heart beat every time I get the ball. Shorties argue over which one can be me and say my name after trying to imitate one of my trademark moves. They compare me to my idols. Then they tell me not to listen to what everyone tells me. I never get the chance to talk, but everyone talks about me. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Do you really want to play this game forever?’ It’s just a game, but some don’t see it that way. They say, ‘It’s big money,’ but they tell me to just play and have fun. Sometimes it’s not fun, but I have no other choice now. I have a responsibility to remind people who I am: The ghetto’s superstar.
The pressure of having to live up to a self-made legend. To have to protect a life’s legacy every time you step on the concrete. A playground career that is like Bruce Lee’s final scene in Game of Death; where at every stage there was someone waiting, someone more experienced, someone well-rested, someone willing to die. Billy’s philosophy comes the closest to defining his life: “I played basketball like it meant life or death. Pressure? Where the fuck does pressure come from?” His eyes stay locked on me and his voice rises. “The pressure is on me. I’m playing against me! I’m searching for the perfect game. That’s what I did.”
Billy Harris trusts me. That’s the good thing. He’s been betrayed before by authors, writers, the NBA and Hollywood folk who want to tell his story. To exploit him. Hoop Dreams. Rebound. On this day, he has just turned down HBO for his life’s story. “The game is to be told, not sold,” he reaffirms me. He seeks the truth although many people question, or have particular opinions, about where the truth in Harris’ story lies.
“Don’t let Billy lie to you,” someone told me. “I won’t,” I said, hoping that the game was not about to be run on me.
“The day I knew that I wasn’t going to play basketball for a living, I came home and told my brother. He’s the only person that knows. I told him, ‘Hey man, they are not going to keep me.’ He thought I was crazy. ‘You just nervous, man.’ That’s what he told me. ‘You represent money on the hoof!’ But I knew. I knew. The shit was up [for me]. When I came in [the League] and was forced to deal with the fact that this shit wasn’t real, not based on anything that was real, that it wasn’t about basketball at all, I knew I was in trouble, because I wasn’t coming from nothing but the real.” The streets, where basketball is pure, played in its purest form. “But,” Billy continues. “I was a helluva basketball player trying to be a helluva human being. Which is a no-no with them; they feel as if you should be able to be bought and paid for. The last thing they want is some principled nigger. That was me. A nigger with some principles.”
Therein rests part of the misunderstanding of Billy Harris. His side of the story. Why he didn’t make it. He doesn’t get directly into details, but if you pay close attention you’ve noticed how he repeatedly says, “Check the books.” That’s his affirmation. He tells me stories about how black Chicago Sun-Times writer Lacy Banks lost his job and had to go to court to get it back, because of things he wrote about Billy. They contradicted every public explanation the Chicago Bulls organization gave for cutting Harris from the squad after drafting him in ’73. He was clearly the best player the Bulls had in camp, but he was labeled difficult. It was the beginning of the blackballing of Billy Harris. The conspiracy to keep him out of the NBA because he would not conform. Banks didn’t have a problem telling the truth behind it; the Sun-Times didn’t have a problem asking Banks to leave.
Two days after Billy tells me this, I call Lacy Banks, and he confirms every word that comes out of Billy Harris’ mouth. He’s told this story many times, but it seems as if no one has truly heard him. This is the part of Billy’s story that gets twisted, that has limited perception of his legend. The part where people think he made the mistakes, not the other way around.
“Do you think I would be so stupid as to fuck up something I’ve been working for all of my life?” Billy asks with conviction and the hope that I understand the true essence of the question—and what has gone on in his life. “Man, I was running through brick walls when them honkeys told me to. Whatever they wanted. I was trying to make it [in the League].” “But there was a limit, right?” I ask, cramming to understand. “Hell yeah, there’s a limit,” he snapped. “But I’m not going to get up in the morning and not be able to look in the mirror and feel like I deserve these balls and this dick that hangs between my legs. Understand? My mother raised me that way. Is there a limit? Oh, hell yes there’s a limit. And you don’t know how sad it was when I reached that spot where I knew that I couldn’t cross that line. I’m not that great of an actor.”
He lives inside of a capsule sometimes. A time capsule. He knows the truth can be told there. Somewhere outside of the ghetto where his legend is secure. “Between the ages of 16-30 there is no player that has ever played that could beat me. Create a time capsule,” he says. “Put me in there with anyone of any era. It wouldn’t make a difference.”
I want to see how far he will go with this. “Jordan.” “I don’t care.” “Doc.” “I don’t give a fuck who it is. Between the ages of 16 and 30, I will fuck them up! Michael, Doc, Larry, Oscar, Magic, any of ’em! You gotta shoot this muthafucka in the hole to win. Let me tell you what I used to do. I used to give people 22 points, the game was 24. I’d get the ball out first. We playing ‘West side’ [which means possessions alternate after every basket]. One basket, you win. If you get the ball and you even hit the backboard, I’d give you a half-a-point. That means all you have to do is hit the backboard four times, and you win. I never lost.”
“And you tellin’ me that you’d give Bird, Jordan, Oscar and all of them the same odds?” I’m trippin’ now.
“I’d give them the 22 and the game’s 24. They would never beat me. You’re not going to beat me. Ain’t no muthafucka alive, walking around, that can say that they beat Billy Harris one-on-one. You can put it on the radio, TV, whatever. Ain’t nobody ever going to step up and say that they beat me. They are not going to win. You don’t understand—I played against niggers that would rather kill you than let you beat them. And I figured out a way to destroy those niggers.”
