To the legendary Billy “The Kid” Harris, every court with a basket was similar. Madison Square Garden. Chicago Stadium. Chick Evans Field House. The west-side playgrounds in Chicago. Those venues were all his personal OK Corral stage. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday never would have had a chance. Not against “The Kid.”
The date is January, 2001, and the event was the inaugural Northern Illinois University Men’s Basketball Alumni Game in Chick Evans Field House. It’s 10 a.m. and the old-young Huskies are going full court – Hall of Famers such as Matt Hicks and Willie Hanson, plus Don Russell, Art Rohlman, Chuck Schramm, Andre Williams, Ephraim Eaddy, Ron Lindfors, Shawn Thrower, etc., plus two player-coach “ringers” named Bill Finucane and Mike Korcek.
From the first possession, I heard that familiar voice: “You can’t guard me. You can’t defend me. You can’t stop me.” I glanced over to my buddy Finucane and we both smiled. Bill was one of head coach Tom Jorgensen’s team managers in the day. The clock moved back 30 years that morning to the halcyon early 1970s. The classic Billy “The Kid” we all knew and loved was back in his true, original Reader’s Digest unforgettable character form.
With speckles of gray in his trimmed 'Fro and at age 50, “The Kid” smoked everybody for a game-high 24 points – including 18 in the first half – and then the final two, clutch, in-your-face jump shots that tied the score at 65 (because of a scoring error earlier in the game, we decided to be safe and leave the first alumni game a draw).
Nobody wanted to win more than Billy. At halftime, the younger guys like Eaddy and Williams asked me: “Mike, who is this old guy talking trash?” Before I could fully explain the legacy, Billy grabbed the PA microphone and told everyone in the building: “I’m back!”
Turn the clock to February, 2002, and “The Last Hurrah” at the field house when 6,000-plus spectators, fans, men and women who wore the NIU uniform or served valuable roles in the program said goodbye to “The Chick” before the move to the new Convocation Center. For most, to say the least, it was an emotional farewell. During the past player recognition, Billy proudly showed up in a striking purple suit and a tear in his eye. Even “The Kid” had feelings.
Billy and I first met in 1969-70. He was Jorgy’s blue-chip recruit and I was a senior working for the original NIU Hall of Fame sports information director, the late Bud Nangle. Harris played in a celebrity-filled Huskie Pup team with the soon-to-be Wimbledon tennis twins Tim and Tom Gullikson, plus Gordon “Doc” Nuber (now the team orthopod with the Chicago Bears). Harris lived up to his Chicago Public League props as a frosh with a team-leading 24.6 point-per-game average and a high-game of 44. We were playing the Notre Dame’s freshmen team in South Bend, Ind., that winter, when I witnessed the future sans Doc Brown and Marty McFly. Off the dribble from the elbow, somehow Billy beat three defenders for a vintage “Kid” layup – one-on-three – all while going between his legs with the ball and behind the back. The refs called traveling. To be honest, the two men in the stripes probably never had seen such a move at that time. Neither had I.
When I talked to former NIU teammate and assistant coach Art Rohlman about Billy, I asked him to describe Harris with only one word. “Entertainer,” Rohlman replied. Interesting and astute answer in context, Art. Years ago, I was reading a story about Jerry Lucas, the Ohio State All-America, 1960 Olympic basketball champion and Top 50 all-time NBA performer. One of the game’s greatest power forwards who starred on the New York Knicks with Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschure, Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier, Lucas rarely dunked or did anything flashy. In NBA terms, Lucas was workman-like, hit the boards hard, distributed the ball well for a big man and shot layups or high-percentage jumpers.
“The Kid?” The exact opposite. Billy demonstrated the basic fundamentals, but always added the French pastry. He was unique, an original, an artiste with the ball. With apologies to the NBA’s Pat Riley, Billy invented one-on-one “Showtime.” In the summer of 1979, I saw Billy in his prime at the Chicago State Summer League and “The Kid” nuked the area Prep Player of the Year before a packed gym. One of the early ball-handling lessons in basketball, of course, is protect your dribble and keep the ball low. Not Billy. He had that waist-high, cross-over dribble and dared – dared – anyone to take a stab at the ball in the playground, at Dunbar Vocational, at NIU, in the pros, etc.
“Billy had serious game from A to Z,” recalled Rohlman, one of Jorgensen’s best on-ball defenders. “You know, he was deceptive on the court. Some guys didn’t realize how explosive off the dribble Billy was. You thought you were right on him and he’d jump right over you. He could handle it, rebound, play defense, and still was a ultimate showman.”
Of the three NIU individual Hall of Famers and four pro draft selections on that historic 21-4 Huskie quintet that upset No. 5 Indiana and cracked the Top 20 in 1971-72, Harris probably made the biggest adjustments to his game. At Dunbar, Billy averaged 30-plus points a game and once scored 57 points in a game. Fellow Public Leaguer, former Iowa star, and ex-NIU assistant Kenny Arnold remembered how he was backpedaling on defense with another defender and once Harris crossed halfcourt, he canned a 40-footer.
Imagine – as his Dunbar coach Jim Foreman or Jorgy have said for years – ”The Kid” playing with the three-point basket. In his ABA days with the San Diego Conquistadors, Billy made The Sporting News’ quasi-facetious All-Pump Team (“...for those players who shoot far beyond the call of duty”). "There was never a 25-footer that Billy didn’t like,” Rohlman joked.
“Many people don’t realize how hard and long Billy had to work on his game and fit into our system,” Jorgensen said. “First of all, he’s playing with a 6-10 All-America in Jim Bradley upfront. Then, he’s told to get the ball to our best perimeter shooter in Jerry Zielinski. His other guard is Larry Jackson, who was just as quick and as athletic as Billy. His first year on the varsity, he didn’t play as much as he wanted, but he learned. We wanted to push the ball and nobody did it better than Billy.”
Yet, in 1972-73, both Bradley and Harris made major All-America teams from a so-called mid-major program. Think about that. The Boston Celtics’ Red Auerbach scouted both personally twice. Think about that.
The highlight of Billy’s sophomore year at NIU came at Bloomington, Ind., when “The Kid” got into his first major college shootout with then a career-best 32 points against Indiana’s George McGinnis (45 points) in a 113-112 setback. With Bradley becoming eligible the next winter, Huskie Nation looked at 1971-72 with great expectations.
“Billy was electric,” said NIU grad Rick Cerrone, the former public relations director of the New York Yankees. “We saw him play that great game in The Garden (Madison Square Garden) with 35 points against Long Beach State. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.” Cerrone also recalled the 50-footer Harris made in pregame before the 1972-73 home opener. “Only Billy Harris could do that. The crowd went bonkers.” Nangle once remarked: “Things were never, never dull with Billy.”
Did Harris challenge Michael Jordan to one-on-one? Yes. Did Billy say some outrageous things? Yes. Did “The Kid” respect The Game? Yes. Did the game burn in his soul all of his life? Yes.
“I think the thing that really bothered Billy was the lack of recognition for his great, great skills,” Rohlman said. “Skill-wise, he was like [LSU's] Pete Marvich and [our] Jim Bradley – way, way ahead of his time.”
Do the modern-day NBA players appreciate “The Kid?” Especially a fellow Public League product as current star Derrick Rose? I don’t know. But in those turbulent late 1960s, early 1970s and the rage, change, riots, assassinations, Vietnam, Billy Harris helped bring the inner-city style, the Black Game into the mainstream culture.
“The Kid” will not be forgotten.
• Mike Korcek is a former Northern Illinois University sports information director. His historical perspective on NIU athletics appears periodically in the Daily Chronicle.