Fran Harris has a way with words
Former Texas standout is finalist for 'Good Morning America' advice position
Her dolls had to listen. Her mom and older sister did, too. Same with her elementary-school classmates. A little girl named Fran Harris always had opinions and advice -- for people and her toys.
"My sister is 7½ years older, and she was the one who started saying I should be a public speaker," Harris said, laughing. "So I pretty much just never shut up."
Now Harris, the former Texas standout who was part of the WNBA's first championship team, could end up advising people through the biggest forum she has ever had.
Harris is a finalist to be named advice guru for "Good Morning America." A process that started with 15,000 entries is now down to a quartet. This is, of course, not Harris' first appearance in a "Final Four." She was a senior on Texas' 1986 NCAA championship team that finished 35-0.
This is the 25th anniversary of that outstanding collegiate team, and Harris looks back at her time on the 40 acres and considers it an invaluable experience.
"I went to college as a 17-year-old, and it meant I was able to, at such a young age, rub elbows with very successful businesspeople," Harris said. "I got to play in a first-class program from a basketball standpoint, but some of the people who watched us were executives at major corporations and they became mentors.
"I was exposed to what it would take to be successful after I had made my last jump shot; that came very early. I tell players that the time to be preparing for your life after basketball is right now when you're still playing. Don't wait until it's over and then try to figure it all out."
Harris, a native of Texas, was such a chatty kid in first grade that her mom was called into the school. Her mom deduced part of the problem: Harris was far ahead academically and done with her work quickly, which gave her even more time to talk. So she was moved up a grade, although that didn't necessarily make her less conversational.
What perhaps wasn't evident to teachers then is obvious now: Harris' love of communication was actually a major asset, one she has parlayed into a career as a broadcaster, speaker, life coach, fitness expert and entrepreneur.
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"My siblings were older, so I got a lot of alone time with my mom," Harris said. "And when she got tired of it, I would go talk to my dolls. Then my sister had me reciting things like 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' and 'It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.'
"I realized that it didn't matter if you didn't have anyone else to talk to, you could still talk."
Harris was thus equipped to handle the relative isolation and boredom that players used to have to endure when they competed overseas in the days before technology revolutionized communication and entertainment.
"There were so few jobs back then; you were going to Japan or Italy, and there was a great appreciation for what we did have," Harris said. "Then I was away from playing for several years before the ABL and then the WNBA started. Seeing all that, I thought it was the beginning of several of things we'd talked about at Texas."
Harris competed in Switzerland to get herself ready for the WNBA, and she was with the Houston Comets franchise in 1997 when it won the first WNBA title. The Comets are no more, folding after the 2008 season, and Harris understands that's also a hard part of the business world. Sometimes, things do fail. But the league itself has survived.
"People don't always look at the game from a business standpoint, which I always have," she said. "It was cool to be a part of that first season when there was nostalgia and so much emotion; you'd see people at games who were the foremothers, if you will, who'd made it possible for us. Every game had more to do with history than just what was happening on the court.
"It wasn't about the money, then. It was about being there and being part of it. But I was also looking at the business model, and what it could evolve into."
Her pathway toward a professional hoops career had gotten a boost not just from her time with the Longhorns, but at South Oak Cliff High in Dallas where she was initially coached by Gary Blair, now with Texas A&M.
"The bar of excellence for me in basketball was set with Gary Blair," Harris said. "South Oak Cliff did things most schools in Dallas were not doing. We had good uniforms, we played in high-quality tournaments. He built that program like a college program.
"So it wasn't such a stretch when I started looking at colleges, and what the standards would be in practices and games. Gary really studied colleges; he is a basketball junkie. And we mimicked those things he saw worked at that level."
Texas was among the handful of schools that set the standard for the rapidly developing world of women's college athletics in the 1980s. The Longhorns appeared poised to win the 1985 NCAA title, but were upset in the Sweet 16. They came back the next year and mowed through the competition in a way that's reminiscent of what the perfect teams from Tennessee (1998) and UConn (1995, 2002, '09, '10) have done in the past 15 years.
Harris could relate firsthand to what it takes to get through a season unscathed. While she's too busy to spend too many hours reminiscing, there are moments she will reflect back on that season.
"I have some reminders in my house about that time," Harris said. "Someone made a scrapbook of that entire season for us, which was just amazing -- every article that ran in our local papers.
"Sometimes, if I'm feeling a certain way, I go through it. And every basketball season takes me back to that. College is such a wonderful time in your life in many ways, and having my final year capped off with perfection, it's a phenomenal memory to have."
Still, as Harris says, she is always thinking about the future, too. During the brown-bag luncheons with corporate heads and speeches to the booster clubs when she was still at Texas, Harris' wheels were turning as to how all that could factor into her basketball and post-athletic careers.
As a motivational speaker, she addresses all different ages aiming for a wide range of goals. There's a story she often tells about the time she went shopping for a new outfit, and asked her mother how she liked it.
"She said, 'I'm not the one who has to wear it. Do you like it?'" Harris said. "It was something that always stayed with me, the need to value my own opinion."
Harris is so dynamic a personality, and has such strong connection with her audience, that she acknowledged it was a different hurdle to "sell" herself as advice guru when those she would be advising wouldn't be able to interact with her face-to-face.
"Part of the GMA application process was how well you could connect with people in a variety of mediums," she said. "For me, someone who really thrives on the energy of being with people, I knew I had to translate warmth and accessibility even when just interacting online. But I've enjoyed that challenge, too."
Harris also runs a basketball academy, in which fundamentals -- a part of the game she fears is eroding -- are stressed. She'll stay very active whether she ends up as the official GMA "advice guru." If she does win, she'll see it as one more "championship" that the lessons she gained from sports helped her attain.
"I want the women now to take better care of the game, on the professional level and the college level," Harris said. "I still feel that great sense of responsibility to the game."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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