A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
Gary Harris Jr. held no press conference to announce his college commitment two years ago. The near-consensus No. 1 shooting guard in the class of 2012, he could have filled the Hamilton Southeastern High gym in Fishers, Ind., full of fans, reporters and camera crews as he placed his future school's hat on his head. Instead, he broke the news that he'd chosen Michigan State to his family at home during dinner. But before calling Spartans coach Tom Izzo, Harris made another decision: He would phone the coaches from the three other schools on his short list (Indiana, Kentucky and Purdue) and thank them for their time and effort recruiting him.
Harris's courtesy calls were as unsurprising to those coaches as they were disappointing. Once he had narrowed his list of possible schools to those four in the summer after his junior year, Harris committed to returning every text, phone call and email a coach had sent. "It was probably a pain for his mom, a pain for his dad and a pain for Gary," says Michigan State assistant Dane Fife. "Normally, when these kids get to their junior years, they're sick of recruiting. They're sick of hearing from us. But Gary always got back to us."
March 24, 2014
"He's the most unpretentious kid I've met," Izzo says. "For a big-time athlete, he's kind of a throwback."
When the 6'4" Harris finally called Izzo on that night in November 2011, the coach was aboard the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson for the season opener against top-ranked North Carolina. A photographer snapped a shot of Izzo, the phone at his ear and a smile on his face. He couldn't have known then that Harris would become the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2013—the first Spartan to win that honor—or that he would bypass a likely first-round selection in the NBA draft and return to lead 22nd-ranked MSU in scoring as a sophomore, with 17.1 points per game. What Izzo did know was that he'd recruited a kid born and raised to play basketball.
When Gary Harris Sr. was a junior at Purdue in 1989, he reluctantly went to a Boilermakers' women's basketball game with a buddy. Midway through he had to ask: "Who's number 40?" Number 40 was Joy Holmes, a 5'10" forward who would become the school's first female All-America. Gary Sr. didn't play basketball at William A. Wirt High, in Gary, Ind., but he likes to joke that he is the alltime leading scorer at Purdue's rec center. It was on those courts that he and Joy first faced off one-on-one. Soon after, they began dating. A marriage and a basketball rivalry followed.
When Joy was pregnant with Gary Jr., the first of their three children, she briefly stopped playing basketball. But by the time Gary Jr. was six weeks old, she was suiting back up for the Hoosier Lady Stars, a traveling exhibition team. Swaddled in his car seat next to his father or whichever assistant coach's spouse could endure the screams, Gary Jr. would watch from the stands—and wail at the sound of each buzzer. It wasn't until the end of the season that he learned to sleep through the game.
When Gary Jr. was 18 months old, the Seattle Reign selected Joy in the inaugural draft of the short-lived American Basketball League. She declined to play that season because she felt her son was too young, but the year away from basketball showed her she wasn't ready to give up the game. Thus began Gary Jr.'s hoops-heavy childhood. If he wasn't watching his mother play professionally, he was watching his parents play one-on-one; by the time he was walking, he was throwing a tiny basketball toward a plastic rim in the backyard.
During Joy's year with Seattle, Gary Jr. split time between his parents because his father's job as a pharmaceutical sales rep kept him in Lafayette, La. But when the ABL offered to trade Joy to the Nashville Noise, the family reunited in Tennessee. After a season with the Noise, the league folded and she joined the coaching staff at Middle Tennessee State. It was then, in 1999, that Gary Jr. witnessed the final showdown in his parents' driveway rivalry. As Gary Sr. recalls it, he was "smoking" Joy, but because he wasn't in great shape, he took a break midway through the game (to 11 by ones). His sweat-soaked shirt draped over his head, he then declared himself the victor. Joy disputed that call. An argument ensued, and they decided not to keep score anymore. "It was for the sake of our marriage," Joy says.
Joy retired in 2000, after playing one season with the WNBA's Detroit Shock, and the Harrises returned to Fishers, Ind., where they focused on teaching Gary Jr. the fundamentals of the game. By the time he was in the eighth grade, his mom claimed one last win then declared an end to their one-on-one games. Meanwhile, he was dispatching his dad regularly. "He has only one move," says Gary Jr. "He just backs you down and tries to do a spin fadeaway." Gary Sr.'s response? "That's 100% accurate. I'm a 5'10" power forward."
Gary Jr. never uses 10 words when two will do, and he abhors bragging. So when he tried out for his high school team as a freshman, Joy never got a sense of how he was doing. On the car ride home from school after the final day of his freshman year, he told her he had made the cut and would need a suit and tie for the team picture. Joy called to confirm that with the mother of one of Gary Jr.'s classmates, who told her only varsity players needed to dress up. Joy asked her son if he'd made varsity, to which he replied, "Yeah." As Gary Jr. puts it, "What else was there to say?"
He became a two-sport star as a sophomore, averaging 14.2 points in basketball and scoring five touchdowns as a wide receiver. By his senior season he was averaging 24.4 points and scoring 13 touchdowns. D-I schools recruited him for each sport at first, but he decided during his junior year that he would play only basketball in college. Four years of football in the fall, basketball in the winter and spring, and AAU ball in the summer would be enough.
His numbers were definitely enough to attract the attention of Izzo, who loves two-sport athletes. Izzo also played football and basketball in high school, and his 2000 NCAA championship team was led by two-sport prep star Mateen Cleaves at the point.
As a Spartans freshman solely focused on basketball, Harris started all but two games despite lingering pain in both shoulders throughout the season. He averaged 12.9 points, hit 41.1% of his threes and was named MVP by his teammates. This season, with starters Branden Dawson, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne battling injuries, Harris has had to lead the team in scoring (even doubling his assists average to 2.7) while also guarding the opponent's best perimeter player. Joy taught him to focus on defense as much as offense because she believed it was always within your control.
Despite a nagging stinger in his left shoulder, Harris averaged 13.3 points and 2.0 steals in the Big Ten Tournament to help carry the Spartans to their fourth conference tournament title.
Only after Michigan State's season is over will Harris consider going to the NBA. He thought about declaring last spring and even asked Izzo to investigate his draft prospects. But after having lunch with his family at Pizza House in East Lansing the next day, he decided to stay before Izzo had made his first phone call.
"The NBA sounds fun, but it's a business," Harris says. "Was I ready at 18 years old to go to the real world and start my life? No. For my career and for me personally, it was better to stay."
After his decision, he found himself with a few weeks of free time, so he walked over to the MSU rec center and started playing pickup games with students. The desire was natural: Playing basketball was just like going home.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED regularly features the most intriguing athletes across all its platforms, presented by Symetra. To see videos of this week's Rising Stars, Arizona's Nick Johnson and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis, go to SI.com/risingstars