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June 18, 2010Tennessee assistant coach Tony Jones was grieving the sudden loss of his father last summer when he noticed the text message on his phone.
The message amazed him. And so did the identity of the sender.
Tobias Harris was a heralded 6-foot-8 forward about to begin his senior year at Half Hollow Hills West High School in Dix Hills, N.Y. He hadn't yet announced his intention to play for the Volunteers. Heck, he hadn't even made his official visit to Tennessee's campus.
But that didn't stop Harris from sending a text message after learning that Jones' father, legendary Detroit Southwestern coach Clarence "Sonny" Jones, had suffered a fatal blow to the head during a robbery.
Jones is more than twice Harris' age, but the coach and player already had developed a friendship through the recruiting process. As soon as he heard the tragic news, Harris sent a message expressing his condolences.
"That meant everything to me," Jones said. "I've been doing this for 17 years, and you go through a lot of individuals who you recruit, who play for you and who you coach.
"I'd say he's the most special person I've ever been associated with as far as a student-athlete.''
Harris knew how to respond because he had personal experience with tragedy. He had grown up playing basketball with Morgan Childs, who eventually would become Harris' best friend. But Childs died of a rare blood disorder a few years ago at the age of 16.
"I'd lost a best friend, so I kind of knew what he was going through," Harris said.
Instead of allowing the pain of Childs' death to derail his dreams, Harris used his late friend as inspiration. Harris eventually matured into one of the most versatile big men in his age group. The guy who once wasn't even the best basketball player in his family will arrive at Tennessee as the nation's No. 2 power forward and No. 7 overall prospect in the incoming freshman class.
Harris' dad, Torrel, said Childs' death "was probably the turning point" in his son's career.
"He knew how much Morgan loved basketball," Torrel Harris said. "Now Morgan was gone from the world. He probably felt like, 'I have an opportunity to play the game of basketball.' And here's Morgan, who's 16 years old and who has passed away and who loved the game of basketball.
"Tobias pretty much took Morgan's spirit and said, 'Morgan, even though you're gone from the world, I'm going to take your spirit onto me and we're going to ride this basketball all the way to the top.' "
Harris, who also was a McDonald's All-America selection, had a long way to go. For much of his childhood, he couldn't even win a game of one-on-one against his sister. Then again, his sister was no ordinary player.
Tesia Harris would go on to play for Delaware, where she earned third-team All-Colonial Athletic Association honors two years ago and ranked second on her team in scoring last season. She is transferring to St. John's and will sit out the 2010-11 season.
"They used to call us Reggie and Cheryl Miller, I guess because Cheryl Miller always beat her brother until he got older," Tesia Harris said.
Harris said he didn't start beating his sister consistently until he got to high school.
"Those games would get pretty physical," he said. "She doesn't like to lose, and neither do I. It was tough, losing to your own sister."
Harris rarely loses anymore, whether he's playing his sister or anyone else. He earned Mr. Basketball honors in the state of New York this past season after averaging 25 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks to lead Half Hollow Hills West to the Class AA state championship game. As a junior, Harris averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds to lead Long Island Lutheran to a Class A state title.
Although he's best-suited for power forward, Harris also handles the ball well enough to fit in at shooting guard or small forward on offense. He has the ability to score in the post or from the perimeter.
"I'm probably a 'three' man in a 'four' man's body," Harris said.
Harris' versatility makes him an ideal fit for Tennessee's up-tempo offense. Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, believes Harris can inherit the same type of "point forward" role that Dane Bradshaw filled for Tennessee in previous seasons. Bradshaw led the Volunteers and ranked seventh in the SEC at 4.7 assists per game as a senior.
"Tobias would be good in any system. He's a great player and potentially could be an elite player. But you definitely can see how he can do some really good things in the Tennessee offense."
Jones also draws parallels to versatile former Tennessee forwards such as Bradshaw and Tyler Smith while discussing the way Harris fits into the Volunteers' system. He also uses a much more famous name to point out the extraordinary impact Harris could make in upcoming seasons.
"I can equate him to Grant Hill," Jones said. "He's got all the bases covered just like Grant Hill as far as his ability to perform on the basketball floor, how coachable he is, what type of teammate he can be and what type of person he is off the floor."
Of course, it can be tough to live up to those types of comparisons, and Harris had one notable slip at the end of his otherwise exemplary high school career.
Half Hollow Hills West was well on its way to a 71-53 loss to Christian Brothers Academy in the Class AA state championship game when Harris picked up his fourth foul late in the third quarter. After he reportedly slammed the ball and fell to the floor while complaining the call, Harris received a technical foul that knocked him out of the game. Reports suggest that Harris snatched the second-place medal from around his neck at the postgame ceremony and threw the attached ribbon to the floor.
But Harris said the medal actually had fallen off before he received it. Harris said he walked over to the team bench and dropped the ribbon because he had no interest in a second-place award, but he noted that he didn't throw it. Whatever the case, Harris admitted he made a mistake.
"It wasn't really smart," he said, "but it was just tough because we'd come so far and had worked so hard to go out like that."
The incident resulted in another conversation between Harris and Jones. Only this time, Jones was the one picking up the phone.
"I told him that you're a young man, but right now you're in an adult arena with adult expectations and you have to understand the spotlight is going to be on you and people are going to judge you on your actions," Jones said. "It can be poor body language. It can be reacting poorly to being disqualified from a game, like he was. He has to be able to hold his composure because he not only represents himself, he represents his family and he now represents the University of Tennessee, so you have to do all those things in an exemplary manner.
"He's such a great kid and he's so humble. He apologized. He said, 'I'm sorry, Coach. That will never happen again. It was just an emotional moment. We hadn't lost a game all year, and we were battling for a state championship.' His emotions in the heat of the moment got to him right then."
By the time Jones called Harris after the state championship game, they had long since understood they could count on each other through just about anything.
"He wasn't just a coach trying to recruit me," Harris said. "He was a coach who was like a father figure to me also."
Jones and Harris already have reached out to each other amid tragedy and adversity. For at least the next couple of years, their friendship should feature much more celebration than commiseration.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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