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Raphael Harris: Hoops dreamer, Part II of III

Former Mustang Harris finds joy in pursuit of his dream

Posted: July 11, 2010 8:28 p.m.
Updated: July 12, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Former forward at The Master’s College Raphael Harris pursues his dream, taking him from basement gymnasiums to basketball courts in Watts. Up against aspiring and current professionals, he loves every minute of the challenge. Former forward at The Master’s College Raphael Harris pursues his dream, taking him from basement gymnasiums to basketball courts in Watts. Up against aspiring and current professionals, he loves every minute of the challenge.
Former forward at The Master’s College Raphael Harris pursues his dream, taking him from basement gymnasiums to basketball courts in Watts. Up against aspiring and current professionals, he loves every minute of the challenge.

For players who dream of playing in front of arena-sized crowds chanting their names, the inside of the basement-level gymnasium at Hollywood High School provides one of the starkest contrasts imaginable.

The stagnating mid-June heat is magnified by a decades-old gymnasium's lack of any sort of cooling system.

Its creaking wooden bleachers are pulled out on one side, but rolling them out was hardly worth the custodian's effort since the steps make more noise than the crowd. There are only about two dozen spectators scattered about, mostly family and a few girlfriends of the players.

However, the 10 on the court couldn't seem to care less about the conditions of the JBL National Pro-Am Basketball League's Saturday afternoon matchup.

A DJ/announcer playfully calls the game over the P.A. from the scorers' table assigning each player a nickname. A burly white forward is called "Bill Laimbeer," a skinny guard with 3-point range is nicknamed "Ray Allen."

And former The Master's College forward Raphael Harris is running down his dream, along with two teams of similarly driven individuals in front of the small crowd of strangers.

In contrast to this setting, Harris is dead serious about playing professional basketball.

He spends his weekdays conditioning with former coaches, past teammates, summer-league companions, whoever will work with him.

But "work" is the operative word. It could hardly be called a game in the 100-degree gymnasiums as Harris repeatedly drills for hours - often without a basketball - practicing his pick-and-roll defense, spacing and movement.

The 26-year-old forward calls it "mental practice," but the exertion takes a physical toll as well. Yet he loves every minute of it, and prays he can do it for a living.

"It's funny, because I'll look up at the clock and wonder where the time went because I've been in (the gym) for six or seven hours," Harris says.

Weekends offer little rest for the weary. He divides that time between two locations - Hollywood High's gym and Leon H. Washington Park in Watts - which offer him a chance to apply the lessons he's learning in those gym sessions.

"For me, they're like organized practices," Harris said, referring to his approach to the summer-league games. "I just get out there to run and work on the things I need to do to improve my game."

The basketball dream nearly is a 24-7 pursuit for Harris. It leaves little time for a social life, not enough of the time he cherishes with his small children and no schedule space for a full-time job.

Harris says his mom, Constance Harris, has always been there to help him. Her support is what allows him to keep reaching for his hoop dream, however close or far it may be from his grasp.

That and various friendships he's built on the courts. Harris reflects on the financial cost of his ambition after a JBL game at Hollywood High.

"Yeah, it's a struggle," Harris says. "I had to borrow five dollars from coach to get over here," he adds, referring to TMC assistant coach Chris Connolly.

"I just feel like I have to do this," Harris says. "Everyone has their own passion or gift, and I feel like this is my gift, and I want to do what I can to exploit that."

Harris has said his goal is to play in the NBA. However, like Harris, most of his JBL teammates are just looking for an opportunity to play wherever they can get a shot.

A few have received offers already and are working on their game while they wait and see if something better will come along.

One of Harris' JBL teammates, Rocky Hampton - "Bill Laimbeer" - was an NAIA first-team All-American at Biola College, which is in the Golden State Athletic Conference with TMC.

The former rivals now work alongside each other. Hampton, a 6-foot-9-inch, 245-pound muscular power forward, has received offers from Australia, Turkey and a few other countries.

