It’s July 14 in a hot Madison La Follette High School gym and former Wisconsin Badger star and current Atlanta Hawk All-Star guard Devin Harris is having a lot of fun in a live full-court basketball game with youngsters of all ages. The kids at his camp, which focuses on basketball fundamentals such as shooting, passing, dribbling, defense, and rebounding as well as personal time and instruction from Mr. Harris, don’t seem to notice the 6’3” basketball star in their midst as they go up and down the court in their intense five-on-five competition.
A sweaty Harris soon plops down next to me on the sideline and I ask him if he wants to go around the corner and outside where the booming soundtrack that is belting out loud rap music to all four basketball courts is not quite as loud and will be more conducive to an interview.
“Yeah, we can do that ... Or, we can just stay right here and I can have them turn the music down for a bit. This is my camp, you know,” smiles Harris.
You have to be reminded that Harris is a NBA superstar because he blends so seamlessly into the group of 160 youths at the camp which is held in cooperation with Madison School & Community Recreation. Serving underprivileged youth through athletics and education is one of the primary initiatives of Harris’s “34 Ways to Assist Foundation.”
“This is my seventh year doing the camp here in Madison,” says Harris, who received the NBA's Community Assist Award in 2009 for his work with his charitable foundation "34 Ways to Assist." “I love the interaction with the kids. I see a lot of familiar faces every year but we get a lot of new kids, too. We have some talent out there. We have some kids with a lot of potential.”
Only 29 years old, Harris will be entering his ninth season in the NBA already after an excellent three-year career with the Badgers at UW. Harris helped the Badgers win two Big Ten regular-season titles his first two seasons and a Big Ten tournament title as a junior, when he was named the league's player of the year. With all of his basketball successes, it’s easy for a youngster to look at the physically gifted Harris and not realize how hard he had to work to get to where he is today.
“A lot of kids don’t get to see what happens behind the scenes; they just see the finished product,” Harris says. “A lot of the drills that we do here at camp with the kids, I tell them that those are the very same drills that I still do today when I’m working out. I tell the kids that you have to put the time in day in and day out if you want to reach a high level. There’s a lot of hard work involved. Everything is so detailed — from the form of your jump shot to dribbling with your head up. There are simple drills that I still do and we try to show them how to do it the right way.
“Some kids just want to score. But we teach them how to play team ball,” adds Harris, who was only the second player in Badger history to start every game as a freshman, sophomore, and junior and broke Michael Finley’s single-season scoring record with 624 points in 2003-04. “A lot of people can score. It’s the other things that coaches really look for when they are recruiting you and it will one day get you a scholarship.”
Since entering the NBA as the fifth overall pick in 2004, Harris has focused his efforts on giving youth help, guidance, and a safe place to go through his "34 Ways to Assist Foundation" in the Milwaukee, Madison, Dallas, and Salt Lake City communities.
“I’d like to set something up in Atlanta, too, down the road,” Harris says of the team he was traded to earlier this month. “Obviously, my focus is at home first and then we try to branch out from there.”
His 34 Ways To Assist Foundation provides an environment where kids can feel safe — a place where it’s not only about basketball. These clinics have a dual purpose, to raise money for charity as well as to educate kids on a variety of topics.
Harris has well-respected local coaches and teachers help lead the camp. Each camper receives an official camp jersey, goodies and prizes, and memorabilia for attending the camp day. The camp is part of Harris’s passion. Some professional athletes like to vacation and rest or do nothing after a long grueling season, but Harris keeps at it.
“You give your body a chance to rest after the season. The season is a marathon and then you give your nagging injuries a chance to heal,” Harris says. “But I still do like to keep busy — a lot of outdoorsy stuff — ride bikes, a lot of hiking.”
Since we last talked to Harris last summer, there has been a momentous event in his life. Harris now has a 10-month-old daughter, Charli, and is enjoying being a father quite a bit.
“I’m a dad now. It’s a change,” he smiles. “I don’t sleep as much as I used to. It’s great, though. It refocuses things. It puts the emphasis on the family. We’re actually expecting another child at the end of the next month.”
Are we looking at a couple of future basketball players?
“They’re both girls and I think I’d prefer volleyballers,” Harris smiles.
Harris didn’t have as much time in Madison as he would have liked this time to revisit his old stomping grounds, but he did get to go to dinner with UW Head Coach Bo Ryan. “We do it every year. He’s doing well. He’s a great coach,” Harris says.
Harris adds that he keeps up on everything Badgers while he’s on the road for the regular season.
“I watch the football team. I was really hoping they could have an undefeated season except for those two Hail Mary [passes],” Harris says. “The basketball team did really well, too. They are very consistent. It seems like they always get overlooked in the preseason and then they always do great. That’s a mark of a great coach.”
This off-season, Harris is looking forward to settling down in his new city, Atlanta. “It’s a great city. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of culture,” Harris says. “It’s always one of those cities when you’re traveling that you look forward to going to. I’m excited about the opportunity.
“And no snow,” he adds with a smile.”
On the court, Harris is impressed that the Atlanta Hawks have been to the playoffs the last five years.
“They have a great nucleus there and they have been consistently good,” Harris says. “I think they are going to speed things up a little bit and play some more transition and at a faster pace.”
Through his NBA career, Harris is averaging 13.1 points, 5.0 assists, and 2.4 rebounds. His best year came in 2008-09, when he averaged 21.3 points and 6.9 assists for the Nets and was selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
“I’m hoping that Atlanta is going to be a great fit for me,” he says. “I want to get back to the level of consistent play that I was at.”
Harris left UW one year early to pursue his hoop dreams, so he has been constantly working on getting his degree in his limited spare time.
“And I want to continue to work towards my degree,” says Harris, looking to earn his degree in sociology from UW.“ I think I’m down to 24 [credits left] now. I keep chopping away little by little.”
When does he hope to have it done by?
“2030,” laughs Harris. “Seriously, though, I’m just trying to get it down to the point where I can knock everything out in one summer. “
In the meantime, Harris, who was the recipient of the prestigious Thurman Munson award in 2011 for his outstanding work in the community, says that he feels that it is his responsibility to give back as much as he can to the kids and to the sport.
“We want to keep doing what we’re doing with the foundation and to expand it in different areas,” Harris says. “Hopefully, we’re blessed enough to continue to grow and to serve more kids.”