“That’s why niggas don’t like you,” I remind him. “I know that,” he smiles. “But it’s not my fault.”
The death of Earl Manigault stresses him. He sees too much of himself in Earl. Once again, niggas of the same mind, unblind. “Hell yeah that shit hurt,” he says talking about Goat’s death. “That nigger is me. He is me more so than any other nigger. We are the same person. Now I ask, do I have to die before one of these niggers cares about me? Do I have to be almost dead before anyone holds out their hand and says, ‘Billy, you earned this. Here’s a little something to help you.’”
At the screening in Chicago of Spike Lee’s He Got Game, Chicago State University coach and former NBA and Marquette University star Bo Ellis extended Billy that hand.
He interrupted the discussion to get something out of his soul that had been there for a while. “If I leave here without saying what I have to say, I will feel awfully bad,” Ellis said. “I want to say thank you to this man sitting to my right. Billy Harris. Bill Harris is by far the best basketball player I’ve ever been associated with. I don’t consider this man a playground legend, though. Because when we were coming up, playground legends were young men that didn’t really go to high school, didn’t graduate, didn’t go to college. This man has a degree. He played in the ABA [for one season with the San Diego Conquistadors]. He worked downtown in suits. So I don’t consider him a playground legend, because he’s accomplished things. But I do consider him one of the coldest players I’ve ever seen coming out of Chicago—on the court and mentally. Because without his direction and guidance, [a lot of things] would have been non-existent to me. The reason I’ve had a lot of success in my life is because of people like Billy Harris.”
It’s somewhere close to 90 degrees outside, and Billy Harris is ready to go. He’s antsy. He doesn’t have a car, but he runs back to the mode of transportation that got him here. He changes his shirt. We are at the lower end of 39th Street, three blocks from where Billy grew up and still lives, in a small, tucked-away playground. Four basketball rims rest caged inside a two-court structure. It’s Saturday, clinic day. A day when Billy Harris gets to return not just basketball lessons but lessons on life.
He yells at the kids before they start. “Stop!” he voices. “Everyone tie up your gym shoes. Do not disrespect the game like that. It is disrespectful to the game of basketball for you to be out here trying to play with your shoes untied.” Heads drop, arms and hands get busy, strings get tied. The Kid is understood.
Brian Leach, often considered the second-coming of Billy Harris, sits on the sideline in awe. “You know,” he leans over and says to me. “I never got the chance to see Billy play. All I heard were the stories.” An older gentleman, privy to Leach’s comments, leans in and quietly says, “You don’t know what you missed.”
Crowds of thousands come to see me play. They shout, “Give The Kid the ball!” When I touch the ball, it gets silent. Everyone and everything stops. Even time. Every time I shoot the ball, I hear deep breaths. After I score, it sounds like an explosion. Gyms erupt. You ain’t know. I’m a legend already. My name rings bells throughout the projects. Sponsors pay me to play in their tournaments. I get free gifts. I get free gym shoes. I get free shorts and jerseys. I could even get a car and a job if I wanted. Magazines and newspapers want to interview me. They ask me about my personal life like they really care that I live in the projects and I never really knew my father and my mother’s on welfare. Then they try to decide my future, writing that I should go to the NBA to take care of my family. Now they’re concerned. Where were you at when we were hungry with no money and no food in the refrigerator? What’s fair? Tell the truth, I’d say to them, “Ain’t you using me to gain your own fame?” Yeah right. Look what you did to me.
“For others,” he says, looking around, “it wasn’t meant to happen. For me, it wasn’t going to happen.” He’s on the verge of summing up his life’s tests in one statement. He stops, looking around, then looks at me. Checking to see if the trust is still there. It is.
“Now if I had the knowledge then that I do today, oh, I would have pulled it off. With a devious plan behind it. But do you really want to go there? Deviousness is a device of the devil—and I’m one of God’s children. I don’t care how many times I fucked up. For whatever wrong I’ve done, I’ve prayed to that man and asked Him for forgiveness every single day, at the end of that day.”
He slightly folds his hands in the motion of prayer. Then unfolds.
“The shit I had to do, the shit I had to go through…Lord, please forgive me. Because you know what’s in my heart. You know what this is about. I’m trying to survive. You know I’m the only thing my people have as a cushion from all of this sorrow out here.”
This is his purpose, because the dream cannot be passed on to everyone. Everyone cannot relate to all of God’s other children. To some people, MJ hasn’t been through enough. Being poor isn’t enough, poverty isn’t enough, there has to be more. But Billy Harris is different. He’s the one the underclass will feel forever; he’ll catch the ones the others can’t. Billy Harris represents their hope. He always has, and now he’s remembering why. He had a gift, a gift that was not meant to be displayed to the masses. Like Earl Manigault, Billy “the Kid” came along too soon. Sonny Parker said, “they weren’t ready for him.” He, too, was not lying.
But looking into the eyes of these shorties out in Anderson Park, following his every word, tying their shoes, watching him—at 48 years old—drop 35-foot jumpers with ease, watching him take that drink of water, look up, smile and say, “I feel good,” is almost worth him losing his life for this game. Billy Harris has returned. He died for the game of basketball—now is his resurrection.
And this is only the beginning.
Additional reporting by Bhatie Demus and Courtney Goldwire