Boy Among Men

by Rodger Bohn / @rodgerbohn

Walking into Quality Education Academy’s gym for their annual QEA Invitational each November, it’s the norm to see close to a dozen coaches from high-major programs along the east coast recruiting many of the nation’s top seniors.

In North Carolina, private school basketball rules all, and there’s no better place for a recruiting trip than a one-stop shop to see 30 or so DI-caliber uncommitted players. Given the relatively chill rules that NC Christian schools have, many of the seniors are actually competing in their fifth year of basketball, having reclassified a year. Some even reclass two years, despite the NCAA rule that they must sacrifice a year of eligibility for each year of high school hoops they play after their fifth.

While doing the usual scouting, we notice a diminutive guard drilling three-pointer after three-pointer in warm-ups. Easily making more than a dozen in a row, the 5-6 guard continues to shoot with a boyish grin on his face. You see, that is because Damon Harge is a boy. The 12-year-old is playing varsity basketball against many 19- and 20-year-olds.

Basketball runs deep in Harge’s blood. His father, Damon Sr, tells SLAMonline that he was quite the player in his day, playing in high school, college and even a year professionally in the Philippines. His mother, Camisha, put in work when she was in high school and led her team to the state title game. Despite having two parents who both loved and played the game, the younger Harge wasn’t one of those babies born with a basketball in his crib. In fact, he didn’t even pick up the rock until he was 8 years old, but the rest was history from there on out.

“We started playing basketball when he was 8 and he immediately loved it. I sat him down and asked him, Dame, do you want to just be a regular basketball player who plays in high school, or a really special basketball player? He said, ‘Dad, I want to be the next OJ Mayo,'” the elder Harge explained. “At that point he wore No. 32 because he loved OJ Mayo. I explained to him everything that it took for OJ Mayo to get to where he is. Dribbling the ball to school, working on both his right hand and left hand, ball handling, everything. I told him to think about it. He woke up the next day and told me, ‘Dad, I want to be a real player,’ and we’ve been in the gym every day since.”

Despite nearly 10 million views on YouTube, Harge wasn’t always the prodigy that he is today. He started off playing with players his own age in the third grade. By the end of the season, he was the best player on the team. By the time he was in the fourth grade, he was dominating. It was around that time that the Harge parents were really starting to believe that their son was good, but they just didn’t know how good. They sought out the advice of NBA trainer Phil Handy, who works with several NBA players, including Blake Griffin.

“I asked Phil to take a look at my son and he asked me how old he was. I told him that he was 10, and he told me that he usually doesn’t deal with players that young. I told him that I understood and if he wasn’t good enough, that I wouldn’t bring him back anymore,” Damon Sr said. “Phil put him through a two-hour workout and said, ‘He’s got a good foundation and you’ve done a great job with him so far. I’ll take him and work with him,’ and he’s been working with him ever since.”

As time went on, Handy started to see how special the youngster was that he was working with. The trainer hit up Travis Farris, owner of YayAreasFinest, and told him that he may want to come film the 11-year-old. Fighting off his usual stance on filming young kids, Farris reluctantly agreed to come check Harge out. The byproduct: 3.4 million views for this video.

“I’d never done videos of anyone younger than high school before, so I didn’t take him too seriously. Eventually, Phil talked me into coming out to record a workout at St. Mary’s College,” recounted the mixtape king of Northern California about his first encounter with Harge. “After the first few minutes of his workout, I was blown away. His skills were unbelievable and his work ethic was even better. To put it in perspective, a couple of Bay Area high school players who were both ranked in the top 25 went through the same workout and looked awful compared to Damon. I definitely thought that he had a chance to be special one day. Time can only tell, though.”

The stamp of approval from Handy assured the elder Harge that his son was the truth, but it was time for the world to find out how good little Damon really was. AAU Nationals and the Adidas Jr Phenom Camp were the stage, and Damon Harge Jr was the show.

“The Oakland Soldiers called me up and asked me if they could take him to AAU Nationals. He went with a team that he had never played with before and averaged 20 points per game,” his father said. “He came from Nationals and went to Adidas Phenom Camp. He broke the camp record by scoring 50 points in one of the games and averaged 35 for the entire tournament. They broke all of the rules trying to stop him. That’s when I really started to know that he was something special.”

It was at this point that the Harge family started to explore other options for their son. In California, middle school players aren’t able to play high school basketball. With Harge Sr owning a successful moving company that he can operate remotely and Camisha having already established herself in the medical field, the family was financially secure enough to consider some relatively out-of-the-box options. Their son, who loves the game so much, was occasionally becoming disinterested playing with his peers in NorCal.

“Sometimes I would get bored out there,” the 12-year-old Harge admitted. “Some games I would just try to work on some of my moves and my shooting off of the dribble.”

As a family, the Harge’s eventually decided that it would be best to relocate somewhere where Damon was going to be able to play high school basketball as a middle schooler and locked in North Carolina as their destination. Harge Sr gave his son a research assignment of finding all of the North Carolina-based AAU programs that went to AAU Nationals. He then sent his son back to the computer to find out who had the best travel schedule. After hours of research by the soon-to-be sixth grader, the North Carolina Rising Prospects appeared to be the AAU team, but where would he attend school? Let Harge’s father explain.

“I call Coach Kendrick Williams and say, Hi, I’m Damon Harge and I’d like to hear a bit about your program, and he immediately asks me, ‘Damon Harge?! Do you have a son named Damon Harge?’ I told him that I did, and we went on to discuss everything that his program embodied. He then mentioned to me that he was a varsity basketball coach at Christian Faith Center as well and since Damon was at Modesto Christian in California, we naturally thought that it could be a good fit. When I hung up the phone, Damon tweeted at John Wall and told him he was moving to Raleigh. When he asked John about Coach K, John told Damon that Kendrick was a ‘great mentor’ and that it would be a ‘good look’ playing for him.”

