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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

November 25, 2014 at 8:49 AM

Joe Harris’ remarkable journey from small-town star in Chelan to the NBA

Joe Harris of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks with coach David Blatt during an NBA game.  Photo by Jason Miller / Getty Images

Joe Harris of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks with coach David Blatt during an NBA game.
Photo by Jason Miller / Getty Images


PORTLAND — The two thuds meant Joe Harris was awake.

The first sound was Joe Harris Jr. dropping the ball that he slept with onto the floor. The second was him climbing down the ladder from the top bunk.

When Alice, Joe’s mother, heard dribbling, she knew he was up.

Harris slept with a basketball until his senior year at Chelan High School, bringing it with him wherever he went. That ball, and that game, would take Harris on quite a journey, too. From Chelan to Charlottesville, Va., to Cleveland and the realization of his dreams.

On a night last June, after eight seasons as a starter for Chelan and the University of Virginia, the 22-year-old Harris was back home in Chelan, surrounded by family and friends waiting for his name to be called in the NBA Draft.

“We had an idea where he’d go, but you’re never sure until you hear the name being called,” said Joe Harris Sr., Joe’s father.

“With the 33rd pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select Joe Harris from the University of Virginia,” Mark Tatum, the NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer announced to the crowd at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Do the math

For Harris, the writing was on the wall since he was 10 years old. Literally.

Harris came home from school one day holding a desk calendar filled with inspirational quotes. He asked his mother if he could write some of the quotes on his bedroom walls. Alice said yes, thinking he would scribble goals on a piece of paper before taping them up.

Three hours went by, and Alice hadn’t heard a peep from Joe. She was finally tipped off by Joe’s older sister and bunkmate, Kaiti, who ran downstairs with a Sharpie in hand to tell Alice what he had done.

His walls were covered with scribbles of quotes from famous coaches and goals for himself: Be a good teammate. Always have confidence. Play Division I basketball. Reach the NBA. Win a championship.

Joe Harris Sr. coached basketball at Chelan High School, so his son was smitten. He tagged along with Joe Sr. to practices and games, dribbling in the corner of the gym. He was team manager from third to eighth grade.

At 4 years old, he asked Joe Sr. if he could run the gym’s clock during practice. Only if he knew his numbers, Dad told him. Joe Jr. didn’t hesitate: If one player makes a three-pointer and another dunks, the total is five points.

“Up to that point, we weren’t sure he could count,” Joe Sr. said. “We think that’s how he learned his colors, too, watching other teams.”

No one needed to do the math to know Joe Jr. would play basketball. It runs in the family. Kaiti, the oldest of three sisters, was a college basketball player at Yakima Valley and Warner Pacific colleges. Jaicee is a senior on Washington State’s volleyball team. Mackenzie is a senior at Chelan and just wrapped up her final volleyball season with the Mountain Goats.

Joe Sr. was inducted into the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011. He has coached Chelan for nearly three decades.

Alice, broker and the director of sales at Coldwell Banker Lake Chelan Properties, was in the bleachers for every game and even rebounded for Harris when he practiced alone.

Joe Harris (No. 12) as a junior with his Chelan High School team from the 2009 Class 1A state basketball program.  Program from the collection of Bill Kossen / Seattle Times staff

Joe Harris (No. 12) as a junior with his Chelan High School team from the 2009 Class 1A state basketball program.
Program from the collection of Bill Kossen / Seattle Times staff

A prep star

Joe Harris Jr. started every game in his four-year career with the Mountain Goats, playing for Joe Sr., and quickly turned into a dead-eye long-range shooter. He also played baseball for two years, and quarterbacked the football team for three.

Yet Joe Jr. never acted like a star, around the house or in the gym.

“He had some games where, statistically, it was unreal,” Joe Sr. said. “Then he’d turn around and be the first one in the gym the next day. He’s the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached.”

In four seasons, Harris scored 2,399 points and was named Gatorade State Player of the Year as a senior in 2010. The Mountain Goats lost their season-opener to Ephrata, then won every other regular-season game. They lost their opener at the Class 1A state tournament before finishing fifth.

Harris was a scoring machine, but his defense was a liability. He was too aggressive, filling the scorebook with fouls along with points, and too often fouling out.

