The Other Jamaica
No matter where his burgeoning basketball career takes him, Magic forward Maurice Harkless brings his Queens neighborhood with him.
Here’s some cool timing: 20 years ago, in the summer of 1993, a child named Maurice Harkless was born in New York City. Now, of course, Harkless is a 6-8 forward coming off a solid rookie season, during which he averaged 8.2 points and 4.4 boards per game for the Orlando Magic. And at just about the exact same time Harkless was entering the world, a basketball magazine named SLAM was founded just a short subway ride away. So for our 20th anniversary issue—on newsstands now!—we figured we’d hit up the up-and-comer to talk about growing up in NYC (and plenty more).
SLAM: Tell us a little about your hometown.
MH: I grew up in Jamaica, Queens. Just growing up, I came from kind of a rough neighborhood, and there was always something going on in the streets outside—people involved in all type of gangs and stuff like that. I was a real quiet kid, and I never really got into that stuff. I played football and soccer growing up, mainly. I didn’t really start getting into basketball until I was about 13, 14.
SLAM: Who steered you away from the neighborhood trouble?
MH: It was my mom, really. That’s not what she wanted me to do. She always preached to me to stay inside. As I got older, I met a guy named Nate Blue, and he kind of helped me out a lot since I was 14, keeping me away from that stuff and just pointing me in the right direction.
SLAM: Who originally introduced you to basketball?
MH: My cousin. My cousin used to go to the park every day, and one day he just told me to come with him. From then on I kind of fell in love with it.
SLAM: Were you any good when you first started?
MH: No [laughs]. I didn’t start getting good until about 10th grade in high school. I wasn’t bad, I was just always average.
SLAM: Knicks fan?
MH: I was a Knicks fan, but my favorite player was Kobe, when he was No. 8 and had the ‘fro.
SLAM: Did you grow up a sneakerhead?
MH: Not really. I was into Uptowns—the Air Force Ones. We used to call them Uptowns in New York. I used to get a pair of those every other week. I used to get all different kinds of colors—I had purple ones and green ones, and every week I was getting a different pair. Always had to keep an all-white pair, though.
SLAM: Was there a specific spot during your childhood that was really important to you?
MH: The park about a block from my old house was called Liberty Park, in Queens right on Liberty Avenue and 172nd Street. That’s where I first started playing and where I learned how to play. I used to play with my cousin who was three years older than me—him and all his friends. Grown men used to come out on Sundays and I’d go out and play with them.
SLAM: When it came time for college, why did you want to stay close to home and go to school at St. John’s?
MH: I’m real big on family—I wanted to be able to watch my little brother grow up and be home and be close to my family. I just felt like St. John’s was a good situation, being in New York.
SLAM: How old is your brother?
MH: He’s 8.
SLAM: Do you feel a responsibility to steer him in the right direction?
MH: Oh yeah, definitely. I see him as a little me. I want to make sure he’s on the right path and doing the right thing, and just make sure he’s a good kid.
SLAM: Do you have a favorite hoops memory from when you were coming up?
MH: Umm, maybe the first time I dunked. It was in ninth grade, I was playing JV at the time. That was the first time I tried to dunk in a game, and the first time I made a dunk, ever. I had two fast breaks in a row, and the first one everybody was yelling, “Dunk! Dunk!” and I went and laid it up because I was scared to miss. Then the next play I got another fast break, and I had promised one of my teammates that I would dunk if I got another fast break, and I went up and actually wound up dunking on somebody.
SLAM: So your first dunk ever was a dunk on somebody else?
MH: Yes [laughs].
SLAM: When you go back to New York City now and walk around your old neighborhood, do people recognize you as the kid who made it to the NBA?
MH: Yeah. I went back a couple weeks ago and everybody recognized me, everybody was saying stuff. It feels good, just because you’re showing people that you haven’t forgotten where you came from, and they’re showing you the same level of respect back.
SLAM: Any big learning experiences during your rookie year?
MH: I just learned how tough it is. A lot of young players going in, they don’t realize how tough it is to play in the NBA. It’s a really long season, and you have to really take care of your body and be ready to go everyday. That’s the toughest part.
SLAM: Did you have a “Welcome to the NBA” moment?
MH: I guess when I scored my first points. I sat out the first few games because of an injury, but when I finally stepped on the court and was out there playing it was a great feeling.
SLAM: Did you show emotion or did you try to hide it?
MH: I tried to hide it, tried to stay calm. Then after the game I called all my friends and told them how hype I was.