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The Forgotten Baller: Chris Harris 

Mark Woods

The best stories sometimes just out and go boo. On other occasions, they become a quest, a journey which begins with an introduction followed by different stops along the road as each chapter unfolds.

This tale is neither, and it is both. The name of Chris Harris first appeared a few years ago in the first ever NBA Encyclopedia, a figure whose small role in the history of the league would probably have passed unnoticed, had it not been for where he was born.

Steve Bucknall had always been assumed as the first player from the United Kingdom to reach the fabled pastures of the Association. It turned out he had been beaten to the honour by over three decades by someone of whom little was known.

Questions were asked of the NBA, of historians and colleagues. A blank was drawn on all fronts. Having pushed the notion back in the pending tray, it resurfaced when I read a small article on Jim Paxson Sr., father of NBA General Manager twosome John and Jim.

Old Jim had gone to Dayton University in Ohio - where his team-mates included a certain Chris Harris. One email to John later - credit him with the vital assist - and contact was made. And it is a story worth waiting for.

From ship to shore

When Glasgow-born baseball great Bobby Thomson struck his biggest shot, it was heard all around the world – including back across the Atlantic in his native land.

Harris’ accomplishments across The Pond never brought him such fame and fortune. And the man who was the first Brit ever to play in the National Basketball Association has no complaints that his little chunk of sporting history has gone almost unnoticed for nearly half a century.

Now 70, and living in Largo, Florida, he recalls his brief spell on hoops ultimate playground with a great deal of affection. In 1955 he started out with the Rochester Royals in upstate New York before switching in the middle of the season to the St. Louis Hawks.

There were no stars like Michael Jordan then. No five star hotels either. The NBA had only been formally consecrated seven years before with a merger of two other leagues and it was still early days in its expansion. It was light years away from the world-wide entertainment phenomenon of today.

Harris’ upbringing was similarly far from where it began. He was born in Southampton in 1933 but his entire family emigrated two years later to Long Island. Many of them worked on the ocean liners which sailed back and forth across the Atlantic – including two uncles who perished on the Titanic. 

Like so many immigrants, the older folks held onto traditions from back home while the youngsters were captivated by the images of the American Dream. And it was a conflict which was no different for this infant Englishman in New York.

“Everyone growing up, my parents and uncles, were into soccer. Everything was soccer,” Harris remembers. “They had the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, all those big ships come into New York. And when they landed, you had the big games between the other ships and other countries. 

“I grew up with soccer, soccer, soccer and finally I just fell into basketball. My folks didn’t even know what it was. They said: ‘what in the world are you doing? You’re never going to be a basketball player.’ 

“I always remember as a kid, I had a little basket in my back yard on dirt but they kept trying to tell me to play soccer. And I said ‘nope, I’m going to play basketball in the pros.’ They were laughing at me so it was funny that I should have actually made it. 

“After a while they knew that it was going to be baseball or basketball for me. And I couldn’t hit a curve ball so that made the decision easy.”

A new ball game

Basketball brought him an education too. His talents won him a scholarship at Dayton University in Ohio where his most celebrated team-mate was Jim Paxson - whose sons John and Jim are now General Managers of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers respectively.

It was an utterly different ball game then – literally. In fact, the slam dunk was a punishable offence. “There were only two kinds of shots: the two-handed set shot and a driving lay-up and nothing in between,” Harris points out. “There were only eight teams in the league and only ten players on each of them. Just eighty players in the NBA, imagine that. The game was just completely different. 

“Basketball is the sport that has changed the most from its origins. Football players from then would be great today. But in basketball, there are such great athletes now. They’re so strong and fast. Who ever heard of a 6’9” point guard then? The game really started to come along with the arrival of Oscar Robertson and jump shots. That altered it.”

Harris was fortunate enough to have played with, and against, some of the early legends - including two of the greatest power forwards of all-time in Bob Pettite and Maurice Stokes. “It was just a great thrill to be with them,” he states.

There was also a lot of fun to be had. NBA teams now boast their own private jets to whisk them from city to city with minimal inconvenience. With no planes, it was just trains and automobiles for the stars of yesteryear with some unusual ways to pass the time en route.

Harris explains: “We used to do so much travel by bus and train then. So what we used to have to do, if say we were going up to Minneapolis, we would stop two or three days beforehand and play the local bar and grill, just so the owner could make a few thousand bucks to pay us. We ended up playing so many games. 

“We were heading one place and they told us we had to take on Joe’s Bar. So we won, got back on the train, and moved onto the next town against their local heroes. People think we had a light schedule but it was full of exhibitions. And you just did it without question.

“We used to do a lot with the Harlem Globetrotters. They were a much bigger deal than the NBA in that era and we were often their warm-up act. That used to make us mad because we were better than they were.

“My God, some of the gymnasiums were terrible though. Up in Rochester, they used to have a swinging door behind the basket and one of our opponents drove to the basket and kept on going and fell through it. The worst part is it locked on him and he ended up having to run around the other side to get back inside!”

It all took its toll. Fatigue could happen to anyone – even the greats.

“Bob Pettite was really tired once on the way to take on the Lakers in Minnesota. And he goes ‘Christy, I can’t go tonight. I’ve gotta tell Red Holzman I’m done.’ And we’re out on the floor and he comes up, looking all fatigued, and asks me where we were. All I could see was fur coats so I knew we’d arrived in Minneapolis. And then he went out and scored 29 points.

“Red was very laid back at that point. Alex Hannen was in his final year of playing then before taking over as coach of St. Louis the following season and he used to have him take over the coaching clinics. But I got on great with Red. He was OK then but he became a great coach when he went to the Knicks. He wasn’t a tactician at that point.”

Into the war

The Hawks – who are now based in Atlanta - were coached then by Holzman, a young playcaller in his first NBA role. He would go on to greater things in charge of the New York Knicks, where his personal rivalry with the great Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach came close to outright warfare.

Holzman’s team rules were simple. You played hard. You partied hard. And there was a genuine camaraderie between opposing teams – with one notable exception, says Harris. 

“All the teams would get together after the game. If we were in Indiana playing against the Fort Wayne Pistons, afterwards we’d all go to the local bar and have some laughs. The only team that wouldn’t socialise with anybody was the Celtics. That’s because Red Auerbach didn’t want them fraternising with what he considered to be the enemy. 

“But with everyone else, we partied. If we were in New York, we often had double headers at Madison Square Garden and the four teams would hit the town together. We had immense rapport. 

“I recall coming off the bench a lot in garbage time at the end of the game and the guy who’d be guarding me would ask ‘Chris, have you scored tonight yet?’ I’d go no and he’d then let me go around him and get a lay-up. That meant my name would be in the box score the next day in the newspapers around the United States and that meant a lot.

“There were little things like that all the time. You’d be talking during the game and arrange to meet at such and such a club. Now they don’t talk at all. Once the game’s over, they’re straight out of the building onto a plane or back home. There’s not much esprit de corps.”

Part 2: Money, money, money


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