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 outweigh 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, during 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 a 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—and having a earned his degree—Harris, a former McDonald’s All-American and Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball who starred at point guard for Memphis 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. 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 stories that parallel to his life with athletes. As a result, 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 High and Memphis State star.
Drafted with the third overall pick by Golden State 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. 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.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are obtained firsthand by the author. Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport and contributor for Bleacher Report. To reach Johnson, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.