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NIU hoops legend dies

Billy “The Kid” Harris – renowned as the most prolific shooting guard in Northern Illinois men’s basketball history, a collegiate peer of Doug Collins, Brian Winters, George McGinnis, Ed Ratleff, Raymond Lewis and others, plus a brash, outspoken Chicago playground legend – died Sunday.

Harris suffered a massive stroke Saturday and died Sunday at Advocate Illinois Masonic Hospital in Chicago. He was 58 years old. Memorial services are pending.

The NIU Hall of Fame member was billed as “The Greatest Playground Baller Ever” on the cover of Slam magazine in December 1998. He starred at Chicago Dunbar in the late 1960s and NIU from 1969-73. 

His basketball career was featured prominently in celebrations of the inner-city game at the DuSable Museum of African American History and in the “Soul of the Game” display at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1998.

The 6-foot-2, 183-pound guard brought the city game into the mainstream during his three varsity years under coach Tom Jorgensen (1970-73). As a senior, Harris averaged 24.1 points a game and finished 22nd in NCAA Division I scoring.

As a junior, Harris (17.8 ppg) started on a Huskies team that went 21-4, cracked the nation’s major-college Top 20 for the first and only time in school history, upset No. 5-ranked Indiana (85-71) and first-year coach Bobby Knight, and took South Carolina to the wire before 18,462 fans at the Chicago Stadium. 

That freewheeling NIU team wound up No. 3 in NCAA team offense – averaging 95.2 points a game. – and eventually posted four pro draft picks – All-America center Jim Bradley (NBA / ABA), cornerman Jerry “Z” Zielinski (ABA), guard Larry Jackson (NBA) and Harris.

Harris, who averaged 30-plus points a game at Dunbar while making All-City and All-State, loved Jorgensen’s push-the-ball attack. Nicknamed “The Kid” for his hair-trigger jump shot, few in the game owned the individual offensive package that Harris perfected.

He had a high, crossover dribble along with mid-air double-clutch shots, classic finger rolls and a smooth 25-foot pull-up jumpers.

Former NIU teammate and team captain Art Rohlman (1968-71) once was asked to describe Harris in one word. “Entertainer,” Rohlman responded. “Billy was phenomenal. A joy to watch in a game or practice. Skill-wise, he was like [LSU’s] Pete Maravich and [our] Jim Bradley – way, way ahead of his time. Yes, Billy would talk on the court, but he had the complete game to back it up and did.”

Jorgensen, a Chicago product and an All-City prep in the 1950s, understood the times.

“There’s a fine line between playing with reckless abandon and playing with freedom,” the Hall of Fame Huskies coach said in 1971-72. “You’re liable to see Billy Harris put the ball between his legs twice and behind his back three times on the way to the basket when he doesn’t have to do it. I might say something. But if I never let him do it all, the game wouldn’t be as much fun for him.”

Harris completed his NIU playing days with 1,331 points in 73 varsity appearances for an 18.2 points per game career average. As a senior – playing in the same lineup with Bradley – Harris reached double-digit points 24 times in 25 games, the 20s 13 times, the 30s four times and the 40s twice. 

In a three-game stretch, Harris torched Ball State (41 points), nationally ranked Long Beach State (35) at Madison Square Garden in New York, and Virginia Commonwealth (42) for 118 points, an average of 39.3 points a game. 

In that stretch, Harris shot 55-of-87 (.632) from the floor 15 years before the advent of the three-point basket (1986-87). 

Urban legend and the Internet say Harris hit 16 of his first 18 shots in the Ball State contest and a documented 16-of 21 for 32 points in the opening half en route to 41. 

“I felt we could stop him better than we did,” then Long Beach State coach Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian said. “We put two of our best defensive players on him and figured we could hold him to 15 points ... but he riddled us. That was the thing that surprised us about Northern. Harris just seemed to score at will.”

Harris is survived by his wife, Marianne Tidwell, six children and eight step-children, plus two dozen grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

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