Harris still trying to make it in NBA

Journeyman Harris hopes to find place in Portland

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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It was the morning of Christmas Eve and Jackie Yancy-Harris was at home with her two youngest children.

The 6-foot tree glowed in red and green and four stockings draped over the fireplace — always four stockings. One for her, one for Kendal, one for Tresa and another for Terrel, who was away that holiday in his pursuit of a job in Miami.

Yancy-Harris was waking up when suddenly her oldest dispatched a simple text message that sent her screaming and running out of her bedroom.

We made it.

That was two years ago when Terrel Harris survived the final cuts on the Miami Heat roster.

"Is this real?" Yancy-Harris wondered aloud through sobs and laughter. "We were all excited."

"My son (Kendal) kept saying, 'Do you realize your son plays in the NBA? Your son plays with LeBron James!' "

Now, the Harris' family awaits another holiday text message. They are hopeful it comes on Halloween and it's sent from Portland.

Harris, still young at 25 years old, has become the picture of a basketball journeyman. Undrafted out of Oklahoma State, Harris played overseas before moving to the NBA Development League.

Then, thanks to his employment with the 2011-2012 Miami Heat, Harris has since enjoyed the perks of an NBA champion. He posed in front of the generic backdrop while holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy and even brought along his younger sister and brother to ride in the victory parade. But Harris still finds himself fighting for his third roster spot in three years.

"Throughout my life," Harris said, "nothing has ever been given to me."

Earlier this month when the Portland Trail Blazers acquired center Robin Lopez from New Orleans through a three-team deal, Harris, a 6-foot-4 wing, also came over in the package and landed in a logjam of guards. The Blazers already have 14 roster spots filled, and only one remains. Harris, whose contract becomes guaranteed Oct. 31, recognizes the long odds. However, he's determined to announce once again: We made it.

"It's not easy making the last spot on the roster," Harris said. "The thing is, I want to be in the NBA. If I have to go overseas, I will. But I'm just going to keep fighting until they kick me out or they turn out the lights."

• • •

Sometimes, reality can top a child's wild imagination.

When Harris was just a skinny kid who hadn't yet grown into his ears, he liked spaghetti and wanted his friends to call him 'Teco.' He attended church with his mother and served as a youth usher and an acolyte, lighting the candles prior to worship at Hamilton Park United Methodist Church. On the court, he lit up his rivals as the best basketball player in the neighborhood. So, typically, Harris wrote in a junior high publication that his future profession would be a "Pro Basketball Player."

His mom still keeps that clipping under plastic in her North Dallas home — along with her very own diamond-encrusted replica of the Miami Heat 2012 championship ring.

"It was just a blessing," Harris said. "A lot of people say, 'Man, you're so lucky.' I would correct them. I say that I'm blessed. I had faith. A lot of people don't understand that word 'faith.' "

After the disappointment of the 2009 NBA Draft, Harris needed a lesson on the word as well.

Though Harris played four years of college basketball and earned an All-Big 12 Defensive Team selection as a senior, he remained realistic about his draft prospects.

"It wasn't like people were beating down the door to try to get me," Harris said.

Harris worked out for several teams, including the Blazers. At the time, Chad Buchanan, the team's director of college scouting, called Harris a "complete guard," but an asterisk followed.

"I think his question mark will be can he tighten up his handle and become a true point because he's small to play the two," Buchanan was quoted in various published reports. "I was telling him if he can tighten up his ball skills, he's got a chance to someday sneak into our league."

That "someday" needed some time.

"That guy, he didn't get drafted. Like most inner-city kids, it's their dream to be a professional athlete," said Alvin Byrd, a longtime mentor and friend. "He had some tools, went to a major university … (but) when he didn't get drafted, I think that kind of hurt him a lot, but he persevered."

After the draft, Harris began his professional playing career in France — but only appeared in nine games with the Strasbourg IG before moving back to the States. Still, stability did not come right away for a player who did not put up splashy numbers and was known more for his defense.

"Being 21 and expecting to play at the next level, then playing in the D-League, that was tough there," said Windell Yancy, Harris's uncle. "The D-League, it was just tough. The grind of it all. Mentally, that's tough."

In a two-year stretch that seemed much longer, Harris was waived by the Maine Red Claws, played with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers but missed their championship run due to an injury, then moved back to Europe and was waived by a German squad.

In December 2011, before the start of the lockout-shortened season, Harris finally earned invitations to two NBA training camps. He turned down the one in Chicago, because he wanted to try his chances in Miami.

Surely, the scrawny kid who grew up on Dandridge Drive in North Dallas never would have imagined that his first NBA game would be played in his hometown on Christmas day. Also, that boy who dreamed of becoming a professional basketball player couldn't have envisioned himself scoring his team's final point in its championship-clinching NBA Finals Game 5 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

"It was just a great feeling," Harris recalled. "Everything about that year was special."

• • •

The fairytale, however, has turned into a journeyman's narrative.

This summer, Harris — who had wrapped up his first season in New Orleans — was relaxing on the beach when he was blindsided. His cell phone rang. It was his agent telling him that he had just been traded to Portland.

"I was worth something?" Harris remembered thinking. "I'm not used to this. I guess I'm really in the league now. I'm really in the business."

Harris maintained a positive outlook — "I'd rather be traded around the league, not out of the league," he'd say — in spite of the slim chances that await him. The Blazers have a bevy of point guards and shooting guards already locked up in contracts and general manager Neil Olshey has publicly stated that he prefers keeping a 14-man roster for future flexibility.

"We're very confident with where the roster is right now," Olshey said on July 11. "But if a compelling reason comes up to fill that roster spot and either use that mid-level, if Terrel can make the team — his contract is guaranteed Oct. 31 — then we'll deal with that then."

The steps to securing that $884,293, one-year contract began this month when Harris joined the Blazers in the NBA Summer League tournament. Although Harris did not play in every game, he stood out in the Blazers' finale loss — 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting and six rebounds — when the team rested its starters.

Since the tournament, Harris returned to Miami to work out in the legendary 5th St. Gym where Muhammad Ali once famously trained. Harris has focused on core and balance exercises but soon expects to pull on the boxing gloves. It's a fitting workout for someone who fancies himself a fighter.

Back in Texas, Yancy-Harris still beams at the memory of her Christmas Eve surprise two winters ago. Only the thought of this upcoming Halloween snaps her back to the present.

"October 31st. That's the deadline. So I'm hoping to hear something that day," Yancy-Harris said. "I'm hoping to have more good news."

She sighs.

"We'll see, huh?"