Father: 'You can't tell me that's not a miracle'

Updated: July 2, 2005, 10:48 PM ET
Associated Press

GARY, Ind. -- Valparaiso's basketball arena is only a few hundred feet from the local hospital's emergency room, but it may as well have been the moon all those days Kenny Harris lay frighteningly still.

Harris
Harris

Unconscious, he didn't so much as blink, let alone move one of those massive feet or hands. He showed no sign of knowing his parents had been at his side for days, that teammates and friends were crowding the waiting room and thousands of people he'd never even met were praying for his recovery.

Doctors couldn't explain why the seemingly healthy Division I center had collapsed and his heart had stopped. Worse, they could make no promises for his future.

"They didn't know," said Kenneth Jolly, Harris' father. "[But] I knew he was going to wake up. Always believed it. I raised a strong young man."

Two months after his April 11 collapse, Harris walked out of the hospital. His speech is still garbled, he's only a shadow of the player so big he was dubbed "Baby Shaq" and there are long hours of rehab ahead.

But he's alive, proof to his family, friends and teammates that miracles really do happen.

"You can't tell me that's not a miracle," Jolly said, pointing to his son. "You can't tell me God didn't do that."

Stories about Harris were spreading across northwest Indiana almost from the time he got to high school. He was big. No, make that massive. At 6-foot-10 and 350 pounds, he was an immovable force in the middle, a guy who could change the game just by stepping onto the court.

"I heard about him, geez, when I was a sophomore or junior in high school," said Valparaiso forward Dan Oppland, who grew up in St. Louis. "Baby Shaq. That's what I remember, Baby Shaq. ... When I saw him, he was bigger than Shaq. He definitely lived up to that name."

There was more to Harris than bulk, though. He was a skillful passer and an unselfish player, never hesitating to kick the ball out if he spotted an open teammate. He could shoot, too, showing surprising range.

In his junior season at Bishop Noll High School in Hammond, he shot 71.1 percent and averaged almost 24 points and 13.3 rebounds. He set a school single-game scoring record with 45 points.

The doctors walked in and ... they did not know if Kenny was going to make it. We said, 'Absolutely not. We're not having that.'
Family pastor Rev. Maurice White

"In open gym, he's crossed somebody over and hit a 3," Oppland said. "A guy his size doing that? That's pretty impressive."

For all his size and talent, Harris is as soft as a teddy bear. Humble, with a sweet baby face and a contagious smile, he's quick to disarm anyone who's intimidated by him. If a teammate is down, Harris is the first to try to find something to make him laugh. Little kids terrified of his size soon climb on him like he's a personal playground.

"I expected he was going to be some intimidating big guy," Valpo teammate Seth Colclasure said, "and he wasn't that at all."

Harris was forced to transfer from Bishop Noll High School before his senior season. Jolly had been on sick leave for several months, and the family could no longer afford the $5,000-plus tuition at the private Catholic school.

Bishop Noll didn't oppose his transfer to nearby Griffith High School, citing the family's financial troubles. But the Indiana High School Athletic Association declared Harris ineligible, saying his transfer was for athletic, not financial, reasons.

So Harris took the IHSAA to court. After missing the first two games, he got a restraining order allowing him to play. Finally, in early February 2003, a judge said Harris could play the rest of the year.

Despite the distractions, he averaged 17.4 points and 10.5 rebounds a game and was runner-up for 2003 Indiana Mr. Basketball.

"He was like a man among boys," said Valparaiso guard Ali Berdiel, who played against Harris in high school.

Harris' senior season ended with a broken foot. During the idle weeks when he was recuperating, he put on weight. A lot of it.

By the time he got to Valparaiso, he weighed more than 400 pounds.

"Kenny was very much wanting to [lose weight] and knew he had to do that in order to perform to his full ability," Valparaiso coach Homer Drew said. "We met with trainers, even with a nutritionist to find out exactly what's the best food. And we had a strength coach. We worked him down slowly so it wasn't all at one time."

But other injuries cropped up. The summer after his freshman season, he had gall bladder surgery. Last December, he needed surgery for a herniated disc in his back.

"Each obstacle, each hurdle that came, Kenny really handled that well," Drew said. "I love that confidence, that 'We'll get it done and we'll move on.'"

