Jan. 4, 2010
This story compiled by Mike Korcek
DEKALB, Ill. - Northern Illinois University Athletics Hall of Famer and All-Century Team selection Billy "The Kid" Harris---renowned as the most prolific shooting guard in Huskie men's basketball history, a collegiate peer of Doug Collins, Brian Winters, George McGinnis, Ed Ratleff, Raymond Lewis, and others, plus a brash, outspoken Chicago playground legend---has passed away.
Harris suffered a massive stroke on Saturday (Jan. 2) and died Sunday at Advocate Illinois Masonic Hospital in Chicago. He was 58 years old. Memorial services have been scheduled for Friday (Jan. 8) between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., at the UIC Pavilion, 525 S. Racine Ave.
Billed as "The Greatest Playground Baller Ever" on the cover of Slam magazine in December, 1998, Harris starred at Chicago Dunbar in the late 1960s and Northern Illinois during 1969-73. His basketball career was featured prominently in celebrations of the inner city game at the DuSable Museum of African American Hhistory and in the "Soul of the Game" display at the Field Museum in Chicago during 1998.
The 6-foot-2, 183-pound guard brought the city game into the mainstream during his three varsity years under head coach Tom Jorgensen (1970-73). As a senior, Harris averaged 24.1 points-per-game and finished 22nd in NCAA Division I scoring, plus made Honorable Mention Basketball Weekly All-America and First-Team National Association of Basketball Coaches All-District on a 17-8 Northern Illinois quintet in 1972-73.
As a junior, Harris (17.8 ppg.) started on the fabled Huskie outfit that went 21-4, cracked the nation's major-college Top 20 for the first and only time in school history, upset No. 5-ranked Indiana (85-71) and first-year head coach Bobby Knight, and took South Carolina to the wire before 18,462 fans at the Chicago Stadium. That freewheeling Northern Illinois team wound up No. 3 in NCAA team offense---averaging 95.2 ppg.---and eventually posted four pro draft picks----All-America center Jim Bradley (NBA / ABA), cornerman Jerry "Z" Zielinski (ABA), guard Larry Jackson (NBA), and Harris.
Harris---who averaged 30-plus ppg. at Dunbar while making All-City and All-State---loved Jorgy's push-the-ball attack. Nicknamed "The Kid" for his hair-trigger jump shot as a hardwood gunslinger, few in the game owned the individual offensive package that Harris perfected. His patented high, crossover dribble. The mid-air double-clutch shots, classic finger rolls, the 25-foot pull-up jumpers, and the famed Billy "The Kid" charisma. Billy had it all.
Former Northern Illinois teammate and team captain Art Rohlman (1968-71) was once asked to describe Harris in one word. "Entertainer," Rohlman responded. "Billy was phenomenal. A joy to watch in a game or practice. Skill-wise, he was like (LSU's) Pete Maravich and (our) Jim Bradley---way, way ahead of his time. Yes, Billy would talk on the court, but he had the complete game to back it up and did."
Jorgensen---a Chicago product and an All-City prep scoring machine in the 1950s---understood the times.
"There's a fine line between playing with reckless abandon and playing with freedom," the Hall of Fame Huskie coach said in 1971-72. "You're liable to see Billy Harris put the ball between his legs twice and behind his back three times on the way to the basket when he doesn't have to do it. I might say something. But if I never let him do it all, the game wouldn't be as much fun for him."
During recruiting, the late Bradley---the program's Player of the Century---noticed the uptempo, style of play, too. "When I visited there (NIU), I watched Billy Harris and Larry Jackson play and saw them do things with a basketball I had never seen guards do before," Bradley admitted in a story about that 1971-72 club.
"Billy could play anywhere, for anybody," Jorgensen said from his home in suburban Denver. "Maybe some coaches wouldn't like his shot selection. When he pulled up for those 25-footers, you would say `no, no, no,' and then `yes' when the ball went in. Billy was a talented, wonderful young man who worked extremely hard to fit in our system."
"In my mind, there's no better No. 2 guard around anywhere," added Jorgy, a retired full-time NBA scout. "Billy made our offense click."
Harris completed his Northern Illinois playing days with 1,331 points in 73 varsity appearances for an 18.2 ppg. career average. As a senior---playing in the same line-up with Bradley---Harris reached double-digit points 24 times in 25 games, the 20s 13 times, the 30s four times, and the 40s twice.
In an amazing three-game stretch that winter, Harris torched Ball State (41 points), nationally ranked Long Beach State (35 points) at Madison Square Garden in New York, and Virginia Commonwealth (42 points) for 118 points and a Ripley's Believe It or Not 39.3 ppg.stat. In those back-to-back-to-back outings, Harris shot 55-of-87 from the floor (.632 pct). Remember this was 15 years prior to the advent of the three-point basket (1986-87). Urban legend and the internet says that Harris hit 16 of his first 18 shots in the BSU contest and a documented 16-of 21 for 32 points in the opening half en route to 41.
"I felt we could stop him better than we did," said then LBSU head man Jerry "Tark the Shark" Tarkanian. "We put two of our best defensive players on him and figured we could hold him to 15 points...but he riddled us. That was the thing that surprised us about Northern. Harris just seemed to score at will."
One of three 1,000-point career scorers from the 1971-72 team, Harris left NIU as the No. 3 career scorer and then would become the program's second NBA draft pick (seventh round of the Chicago Bulls in 1973). He represented the United States on the national AAU entry at the first World Games Basketball Festival in Peru (1973). Harris signed as a free agent with the ABA San Diego Conquistadors and averaged 7.8 ppg. in 76 games (1974-75), then played in the CBA and overseas.
A two-time inductee into the NIU Athletics Hall of Fame (with the 1971-72 team in 1987 and as an individual in 2001), Harris was also honored by the Chicago Public League Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame (1994) and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame (2002).
Harris is survived by his wife Marianne Tidwell, six children and eight step children, plus two dozen grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.