He remembers what one of his grade school teachers told him: You’ve got a better shot of winning the lottery than making it to the NBA.
He remembers the sign that hung in his childhood bedroom, the one that never let him lose sight of his ambition. What did you do today to get to the NBA? When he walked into that room two summers ago as a newly-minted first-round draft pick, it hit him. It was real. He looked at the sign and shook his head.
“If you believe it,” Gary Harris assured himself that day, “then anything is possible.”
And he remembers those first few nights in the league, wearing a suit and tie instead of a jersey, sitting on the end of the bench wondering if he made the right choice to leave college two years early and turn pro.
“That was my first wake-up call,” he said. “I’d be second-guessing myself, like, ‘Am I really not this good? Can I not play here? Should I have stayed in school?’”
This wasn’t the dream he’d always imagined. Ride the bench? He'd never rode the bench in his life. Yet there he was, a rookie scrub for the Denver Nuggets, humbled by his new reality.
He can admit all of that now because he climbed out of the hole. He knows, too, that he wouldn’t be where he is today—fresh off a breakout sophomore season in the NBA, among the league’s promising young stars, and a member of Team USA’s Select squad that will scrimmage against the national team this summer before Rio—without first enduring the roughest period of his basketball career. Riding the bench taught Harris there was nothing about professional basketball that was going to be easy. It taught him just making the NBA wasn’t going to be good enough.
“A lot of people can make it to the NBA, but what can you do to make sure it’s a long career instead of a short one?” Harris asks while lounging on his leather couch inside his Fishers, Ind., pad. On this day, in this setting, he’s not a budding NBA star. He’s a 21-year-old kid, one who relaxes by playing video games with his friends from high school and hits McDonald’s for lunch because the line at Chik-fil-A is too long.
But it’s the location of his three-level apartment that is most telling. Harris could’ve lived anywhere; his offseason retreat is no more than a Steph Curry 3-point heave from his old high school, Hamilton Southeastern, where Gary and Joy Harris’ oldest son blossomed into one of the most decorated two-sport stars in state history. Believe it: Gary was good enough to play wide receiver in the SEC. Instead he went with his first love. He won the state’s distinguished Mr. Basketball award in 2012, signed with Tom Izzo and Michigan State, and went about making his dream his reality.
Remember the sign. What did you do today to get to the NBA? Gary never forgot it.
He still plays football. In fact, he’s playing right now. He’s lounging on that leather couch, trash-talking one of his high school friends, schooling him in Madden 16. His favorite player? The Falcons’ Julio Jones. Harris says Jones “reminds me of how I used to play.” On this afternoon, that high school friend taking the beating is Aaron Marshall. Another former high school teammate, Michigan senior swingman Zak Irvin, mans the other controller. The two stayed close even though they went to rival schools. “One of my best friends,” Harris calls Irvin.
The games are intense. The trash-talking commences. Precious bragging rights are on the line.
“Same guy I’ve always known,” Marshall says of Harris. “An inspiration, honestly. We all talked about going to the NBA when we were younger. He’s the one who actually did it.”
It’s a rare moment of respite for a young NBA talent with so much in front of him. It’s been a month since Harris’ second season came to a close, and when he looks back on it, it very well may end up being a major milestone. It was the year he had to prove he could play in this league.
It’s all he’s ever wanted to do—when he was a toddler, his WNBA-playing mom, Joy, would drag him to the gyms while she practiced with the Detroit Shock. The halftime buzzers used to make Gary cry. But she never pushed the sport on him, never forced him to play basketball. Thing was: He was around the game so much he couldn’t help but fall for it. Soon enough the game was his passion, just like mom.
They’d play 1-on-1 when he was younger. Mom would win.
“I got close to beating her once, but she never played me again,” Gary says. “So I can’t say I ever beat her.”
He is, then, perhaps the only player in NBA history who will own up to a losing record in 1-on-1 against his very own mother.