By this past April, Harris was finally healthy. His weight was down to about 300 pounds, his back was strong and he couldn't wait for next season. So much so that when Jolly called his son -- Harris goes by his mother's maiden name -- on the morning of April 11, he cautioned him not to overdo it.

"The NCAA Tournament [had just finished] and he was mad because he wasn't playing," Jolly said. "He was working extra hard to try and get there next year."

Harris doesn't remember collapsing. Doesn't remember anything from that day, in fact. His teammates and coaches, though, will never forget it.

During a supervised workout in Valparaiso's weight room on April 11, Harris collapsed and began having seizures. At some point, his heart stopped.

I knew he was going to wake up. Always believed it. I raised a strong young man.
Father Kenneth Jolly

Bobby Brooks, Valparaiso's strength and conditioning coach, called 911 and sent another player to get the team trainer to help with CPR. While they waited for the ambulance, a defibrillator was used.

Harris was rushed to Porter hospital, the next street over from the quiet campus. Harris' parents arrived soon after, as did the Rev. Maurice White, the family's pastor at Christ Baptist Church in Gary.

"The doctors walked in and ... they did not know if Kenny was going to make it," White said. "We said, 'Absolutely not. We're not having that.' We asked if we could have prayer and while we were praying, Kenny jumped three times. The first time, the doctors said, 'Hmmm.' The second time, they said, 'Well, maybe.'

"The third time, they said it's a possibility there could be something spiritual going on," he said.

White and Jolly have been best friends for almost 30 years, since their days working in the Gary steel mills. They've laughed together, raised their sons together and, for the last few years, worshipped together at Christ Baptist.

After listening to White bug him for years to come back to church, Jolly relented about five years ago. He brought his son with him, and Harris was baptized last summer.

Four days before he collapsed, Harris got a tattoo on his right shoulder: A cross and a basketball, cradled in God's hands.

"This is our home," Jolly said simply, looking around Christ Baptist. "I always preached to my son, 'You've got to have faith in God. You've got to believe in God.'"

For three weeks, though, faith was all Harris' family and friends had.

While doctors ran test after test, Harris remained comatose. He was moved to the brain trauma center at the University of Chicago on April 20, but doctors there couldn't find answers, either.

The cause of Harris' collapse remains unknown; all doctors have found is that he was on medication for high blood pressure and he had heart arrhythmia.

"That's all they've been able to diagnose," Drew said. "They've run many different tests but they have not been able to find, 'This is the cause for it.'"

Valparaiso, a Lutheran school located about 70 miles east of Chicago, is small, only about 4,000 students, and Harris' collapse rocked the tight-knit campus. His teammates tried to get on with the business of living, resuming their offseason workouts and getting ready for exams.

But thoughts of Harris -- and fears for his future -- were never far from their minds. Catching themselves referring to him in the past tense, they'd quickly correct themselves.

"Yeah, you do kind of ask, 'Why?'" Jim Hooper, one of Harris' roommates, said in late April, when Harris was still in a coma. "Why are all these things happening to him, all in a row and all piling up at one time? I guess that's just the way life is sometimes

"If there was something we could do to take some of the pain off of him right now," Hooper added, his voice breaking, "I know every one of us would do it."

Finally, almost a month after Harris' collapse, there was good news.

On May 6, the Jollys announced their son had regained consciousness and was out of intensive care. Five days later, he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for physical, occupational and speech therapy.

From there, the progress was swift -- though not always as swift as Harris might have liked.

"One morning, he got up at five in the morning and [the nurses] had to catch him because he was running down the hall dribbling a basketball," Jolly said.

If there was something we could do to take some of the pain off of him right now, I know every one of us would do it.
Teammate Jim Hooper

Another day, doctors allowed him to play basketball for about an hour.

"He was rusty," Jolly said. "And he got mad."

On June 16, two months and five days after he collapsed, Harris went home.

"I feel good now," he said, his voice a little slurred but still understandable. "It's over, and I don't have to deal with it. Now I can get back to the classroom and to basketball."

Whether he'll be able to do that is still uncertain.

Harris is doing therapy three to five times a week, and cardiologists are still trying to determine what, if any, physical limitations he'll have in the future. He continues to take the blood pressure medication, and a defibrillator is implanted in the left side of his chest.

But he walks without problems, and his mind is as sharp as it ever was.

"He can only get better because he's young," Jolly said. "He wouldn't be happy if he couldn't play basketball. But he's happy that he's alive."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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