In basketball, there are scorers and there are shooters. Billy Harris became a playground legend and one of the most celebrated high school basketball players in the history of the Chicago Public League by becoming the fastest and most accurate gunslinger on the block. He didn't earn his nickname, Billy the Kid, for shooting blanks.
Think of the greatest pure shooters ever produced in Illinois. Lawrenceville's Jay Shidler immediately comes to mind. So do Carver's Pete Cunningham, Elgin's Flynn Robinson, West Aurora's Bill Small, Thornton's Lloyd Batts, Bloom's Brandon Cole and Glenbrook North's Jon Scheyer. It is a distinguished list. But it is hard to imagine that anyone could outshoot Billy Harris.
He suffered a massive stroke and died on Saturday night. He was 58. He is survived by a wife and six children. It was much too soon.
While I was working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat from 1966 to 1968, I saw a great shooter, Collinsville's Tom Parker. I saw him score 50 points in the championship game of the Carbondale Holiday Tournament, a record that still stands. As good as he was, however, Parker didn't possess the shooting range that Harris had.
The 1968-69 basketball season was my first as high school sports editor of the Chicago Daily News. I had seen some of the Chicago Public League legends of the past, including Paxton Lumpkin, Sweet Charlie Brown, George Wilson and Cazzie Russell, in the state tournament. But 1968-69 was a special season.
I had heard about his high scoring, hot-shooting guard at Dunbar and was anxious to see him. In one game against Du Sable, I saw him convert 27 of 29 shots while scoring a career-high 57 points. In an era before the three-point line was introduced, Harris made 25-footers as casually and as effortlessly as layups.
Harris' playground reputation preceeded him. Everyone was in awe of his long-range shooting skills. He was a member of an All-State team than included Thornton's Lloyd Batts, Proviso East's Jim Brewer, Champaign Central's Clyde Turner, Downers Grove North's Jeff Dawson, Elgin's Rick Sund, Carbondale's Les Taylor, Parker's Albert Burks, Marshall's Chester Fuller, Hales Franciscan's Sam Puckett, Rockford West's Mark Sibley and Peoria Spalding's Alvin O'Neal.
His high school coach, Jim Foreman, said he was the best pure shooter he ever saw. He said Harris would have averaged 50 to 60 points per game if the three-point line had been in effect during his career. As it was, he averaged 26 as a junior and 33 as a senior.
As a senior at Northern Illinois, he averaged 24 points, scored 38 in a game at New York's Madison Square Garden and led the Huskies to a stunning upset of fifth-ranked Indiana. He was the No. 3 scorer in NIU history and was named to the school's All-Century team.
That he didn't have a successful professional career after being selected in the sixth round of the 1973 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls is unfortunate. In truth, he was more interested in scoring than playing defense. He didn't fit into Bulls coach Dick Motta's structured system.
But Harris was an entertainer. He and Lloyd Batts were teammates on coach Shelly Stark's summer league teams. They were so good that NBA players didn't want any part of them. Lloyd Walton, who played at Mount Carmel, Marquette and the NBA, said Harris grabbed all of the attention when he walked into a gym. "Everything he did was spectacular," Walton said.
"Talent can be a curse," Harris once said. "I was born to play basketball, to do it well. But I had those dreams shattered.
"I played against all the great players on the playground, against Bo Ellis and Sonny Parker. If you put all of the great players from Chicago in a room, they would acknowledge that I'm the Grand Poobah. I was shooting three-pointers before they painted an arc on the floor. What made me different from others is I had a desire to be the best."