Former Vols basketball star Tony Harris earns degree, gives back to community

 

GOD'S FACILITATOR --- For years, Tony Harris graced Memphis with his basketball prowess, a trend ultimately led to him earning a full fledge scholarship to the University of Tennessee. Today, the former East High star is giving back to the community as founder of the Tony Harris Basketball Academy. (Photo submitted by Tony Harris)

GOD’S FACILITATOR — For years, Tony Harris graced Memphis with his basketball prowess, a trend ultimately led to him earning a full fledge scholarship to the University of Tennessee. Today, the former East High star is giving back to the community as founder of the Tony Harris Basketball Academy. (Photo submitted by Tony Harris)

Tony Harris decided to call it a career after playing professional basketball overseas for approximately seven years.

It didn’t take long for the former University of Tennessee standout to return to Knoxville to complete the final 36 hours of his undergraduate studies.

Harris, a native Memphian, earned his degree in Psychology with a minor in Childcare within six months after his professional career ended.

He has former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl to thank.

Pearl, who recently replaced Tony Barbee as Auburn’s head coach, coached the Vols from 2005-2011 before he was fired in March 2011 for lying to school officials regarding NCAA allegations.

As Harris tells it, Pearl’s contributions to the university far outweighs the NCAA sanctions that ultimately led to his firing. Among the reasons is that during Pearl’s tenure at Tennessee, he established a program in which ex-Vol players could return to campus and finish their degree requirements.

Harris, who starred for the Vols from 1997-2001, deemed it a forgone conclusion to finish school. “Man, it was very relishing,” Harris, in a recent interview, said of finishing his undergraduate requirements.

“I look back at it as a pivotal point in my life. I knew that I couldn’t play basketball the rest of my life. I knew eventually the crowd would stop cheering. I knew getting my degree would open doors for me.”

Harris is grateful to Pearl for helping him exhibit to renewed sense of assertiveness in the classroom.

“Believe it or not, Bruce Pearl played a big part in that,” Harris said. “He created a program where he actually wanted to bring former players back. He reached out to me and I said, ‘I have to do that.’ I definitely sensed a reconnection with him. I really wished I had played for that guy right there because he cared. My hat goes off to him.”

A little more than five years removed having a earned his degree, Harris, a former McDonald’s All-American and Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball who starred at point guard for East High from 1994-97 is now dishing out assists to youngsters who aspire to journey through the basketball ranks much like he did more than a decade ago in this hoops-crazed town.

Harris, 35, is the founder of the Tony Harris Basketball Academy (or THBA), which is currently housed at STAR Academy Charter School in Northeast Memphis where he teaches physical education. According to Harris, THBA was organized to teach youths various fundamentals and mechanics as they prepare for competitive play.

ROCKY TOP TONY --- Harris, a former Mr. Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball starred at point guard for the Vols from 1997-2001 before playing professionally for seven years overseas. (File photo courtesy of UT Athletics)

ROCKY TOP TONY — Harris, a former Mr. Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball starred at point guard for the Vols from 1997-2001 before playing professionally for seven years overseas. (File photo courtesy of UT Athletics)

Also, THBA has its own strength and conditioning coach to teach athletes about speed and agility as well as the importance of staying in shape on the court. In addition, the academy offers after-school tutoring and frequent sessions in which athletes are taught how to become media savvy.

“A lot of kids get in front of the news media and don’t know how to talk,” Harris said.

An organization that is comprised of about 120 individuals, Harris also conducts a midweek Bible study in which he shares with athletes stories that are parrarelled to his life. In return, athletes are encouraged to offer feedback from the messages given.

Earlier this year, Harris was installed as an ordained ministered by his pastor, Stephen Brown, and preached his first sermon just weeks later at Brown’s LOGIC Church in the heart of downtown Memphis.

“About a month before my sermon, I didn’t know what I was going to talk about,” Harris said. “And God told me to talk about where He brought me from. And so when I preached that sermon, I tied those experiences to my own life.”

Besides Pearl, Harris attributes his success on and off the court to fellow Memphian Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, a former Memphis Treadwell and MemphisState star.

Drafted with the third overall pick by GoldenState in 1993, Hardaway played 14 seasons in the NBA and made four All-Star appearances before retiring in 2007 following a brief stint with the Miami Heat.

“Man, I just looked at his life and his career and how he came back and impacted the whole (city),” Harris said of Hardaway. “He really inspired me. He’s really had the biggest impact on me. And it helps to have a personal relationship with him. I’ve watch him. And what better guy to have as an example than Penny Hardaway?”

Looking ahead, Harris said his primary focus is to upgrade his staff at THBA, considering he has taken on additional athletes in recent months. Also, plans to build a new facility are in the works while he continues to train athletes at STAR Academy, a project he anticipates will be complete within the next year.

“It was four years ago,” said Harris, explaining his motivation for starting a basketball academy. “I was trying to figure out what direction I wanted to go and God gave me a vision. He said, ‘I want you to start a basketball academy.’ And then I talked to my pastor about it and then he told me to make the vision plain and clear. One thing I wanted to do was reach out to kids and not be restricted to a school.”