Hampton's father, Ted, said his son and a lot of the players he's talked to usually wait until mid-July to sign. By then, a lot of NBA teams have a better idea of what their rosters look like - which in turn helps somewhat clear up job availability in Europe.

It's also after most of the major summer showcase tours, which are opportunities for American professional hopefuls to barnstorm across foreign continents and play several games in front of scouts over the course of a couple weeks in the hopes of catching a team's attention.

Hampton's father says his son Rocky may be able to bypass that route as his Biola career has already garnered him some attention from overseas.

"(Rocky) has put a lot into basketball and he wanted to see if he could keep playing, and try making a living doing what he loves," Hampton says. But he says there were several additional factors that go into choosing an overseas professional club.

"You hear a lot of horror stories about players from over there," he adds. "You hear about teams not being able to pay players, teams folding," he says. "It's a lot like when we had to go through (the college-selection process)."

With each passing week, a trip overseas becomes more and more likely for Harris if he hopes to play professional hoops at all.

But there's also no guarantee he'll be able to find work in Europe or Asia, an NBA scout cautions. It's not as though foreign teams are looking for tall Americans with passports.

"European basketball has gotten really competitive. I mean, look how many Europeans are in the NBA," he says. "European basketball is huge, and their talent pool is really wide, and most (NBA) teams have scouts in Europe now.

He added that Asian leagues are also growing in popularity. While the talent may not be as formidable as Europe, the NBA scours the globe for talent, which means a player could get discovered anywhere.

"There's still a couple (scouts) that go (to Asia). (A scout) can hear a name from anybody and if they think it's legit, they'll check it out. Nobody really cares where you come from," he says. "It's just, if you can play. ..."

In the meantime, Harris hones his game in another summer league that provides a steeper learning curve than JBL.

The Drew League in Leon H. Washington Park in Watts is a basketball mecca for Los Angeles' elite players from June to August.

The spectators line the court at least three rows deep on all sides of a gym - the players, the crowd, the walls - everything seems to be working up a sweat.

The intimate setting allows players the luxury of easily hearing the crowd calling for their dunks on every fast break, and calling out a poor defensive effort.

With its fluid pace, more than a dozen NBA players listed on its rosters and NBA officials who come back and volunteer time to ref the league, the Drew League constantly gives Harris what he craves, a chance to test himself against the pros.

One series leaves him guarding Denver Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo one-on-one.

Harris stays with Afflalo a few times down the court. He forces Afflalo into a couple of bad shots with his impressive wingspan, and a gamble pays off when Afflalo releases a jumper just over Harris' fingertips. Harris grabs the defensive rebound and then answers with a layup in transition.

On the fourth trip down, Afflalo kicks it into high gear.

A crossover move, followed by a juke right, then left culminates in a layup attempt, forcing Harris into fouling Afflalo for a 3-point play.

After the game, he shrugs it off as "more practice."

"I stayed with him for a while, then he threw some NBA stuff at me, and well, what are you going to do," Harris asks rhetorically with a shrug.

"That's the difference (with NBA players). I knew exactly where he was going to go, and he did exactly what I thought he was going to do. ..."

Harris sticks to his plan though, believing he'll get there if he keeps at it.

Midway through Drew League play, he catches a break.

Mike Penberthy, a former NBA and European-league player that graduated from TMC in 1997, helps Harris secure a spot on a summer showcase team.

In August, he'll have an opportunity to tour Indonesia for two weeks with Basketball Club International Edge.

"I'm trying to take every opportunity that comes to me wisely and discerningly," he says with a laugh, already excited about the August trip.

But he knows there's a give and take with basketball, for him there always has been.

The prospect of chasing his dream overseas leaves a lot of tough decisions to be made.

This is part II of a three-part series. Part III will appear in Tuesday's Signal.

Click here for link to Part I of three-part series





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