“I was so competitive when I played,” he said with a smile. “I was trying to get every loose ball, trying to get steals. That’s what I was kind of infamous for in high school.”

Harris never stopped working on his game, at both ends. He only fouled out of one game in college.

By the time he graduated from Chelan, Harris was a 6-foot-6 ball-handler who could shoot from anywhere.

Cleveland Cavaliers Joe Harris looks to pass in a recent Cavaliers game.  Photo by Phil Masturzo / The Akron Beacon-Journal

Cleveland Cavaliers Joe Harris looks to pass in a recent Cavaliers game.
Photo by Phil Masturzo / The Akron Beacon-Journal

Weighing the options

Chelan, a town of 4,000, nestled in the mountains of North Central Washington, is a destination for summer vacations, but not college recruiters. Yet Harris was only a junior when college coaches came calling.

Tony Bennett, then the charismatic young coach at Washington State, traveled the 221 miles from Pullman to Chelan to watch Harris play in an open gym. Harris played against local players who showed up, including Jaicee. Bennett joked with Harris that he only got recruited because he outplayed his sisters.

“I don’t know if he could handle Jaicee now,” Bennett said. “She might block his shot.”

As Harris’ point totals grew along with his reputation, other coaches came calling — Georgetown, Washington, Notre Dame, Georgia, San Diego and Portland.

Harris was leaning toward WSU, because of the relationship he had built with Bennett. Then the summer before Harris’ senior year, Bennett became the coach at Virginia.

Harris, who played AAU select basketball for Seattle’s Friends of Hoop, took a red-eye flight from Seattle to Charlottesville, Va., with Joe Sr. after a tournament in Portland. He saw the campus, met coaches and played pick-up ball.

“When he came back, it was clear he wanted to go there,” Joe Sr. said.

Still, it was a tough call for the small-town kid to travel across the country away from his tight-knit family and friends for college. A talk with Mom, and a hoops metaphor, made his decision clear. Alice and Joe Jr. had taken two-mile walks long before he was contemplating which college to play for. He always brought a basketball with him and never lost control of his dribble.

One day Harris lost the ball several times, and offered this explanation:

“I should’ve always been losing the ball,” Harris said. “I wasn’t working hard enough if I wasn’t losing the ball.”

While he was weighing his options during another stroll, she reminded him of that story, how forcing himself out of his comfort zone made him better. All his life he had worked hard to improve. He had to take a risk to grow.

“Challenge yourself intellectually by going to Virginia,” she told him.

“You wouldn’t be mad?” Joe Jr. asked.

Of course not, she said.

“He made his decision and I cried all night — but not for him to see,” she recalls. “Having your baby go cross country is hard for a mom. But I totally understood.”

Breaking out

Playing legendary programs like North Carolina and Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Harris started as a freshman under Bennett and averaged 10.4 points a game.

“He’s deceptively quick, he’s tough and he’s a complete guard,” Bennett said. “He can shoot it, he can pass it and he can put it on the floor. Because his character is so strong, he’s about the team first. There’s a lot of good in this young man. He really embodies what most programs are looking for in a player.”

Virginia and Harris improved every season. As a sophomore in 2011-12, he averaged 11.3 points, second on the team, and the Cavaliers reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. As a junior, Harris averaged 16.3 points and four rebounds, helping Virginia finish 23-12. He earned first-team All-ACC honors.

Joe Harris (12)  celebrates with Virginia teammates Justin Anderson (23) and Teven Jones after Duke's victory over Duke in an NCAA tournament game in during an NCAA college basketball game in 2013. Harris scored 36 points.  Photo by Steve Helber / The Associated Press

Joe Harris (12) celebrates with Virginia teammates Justin Anderson (23) and Teven Jones after Duke’s victory over Duke in an ACC game in 2013. Harris scored 36 points.
Photo by Steve Helber / The Associated Press

That season he scored 27 points in a 93-81 loss at North Carolina. Bennett said he was amazed at how Harris took the game over.

Twelve days later in Charlottesville, Harris scored a career-high 36 points to go with seven rebounds in a 73-68 win over No. 3 Duke. It had been 11 years since Virginia had beaten a top-five team.

“He’s just one of the best players in the country,” Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary Duke coach, said that night. “When you have a guy playing at that level, it brings everybody up. You know you’re playing with a stud.”