Much like Pearl reached out to him.

 Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at [email protected]. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist. 

 

Grizzlies reserve Nick Calathes silencing critics, earning respect from home fans

The Florida Gators will continue their quest for a third national title Thursday night in FedExForum.

No one, it seems, is pleased by that more than Memphis Grizzlies backup point Nick Calathes.

RISING ROOKIE --- Grizzlies backup point guard Nick Calathes was booed early and often by the FedExForum crowd weeks into the season. He has since evolved into one of Memphis' most efficient reserves and was rewarded for his efforts recently when he was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

RISING ROOKIE — Grizzlies backup point guard Nick Calathes was booed early and often by the FedExForum crowd weeks into the season. He has since evolved into one of Memphis’ most efficient reserves and was rewarded for his efforts recently when he was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

“I’m happy for the Gators,” Calathes told MemphiSport. “I’m happy for coach (Billy) Donovan. I think they have a chance to really go far. They have a bunch of seniors. They have a deep bench and coach Donovan got them rolling.”

That the top-ranked Gators, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed who will face UCLA, will continue postseason play in the same venue where Calathes play home games as pro is a microcosm of how well things have gone of late for the Memphis rookie.

The NBA announced recently that Calathes, who starred at Florida from 2007-2009, was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in February. For the 25-year-old Calathes, who was presented with his award prior to Saturday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, receiving such an honor in front of a sellout FedExForum crowd was a moment of redemption, or sorts, for an NBA newcomer who wasn’t a fan favorite during the season’s early stages.

That was evident during the Grizzlies’ home game against Oklahoma City December 11. After checking into the game midway through the third quarter of Memphis’ 116-100 loss, Calathes was met by scattered boos from fans.

As if the unpleasant reception wasn’t enough, the loss began a season-long five-game winless streak for the Grizzlies. Calathes, meanwhile, was trying to find his niche on a Memphis team that was hampered by a slew of injuries and out of playoff contention.

“Man, it’s been a long time, it’s been an up and down year for sure,” Calathes said.

Still, Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball and McDonald’s All-American, didn’t seem affected by the early-season heckling from the hometown fans. If nothing else, he used the unpleasant welcome as motivation, given the resilience he has exhibited since the season’s halfway point.

After the Grizzlies on January 7 traded then-backup point guard Jarryd Bayless to Boston for veteran Courtney Lee, Calathes became the relief man to Mike Conley.

He didn’t disappoint.

Instead, February turned out to be a coming-out-party, of sorts, for the Casselbury, Florida native who holds Greek citizenship. While producing the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA for that month, Calathes was second among Western Conference rookies in scoring (10.7 ppg) and assists (apg).  Also, he was tied for second in rebounds (3.6 rpg) and was second among NBA rookies in field goal percentage (.495) and steals (1.75 spg).

How to explain the swift progress for a rookie who Grizzlies fans had essentially written off less than one month into the season?

“I think the trade helped me out when they traded Jarryd,” Calathes said. “That gave me an opportunity to play a lot more and I just tried to take full advantage of it and I knew my teammates began to have more confidence in me.”

Conley, the Grizzlies’ longest-tenured player, was among those who felt the harsh reaction Calathes acquired from fans was uncalled for.

“I hated the boos and all that stuff that were geared toward Nick because we all were playing bad,” Conley said. “It wasn’t just one person. It was a collective effort. It was like they were looking for someone to blame and that’s not the case. And I’m so happy he got his chance to show people what he can do and to show people those boos weren’t warranted.”

Two months removed from having been installed as Conley’s backup, Calathes’ surge is among the reasons the Grizzlies are back in playoff contention as they begin a season-long five-game road trip starting Wednesday night at Utah.

Prior to entering the NBA ranks, Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball, was a McDonald's All-American and starred at the University of Florida from 2007-2009. The top-ranked Gators will continue NCAA Tournament play in FedExForum Thursday night against UCLA. (AP Photo)

Prior to entering the NBA ranks, Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball, was a McDonald’s All-American and starred at the University of Florida from 2007-2009. The top-ranked Gators will continue NCAA Tournament play in FedExForum Thursday night against UCLA. (AP Photo)

 

Having won 15 of its last 20, Memphis (42-28) is currently seventh in the Western Conference standings with 12 regular-season games remaining.

“He’s done good job of running the team,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said of Calathes. “He took care of the basketball. He still played his game. He’s just been a little more aggressive. He’s great in the pick and roll, a lot better defender than people think. He plays his position and he uses his size, which is good. He’s been great for us.”

Drafted with the 45th picked by Minnesota in the second round in 2009, Calathes — who was traded to Memphis last summer after a brief stint with the Dallas Mavericks — is now a fan favorite in FedExForum. That was evident before Saturday’s game.

“It’s always great to hear that,” Calathes said of the boos. “It obviously gets me going as a player. But fans are going to be fans. All I can do is go out and give my best. We’re all blessed to have an opportunity to play.”

An opportunity that, to his credit, hasn’t gone unnoticed in this, his first year in the NBA.

So much for the scattered boos.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at [email protected]. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.