With a vote of confidence from one of the NBA’s budding superstars in hand, the Harge family descended to North Carolina to enlist their trust in Williams. Naturally elated about getting the No. 1 player in the country moving across the country to play for him, Coach K had to make some major adjustments to his coaching philosophy in order to accommodate to a 12-year-old playing varsity.

“I’ve found that I need to be less demanding of him. Sometimes, I have to remember that he’s just a 12-year-old and not a high school senior.”

Harge’s father had similar concerns initially.

“Like anyone, I questioned him playing varsity a little in the beginning. I started to think that maybe he should be playing JV. My thing was that he was undersized at only 120 pounds and at the prep school level, even the smaller guards are 170 pounds.”

With the fam settled in at their new home in North Carolina, they decided to give Damon a test run playing against older players at the SLAM-sponsored ScoutsFocus Elite 80. While he didn’t put up staggering numbers, the pint-sized point guard led his team to an undefeated record while scoring 11 points per game playing alongside one of North Carolina’s top sophomores, 6-7 Gary Clark. Clark couldn’t believe what he heard after their first game.

“I asked him how hold he was after we won our first game and I couldn’t believe it when he told me he was that young,” exclaimed Clark who himself is already being recruited by the likes of Wake Forest, Virginia and South Carolina. “His decision making was amazing. He barely had any turnovers, had great shot selection, and always knew when to hit the open man.”

Before the season started for CFCA, two local colleges invited Damon and his family to take a tour of the facilities. Duke and North Carolina State both played host to the Harge family and gave him invaluable pointers about staying a kid and not letting the media attention get to him. As the season went on though, there were bumps. There was also a scholarship offer from DI North Carolina Central. The competition level that the pint-sized playmaker went against on CFCA’s varsity team wasn’t up to par, yet the physicality of playing against the post-grad was a bit too much. The team won though, and Damon carried over his play to the AAU circuit.

Playing four years up against 16-U competition in the summer of 2012, the player who just finished sixth grade was going up against most players who were driving to games. Spending time playing with both the NC-based Showtime Ballers and Under Armor-sponsored Team Loaded programs, Damon drew a buzz along the east coast. The circuit ended with him playing up a year in seventh grade AAU nationals, averaging 19 points per game for Team Loaded. Still, no one in the Harge family was satisfied.

“It was crazy because he did better than everyone expected. He had 17 and 7 against the eighth-ranked team in the nation playing 16-U,” the elder Harge exclaimed. “Still, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Harge’s seventh grade season at CFCA started with a new coach, but had him playing on the varsity level against small Christian schools, where he thrived to the tune of averaging 22 points per game. Many of the opposing teams that he played against didn’t have a single player capable of playing DIII ball in college and in a generation where every good basketball player has people trying to yank them one way or another, the Harge family made the decision to place their son in a different environment at Christmas break, sending him to the prestigious North Raleigh Christian Academy.

A school rich in academics, NRCA is not one of North Carolina’s basketball factories or “prep schools.” It’s a traditional high school that plays against North Carolina private school powers such as Ravenscroft, Word of God, and eventual state champion Wesleyan Christian Academy. Damon adjusted to the change of scenery by posting 8 points and 3 dimes for a team that reached the state tournament. With the season now over they were back in the L.A.A.B., putting in work with esteemed North Carolina trainer Kenneth Bates.

Having trained Chris Paul and Josh Howard on the regular over the years, Bates knows the nuances that it takes to get to the next level. He put Harge in an absolute rigorous workout alongside perhaps the nation’s top freshman, Harry Giles. Putting his pupil through nearly three hours of work that ranged from parachute training, to power plate usage, to form shooting, to inversion tables, Bates used his kinesiology degree to the max in order to blend the perfect combination of exercise science and on court work, with Harge eating up every second of it.

“There are two things that make him incredibly unique in terms of his mindset,” the Winston-Salem based trainer said confidently. “First, his work ethic is truly different than everyone I’ve ever trained. Secondly, his focus is amazing. He doesn’t just come to the gym, he works. He’s not here to laugh. Damon will say two words in two hours. He’s here to work.”

Once the ball started hitting the hardwood, you got to see what the work ethic that he puts in is all about. Seemingly never getting tired, Harge went through all of the drills with max effort and at game speed. Exhibiting a low, tight handle, the playmaker killed the ball-handling drills and then shot the lights out of the ball from the three point line. Of course, keeping in mind that we’re still looking at a middle schooler barely taller than Earl Boykins and an inch short of Spud Webb.

“What sets Damon apart from any young player that I worked with are his feet and his hand-eye coordination,” Bates added. “He’s got remarkable feet, similar to those of a ballerina. With his hand-eye coordination, it helps him really understand angles unlike most point guards.”

With the summer just around the corner, Harge is back on the AAU circuit making highlights for the mixtape kings to post on YouTube. He’s playing up at the 15-U level with the Showtime Ballers and even though it seems like he’s been around for a minute, we have to remember that he’s the same adolescent that big-time JuCo recruit Torian Graham used to leg press during pre-game warmups. It’s moments like that which make you realize that no matter how many AAU programs or prep schools are vying for the next big thing, kids will be kids. Damon Harge is just another one of them, who really happens to be good at basketball and recently made a new friend.

“Dad, I really like Jaylen Robertson,” Harge Jr told his father. When Pops asked his son what he liked about the rising senior in high school who befriended his son, the younger Harge responded “because he plays with me.”