Gone, never to be forgotten
Chicago streetball legend Billy 'The Kid' Harris passes away
"Between the ages of 16-30, there is no player that could ever beat me. Jordan, Doc, Bird, Oscar, Magic, any of 'em. I would have f----- them up. I'd give them 22 points in a game to 24. They would never beat me." -- Billy Harris
If Ben Wilson is the most beloved and significant basketball player in the city ever to pass away, then (with no disrespect to George Mikan or Johnny "Red" Kerr) Billy Harris has to be a close second.
The man called "The Kid," who for more than 40 years scripted Chicago's basketball history and was recognized by his peers as perhaps the greatest playground basketball player in the history of the game, passed away.
For those who know, just know. Now the sadness is knowing that "know" has become a "knew." Past tense. As in, he is no longer here.
And I knew Billy Harris. Not like his wife or his daughter Deanese Williams-Harris, who writes for the Tribune, or any of his other six kids or eight step-grandchildren. Not like the guys who had the honor of playing against him; or those who grew up witnessing his pre-Jordan, Jordanesque shows; not like Sylvester Monroe, who chronicled parts of Harris' life in the pages of Newsweek (1986) and later in his critically acclaimed book, "Brothers."
I knew Billy differently. It was because of him that I gained a complete understanding, appreciation and passion for the difference between the game of basketball and the culture of basketball. And I've always believed without that, I never would have been able to write about the game. Not from the vantage point I have enjoyed.
I knew his game without ever seeing him play at his peak, in his prime. I grew up hearing the stories as a kid, at every park we played at throughout the city. South Side, West Side, LaClaire, Navy Pier. He was the god looking over all of us. The ghetto legend, urban holiness. The mythical character who actually lived; a figure no one else could ever become, not on their best days. In an age when NBA legends like Mark Aguirre and Timmy Hardaway and Derrick Rose -- and supreme streetball legends like Lamar Mundane and Brian Leach and Michael Herman -- came after him, Harris still remained, to his death, the "best ever" from this city never to touch an NBA court. To never see his dream arrive.
Leading the city in scoring for three years while at Dunbar High School meant nothing. The 24 points per game while in college (Northern Illinois) meant less. The folklore inspired by things he apparently did to Jerry Sloan (while trying out for the Bulls) and Doug Collins (when NIU played Illinois State) when playing against them, even on this day, mean nothing. The true legacy of Billy Harris' life -- not just game -- can be mentally absorbed here, in this excerpt from a Slam magazine piece I wrote in 1998:
"When The Kid dies, his headstone should read, 'The Best There Ever Was, The Best That Ever Will Be.' ... I remember that statement, because at the time I hadn't seen Billy Harris play yet. I had simply heard the stories. The streets never lie. In search of Billy Harris, I found one thing extraordinarily eerie, almost unreal. I'm searching for the one story that will make Billy's legend an honest one. I'm seeking that one player who outplayed Billy, got him for 50. I want a bad game where he didn't come through, that game where he lost some of his shine, a bad shooting night, a missed jumper to win a game with (literally) money on the line. I'm looking for one segment of the downfall. Just one.
"'You won't find it,' Ed 'C' Curry, Chicago tournament legend who played against Harris acknowledges. 'The SOB never had a bad game and he didn't lose. I can say that I have seen every great ballplayer that's ever played in this city -- played against most of them -- and there is no one like Billy. There's no one in the pros today like Billy. He was one of a kind, and he didn't care. He didn't care about the other four players that played with him, and he didn't care about the five guys that used to try to guard him. People think Michael Jordan is one of a kind? No. Billy Harris was one of a kind.'"
Even the Web site The MeccaOfBasketball.com in 2008 recognized this by once posting: "Billy 'The Kid' Harris is by far the best Streetball Legend/Pro Player [from any area in Chicago]."
He was the reason some people from Chicago who were in their 30s when Michael Jordan arrived said, "We've seen this all before," during MJ's career.
It just hadn't been witnessed before at the highest level, if we are to consider the NBA or professional basketball the highest level of competition. The beautiful thing about Billy Harris is that he'd be the first to tell you that going through what he had to go through in this city, through this concrete jungle where he became a one-man dynasty for an entire generation, was tougher than anything the NBA could have ever thrown at him.
In the League, they just didn't want him; in the streets, they wanted him dead. His favorite saying -- his motto -- that he'd remind anyone of when it came to his basketball life: "I played against cats that would rather kill you than let you beat them. And I found a way to destroy them."
A handshake or check from David Stern meant nothing ... to him.
Billy said something to me once somewhere in the middle of that three-month period we spent on the Slam interview. He said, "Now I ask you, do I have to die before (anyone) cares about me? Do I have to be almost dead before anyone holds their hand out and says, 'Billy, you earned this. Here's a little something to help you.'"
I've since discovered that sadly, in his case, the answer is: Yes. Yes, because brothas like Billy Harris, even when given the treatment of Rakim, never get the due they've earned. Their contributions never fully appreciated, legacy never fully documented, story never fully told. It's life as an afterthought. But for those who know ... they know. And they know for life.
The second most important player in the history of Chicago basketball died Sunday. Now -- as a city -- we have to figure out the right way to say goodbye.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.