Harris had arrived and so had Virginia.

In his final season, Harris led the Cavaliers to their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981, their first ACC Tournament title since 1976 and their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995. He earned ACC Tournament MVP honors, and was All-ACC Tournament and earned All-ACC third-team honors.

Bennett had a hunch early that Harris could play after college.

“I saw flashes of that as a freshman,” Bennett said. “In that North Carolina game, he put the team on his back and scored in so many different ways. Then there were some stretches in games where I just knew.”

A new home

Harris was selected higher in the NBA Draft than any Virginia player since Roger Mason Jr. went 31st to Chicago in 2002.

What Harris did not realize when he was drafted was that he was about a month away from playing for the most talked-about team in sports.

LeBron James returned to Ohio after playing four seasons with the Miami Heat, winning two championships, signing with Cleveland. The Cavs then traded No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins in a deal that landed them Kevin Love, an All-Star forward and a double-double machine. The two superstars joined point guard Kyrie Irving, who emerged as one of the league’s best last season.

“You don’t really pay a lot of attention to that because you’re so in the moment,” Harris said. “You have to turn around and go to play in the summer league. You’re not in communication with the guys in the front office, but you obviously hear rumors.”

The 225-pounder averaged 7.8 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in the summer league, which features first- and second-year players.

On Oct. 1, Cleveland played its annual Wine & Gold Scrimmage. The team huddled in the hallway before running out onto the floor. They all put their hands in and chanted “together!”

James looked around. “Joe, rooks, lead it out,” he said, pointing at Harris and Alex Kirk — a 7-foot rookie from New Mexico — before motioning to the court.

Harris was the first Cav to run out of the tunnel, with Kirk right behind. It took about five seconds for them to realize that nobody else followed. They had been pranked.

Harris did not play in the Cavs’ first two games of the regular season. Cleveland’s third game was on Nov. 4 in Portland, the closest Harris can come to an NBA homecoming.

Harris’ parents and a handful of relatives made the trip to the Moda Center, most wearing Joe Jr.’s No. 12 Cleveland jersey.

Late in the game, with the Trail Blazers safely ahead in what would be a 101-82 win, Harris checked in. His first NBA points were the final ones of the game: He slashed to the basket from behind the arc for a layup.

“You have to come to terms with the fact that you are at the bottom of the pecking order, and you’re going to have to work your way up,” Harris said. “I was fortunate in college to play as a freshman, but in the NBA, not a lot of rookies are coming in and making a significant impact right off the bat. I’m just trying to earn the trust and respect of my teammates.”

Since playing seven total minutes in the first five games, Harris has played 22 minutes per game, scoring 12 points against the Atlanta Hawks in a win recently.

“He’s a very, very positive rookie,” Cleveland head coach David Blatt said. “His nose is to the grindstone. He doesn’t say a lot. He listens to the veteran guys, he fits in with what we’re doing and he plays as hard as he possibly can, regardless of the situation.”

There are multiple reports that Harris will take over as the team’s starting shooting guard.

The 23-year-old from Chelan keeps it all in perspective.

“There’s obviously a lot of really exciting moments and ups. But then there’s your fair share of downs and tough times,” Harris said. “Every step of way, going from a small town to Charlottesville and playing in the ACC — that whole experience is a difficult adjustment. In all of that, you really grow as a person and as a basketball player.”

Chasing the final goal

The list of Eastern Washington natives who have played in the NBA is short. Byron Beck, who was born in Ellensburg, played in the ABA and NBA from 1967-77. The 6-foot-9 post played for Kittitas High School. Beck never won a professional championship.

Winning a title is the only goal that has eluded Harris throughout his basketball career. With a star-studded Cavs team playing in the weak Eastern Conference, it might not be long until he’s forced to write new goals, though he most likely will not do so with a Sharpie on the walls of his downtown Cleveland apartment.

“The best thing about Joe is he’s such a humble young man,” Bennett said. “He acknowledged that he needed to get better in certain areas, and then he went to work on his game and developed.

“You know when you’re around people and they love the moment that they’re in? He just loves every moment he’s in. We miss him like crazy, but we’re so thankful for the time we had. Now we’re his biggest supporters.”

Danny Schmidt is the sports editor of The Daily Record in Ellensburg. He is a graduate of Ballard High School and Central Washington University.

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