When your father was an athletic 6-foot-4 wing who played professional basketball in Germany and your 6-2 mother was good enough to make the German national team, there really wasn’t much question what sport Elias Harris was going to take up.
Yup, soccer, and some track and field.
And Harris probably would have continued with those activities if his buddies in Speyer, Germany, had stayed the course. When they didn’t, Mike Harris pointed his son toward basketball.
If there was some initial reluctance, young Elias quickly showed an aptitude for hoops, handling the ball with either hand while keeping his eyes down court.
“His first love was soccer, but all his friends quit playing so he decided he didn’t want to play,” Mike said. “The club (basketball) team I was with had a youth team so I put in him in basketball. You know kids, they say, ‘I don’t want to play,’ but I was like, ‘Look, you’re going to play.’
“There’s nothing that makes a parent feel prouder than when their kid gets to an age where they understand things and he actually thanked me for making him stick with basketball because now he loves it.”
Perhaps the only thing better would be watching the offspring continue to improve in their chosen sport. While the numbers may be comparable, there is no comparison between Harris the Gonzaga freshman sensation and Harris the seasoned junior as a player and person.
There has been undeniable growth on and off the court. Harris sees it. His coaches notice it.
“He’s much better, much better defensively, rebounding, he’s got different ways to score now,” coach Mark Few said. “He’s developed some perimeter game and some perimeter moves. No question he’s a much more mature player.”
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It’s been an interesting journey for Harris, who would watch U.S. college games on TV in Germany and ask his dad, “Do you think I could do that some day?”
The older Harris would reply yes, with diligence and hard work. Basketball runs deeply in the family genes. Mike played at Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis. His three older brothers were accomplished players. Elias’ mom, Svenja, made the national team but quit because she didn’t enjoy the constant travel. Elias’ younger sister Stina is a talented 6-2 center who Mike is convinced could play on a strong U.S. collegiate team.
After college and a short stint in the Army, Mike played professionally in Germany from 1979-88. He still plays a couple of times a week in Houston, where he settled four years ago. Mike and Svenja divorced when Elias was young, but both were prominent in his upbringing.
Elias’ game developed rapidly, Mike recalled, and he was the youngest of 13 chosen from 50-55 kids for a German age-group team. Known as “E” around Gonzaga, Elias was given another moniker by his father because his first name was fairly common in Germany.
“Elias John Michael, that’s his name,” Mike said. “Johnny is his grandfather’s name. When he was playing, in order for him to hear me from the sideline I called him Johnny. Whenever he heard Johnny he knew it was me. I’d be in the stands yelling ‘Johnny’ and people were telling me, ‘We don’t have any Johnnys on our team.’ ”
As Elias grew older, he played on a lower-level club team in Speyer and made certain that he retained his eligibility so he could play in the U.S. if an opportunity arose. Harris’ name came up when Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, who played professionally in Germany, was talking with one of his contacts, a friend who coached a team in a town near Speyer.
Lloyd was on a plane for Germany a few days later.
“He was super athletic, had the ability to put the ball on the floor and he kind of had a scorer’s mentality,” Lloyd said.
Gonzaga had an opening at the ‘4’ position with Austin Daye bypassing his last two seasons of eligibility. Harris committed to Gonzaga sight unseen while drawing interest from Cincinnati, Washington, Villanova and others. Mike Harris offered his opinion, but wanted to make sure Elias made his own decision. Harris knew he’d made the right choice after his campus visit.
“Tommy was phenomenal,” Elias said. “He came over twice. UW tried a little bit, they called once in a while, but they didn’t build up a relationship like I had with Tommy.”
Harris had immediate success, helped in part by veteran guards Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray. Both were good passers who required defensive attention. Harris produced big numbers (14.9 points, 7.1 rebounds) and soon his name was listed on NBA mock drafts.
That meant he would have to make another big decision. Mike thought Elias should try to go pro. He knew his son’s game had holes but every prospect has some flaw in the scouts’ eyes. Lloyd said the feedback from NBA personnel was Harris would probably be a late first-round or second-round selection.
Harris opted to return. “I didn’t feel like I was fully developed as a player and something inside me told me that it wasn’t the smartest move to go,” he said.
Harris had a bumpy, injury plagued sophomore season, but as his health improved late in the regular season so did his statistics, including two strong games in the NCAA tournament.
He’s already told GU coaches and his father that he won’t discuss the NBA until Gonzaga’s season ends.
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Harris entered this season much lighter than the 245 pounds he carried last year. He declined to play on the German national team, instead spending time on conditioning and honing his game last summer.
“Being here year-round has made him more part of the program,” Few said. “He’s engaged and dialed into what we’re doing.”
It shows, even if it’s not fully reflected in his stats (13.2 points, 8.2 rebounds). Nine of his 18 career double-doubles have come this season.
“We talked about setting a standard for your effort and reaching it consistently,” Lloyd said. “Everybody wants a player to jump from 15 points to 22, but it doesn’t always happen. He’s doing so many more winning things for us.”
Harris feels comfortable in Spokane, he’s on course to graduate in May 2013 in sports management and he sees progression on the floor.
“I’ve learned how to play basketball,” he said. “I understand what to do on the court, how to read the game, things I couldn’t do my freshman or sophomore year.”
Mike has attended several games, but he often watches GU contests on television. He finds himself hollering at the screen, instructing “Johnny” to try a certain move or to pull up and shoot.
“Where I work, most people know he plays for Gonzaga and they have ‘Go Zags’ banners up,” Mike said. “I try to explain that you don’t know what kind of feeling it is inside to sit in front of the TV and see him play.
“I can’t describe it. It’s such a good feeling, especially when my brothers call: ‘Nephew looked pretty good, didn’t he?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, he did.’ ”