But as he grew older, Gary found that defenses had just as much trouble stopping him on the football field as the basketball court. Take his junior year at HSE: As a stud receiver for the Royals, he had 54 catches for 860 yards and 13 touchdowns. College football coaches were drooling. Notre Dame called. Iowa called. Michigan State called. Michigan called. But basketball was always there, always pulling him back. He thought about giving football up before both his junior and senior years.
“I was happy I was in the NBA, I just wasn’t happy where I was in the NBA.”
“I told my dad I was thinking of just playing basketball,” he remembers. “He didn’t like that. He told me I might as well just stick it out.”
So Gary did. And he had the time of his life.
“I was playing with all my boys,” he says now, smiling at the memory. “We’d been playing together since the third or fourth grade.”
He tacked on 47 catches for 983 yards and 14 more TDs as a senior. He was named All-State. But when it came down to a decision, he always knew where his heart would take him. Gary Harris was a basketball player. Izzo won him over, braving the cold to take in his football games from the bleachers as fall turned to winter. Though he could’ve played both football and basketball at MSU, he chose hoops.
Remember the sign. What did you do today to get to the NBA?
His freshman year in East Lansing was the first time in his life he was a one-sport athlete. At times, he warred with Izzo—“We went at it a lot those two years,” Harris remembers. But he grew as a player. He grew as a man. He became one of just three players in the program’s storied history to score 1,000 career points in two seasons. After that, he knew it was time.
Another retreat: An upstairs bedroom, packed floor to ceiling with sneakers. Nikes. Jordans. Game-ready. Street-ready. It’s an MTV Cribs episode in suburban Indianapolis. The shoes, dozens and dozens and dozens of them, are immaculate, stain-free, organized. It’s evident: Harris doesn’t put on a pair of shoes by accident. He wants his sneakers to say something.
He was stuck in dress shoes for his first few games in the NBA. He was DNP: Coach’s decision. Harris was just 20 years old, a kid immersed in a man’s game. His talent was raw. His patience was tested.
Friends and family would text “Good luck tonight!” and he’d have to shake his head, embarrassed. He was buried on the depth chart. He knew he wouldn’t see the court. “I was like, ‘I’m not even playing.’ It was tough…I really didn’t talk to anybody. I tried to act like everything was fine, but I was very unsure of things at that time.”
It’s the welcome-to-the-NBA process plenty of rookies slog through. They’ve been stars their whole lives, the best player on their high school teams, the best player on their AAU teams, the best player on their college teams. All of a sudden, they’re the ninth best player on their NBA team. Some gut it out. Some simply fade away.
Harris scored 13 points in his NBA debut. The Nuggets trounced the Pacers in his hometown, in front of his family and friends. It’d be his highest point total of the season. A night later, he played 10 minutes against the Knicks, missed all three of his shots and Denver lost by 21.
“It was like I wasn’t even playing,” he remembers.
He averaged less than 14 minutes and 3.4 points a game for his rookie season. He mostly warmed the bench. He watched. He learned. He worked. It was the toughest year of his basketball life.
“I was happy I was in the NBA, I just wasn’t happy where I was in the NBA,” he says.
And so the questions had to be asked, on the brink of his second NBA season last fall: Was Harris the Nuggets’ longterm solution at shooting guard? It’s what they drafted him to be. It’s just not what they saw from him during his rookie season.
So he went about answering that question last year. He typed out his goals in the notes section of his iPhone. They read:
Become a consistent starter.
Average 10 points per game.
Win the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Harris started all 76 games he played in last season. He averaged 12.3 points per game. He didn’t win Most Improved Player, but he received votes. And earlier this spring, he was named to the Team USA Select squad, the group of up-and-coming players USA Basketball has handpicked to scrimmage with the men’s national team before they head to Rio for the Olympic Games.
Most significant: He proved what he had to. He proved he belongs in the league.
Lounging on the coach, playing video games, trash-talking with his friends from high school, just 21-years-old. This is the same kid whose teacher told him there was a better chance of winning the lottery than making the NBA?
Hey, anything is possible. Gary Harris proved it.