The NBA’s association with the United Kingdom stretches back beyond the exhibition games and goodwill tours, back to an era when television was still broadcast in black and white America was still split down colour lines.

Chris Harris remembers his spell in the league with equal measures of affection and bemusement. Now aged 77 and living a happy retirement with his wife of over half a century in central Florida, the league’s first British-born player spent just one season earning his corn as a hard-nosed shooting guard, signing originally for the St. Louis Hawks before being traded onward to the Rochester Royals.

Both franchises mutated and evolved as the sport – and the world – turned. A game invented by the son of Scots emigrants using peach baskets was then limited to just two offensive plays: the two-handed set shot and the lay-up. “There was no in-between,” Harris recalls. “They didn’t come in until the end of that decade when Oscar Robertson and Jerry West brought in the jump shot. We had running shots but that was it.”

They were athletes masquerading as travelling salesmen, venturing from city to city by bus and train, doing what they could to promote the burgeoning league. Often, by order from above, they were told to disembark en route to test themselves against the best team the locals could muster, all for a few dollars more.

There was no room for slackers, no tolerance of bumps and bruises. One winter, his most illustrious team-mate, Bob Pettit, patched up a broken arm rather than sitting out. Losing a limb was the only way to get a spot on the injured list. Harris laughs. “The expression then was: ‘Just pour a beer on it and play.’ And we did.”

Born in Southampton, he moved to New York as a child, transplanted into the brave New World, like so many. Shipping, not sport, was the family trade. Two uncles perished while working on the Titanic. Never did they expect that one of theirs would succeed at this strange exotic profession. “They couldn’t understand basketball,” he admits. “They thought I was nuts not playing soccer. But it was fun when they came to watch me play at Madison Square Garden. They were asking: ‘what is this sport?’”

It served him well. Harris attended Dayton University in Ohio, then a powerhouse, before receiving a summons into the NBA. He spent just 15 games in St. Louis along side Pettit, who remains a friend to this day. Then it was onwards to Rochester where, in 26 appearances, he would average 2.6 points in a 10-minute cameo off the bench.

The six-figure minimum salaries available to today’s journeymen represented an incomprehensible fortune then. It would be another three decades before a place in the NBA was a ticket to untold prosperity. In the post-War era, it remained a far from solid investment. The league’s owners were trying to squeeze every penny they could from this uncertain enterprise. No change there, some might say.

“We played in Philadelphia one night and then, the next, we went to New York to play in Madison Square Garden,” Harris reflects. “The owners would tell us to drive a rental car there but wait until 6pm so we could park it on the street and not have to pay for the parking.”

Private charters? Personal chefs? Five-star hotels? Not quite. “It was so different. We’d get three dollars to feed us the whole day as an allowance. But it still was enough to buy beer after the game at 10 cents a pop. It was fun.”

Amid the camaraderie, there were dark moments. The colour barrier had been broken within the NBA but America still had walls within. On road trips, Harris recounts, the black players were often handed their own distinct itinerary, a team divided upon arrival. “They couldn’t eat in the same restaurants. They couldn’t drink out of the same water fountains. It was terrible. Very sad.”

One of his best friends helped to smash the mould. Chuck Cooper was the first African-American drafted into the NBA in 1950 when he was recruited by the Boston Celtics. The pair hit it off when both men arrived in St. Louis in quick succession in the off-season. “He was a huge jazz buff and I loved jazz music,” the Briton confirms. “I was a huge fan. So any time we’d got to the big towns, he’d go look for the jazz club and take me with him. We had a wonderful time. He was a gentleman.”

Harris still likes his jazz. He even likes THE Jazz. And the Celtics. Passing, movement, selflessness on the court, he can appreciate those traits in the midst of a modern game which bears so little resemblance to the one he knew.

“I like watching teams making three, four, five passes before they shoot,” he says. “I hate watching when it’s one guy on one side and everyone else just watches. I don’t like that.”

He cheers for Orlando, just an hour's away from where he retired after a successful career in insurance and a lifetime raising ten children. He still watches the NBA, mainly on TV, often a witness to the exploits of Great Britain’s current basketball figurehead, Luol Deng.

“I love the Chicago Bulls because their general manager John Paxson is so close to our family,” he explains. “He played with my son Ted in high school. My other son Doug played with his brother Jim. And his father, Big Jimmy, played with me in college. We’re still friends and he’s godfather to my other son. We talk all the time. So I root for them too.”

Come Friday afternoon in Florida, he may even turn on his television to see his successors play in London in the midst a four-day road trip across the Atlantic, an idea once as unfeasible as it was unthinkable.

Given ample time to dream on those long train journeys across America, could he ever have envisaged, 56 years on, that the league he so briefly graced would be bound for the land of his birth, its players, its aerial acrobats, now celebrated around the world?

He chuckles loudly. “No. I couldn’t have even imagined that. I ran into a guy from the NBA at a Retired Players Association event and he told me they were opening a UK office. I told them I’d be happy to go over and see my old country.”

The offer never came. Small matter. Harris enjoyed his cameo. The mark of history is his. The NBA moved on without him. Who knew it would, one day, go back whence he came?

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • MySpace
  • Print

You must be logged in to post a comment Login