He can thank God that Pete Boyle finally spoke.
Back in the early 1950s when he was a budding basketball talent in Floral Park, N.Y., Chris Harris idolized Boyle, who was from the same Long Island town but was three years older and had gone to Chaminade High School there, rather than the public school.
“I always thought, ‘Wow, what a classy guy.’ He was just such a hero of mine,” Harris said. “And every Saturday we used to play pick-up games at a little church and once in a while Pete would pick me. But he’d never speak with me. The only thing he’d say was ‘nice shot’ or ‘nice pass.’ Nothing else.
“Then he went off to the University of Dayton and I followed what he did and thought one day I want to be just like Pete Boyle. And when he’d come back on spring break, we’d play at that old church again, but still he never spoke. Finally, one day I’m sitting there in a confectionary store and Pete walks in and says, ‘Hi Chris, where you going to school?”
Harris was stunned, but finally got out that he was trying to make up his mind between Kansas, Syracuse and St. John’s.
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That’s when Boyle offered a counter proposal: ‘Why don’t you come out to Dayton for a tryout? I could set it up.”
Harris took a night train out of New York and got into Dayton about 7 a.m. Boyle picked him up and took him to his room and that’s when Chris asked, “So when’s the tryout?”
“In half an hour,” he was told.
“I hadn’t slept all night, but the next thing I know I’m at the old Fieldhouse for a big scrimmage for all the people trying out,” Harris said. “Afterward, Tom Blackburn, he was the coach, he comes up and says he has a scholarship for me if I want it.”
From that spur-of-the-moment tryout came a memorable UD career.
Because of the Korean War, the NCAA allowed freshmen to play varsity in 1951 and Harris immediately moved into the rotation of a tough-nosed senior team that was led by Monk Meineke, Chuck Grisgby, Junior Norris and John Horan, went 28-5 and made it to the finals of the prestigious NIT.
Harris would start the next three years and become one of the best play-making guards in Flyers history, then go on to the NBA for a year, later become a radio play-by-play and color commentator of Flyers basketball and see two of his sons – Doug and Ted – play for UD, as well.
And today brings yet another sterling accomplishment for the 79-year-old Harris.
With his old teammate and lifelong pal Don Donoher as his presenter, Harris is being inducted into the UD Athletics Hall of Fame, as are former athletics director Ted Kissell and baseball player Brian Harlamert. The trio will be honored at halftime of UD’s game with Richmond.
Harris was born in Southampton, England and moved to New York when he was 2. Many of his family members were seafarers and he had two uncles who worked for White Star Lines and perished when the Titanic sank.
“One was 18 and the other was just 15 and it was his first trip to sea,” Harris said.
He told how other relatives working on the ships would come into port regularly in New York and come over to the house. “They’d always say, ‘Come, Laddie, let’s go play some football (soccer),” Harris remembered. “I’d say, ‘No, I’m going to play basketball and be in the pros one day.’ And they’d all laugh and that just gave me more incentive.”
Harris always had a competitive fuse and years later the guy who lit it the best was Blackburn.
“To be honest, playing for him was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my life,” he said. “When you first got there, he’d say: ‘Boys, I’m gonna tell you something. The next four years you’re gonna hate my guts and I don’t blame you. But hopefully 10 years from now you’ll look back at me and say, ‘I love that man. That man did something for us.’ ”
Harris admitted it certainly was not love at first sight: “There were times I couldn’t stand the guy – none of us could – but the thing is, he was a great psychologist. He got the players to band together – against him – and they became a team. I talked to Chuck Noll about it once and he said it was the same with Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi, too. Guys hated them when they played for them, but loved them after.
“Mick Donoher and I were two of Blackburn’s whipping boys and man, he could ride you. Sophomore year I made a mistake and went to the dressing room right before a game. Well, Blackburn had a pregame ritual where he went in there to (use the facilities) and he walks in and sees me sitting there tying my shoe.
“He says, ‘What the hell are you tying your shoe for? That guy you’re playing tonight is gonna whip you so bad. I can’t believe you’re even going to go out there.’ He had me so mad I was ready to run through a wall to prove him wrong.”
And game after game, year after year, Harris did just that. The Flyers were 94-29 in his four seasons at UD and twice made the NIT title game.
And Harris said that old Blackburn speech turned out to be true some 13 years later when the coach was battling cancer during the 1963-63 season: “They used to put him in the medical room and stretch him out because he was in such pain and when they did that I used to sit there and we’d just talk.
“And when he died….”
Harris’ voice began to break, as he remembered that March day in 1964: “When he died … I cried like a baby … He did a lot for all of us. He really turned a bunch of spoiled kids into men.”
A Flyer voice
Harris said he roomed with Donoher for two years:
“Honest to God it was like The Odd Couple. Neil Simon’s play could have pictured us. Here is this guy, a daily Mass communicant, so quiet and introverted and Mr. Meticulous and here I am this guy from New York thinking he’s a hot shot.
“But you know what? We got to love each other. We became like brothers. To this day we talk on the phone every couple of weeks and for 30 minutes it’s nothing but belly laughs.”
Following his UD career Harris played a year with the St. Louis Hawks and Rochester Royals.
By then he had married Barbara Rettig, who was equally popular here in Dayton. She had won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts, which was like American Idol back then, and she had been a singer on the Wendy Barrie Show and been on the Gary Moore Show and then came back here to Dayton and had her own TV shows. She had a screen test with Paramount, too, but she gave it all up to have a family.”
And Harris walked away from the NBA after a season – he was making just $4,800 — because he had a family on the way (he and Barbara would have 10 kids ) and his business opportunities were picking up.
Following college he had been approached by Ed Mosler, the chairman of Mosler Safe company and a scout for the Syracuse Nationals, who said he would like to back him in business one day. He had done the same for other athletes.
He decided to launch a record store, and Mosler sent him $15,000 – “that’s the equivalent of $150,000 to $200,000 today,” Harris said – and Chris Harris Record Rack was born.
Eventually Harris had a chain of TV and appliance stores, an advertising agency and was the vice president of an insurance company.
When WONE got the broadcast rights to UD basketball games, he and Bucky Bockhorn were hired to do the commentary. But then the guy who ran the station said Harris had to soften his New York accent before he could go on the air.
“I went and got tapes of Cawood Ledford and Marty Glickman and Red Barber – I got all the great sportscasters – and I listened and listened,” Harris said. “And Bucky and I would go to scrimmages and just practice and practice and practice.”
Finally, Harris satisfied the guy and he and Bockhorn became a good combo — except, he said with a laugh, when their own sons started playing for the Flyers:
“There would be games where Danny (Bockhorn) got in and Bucky was watching him and Doug was in there and I was focused on him and neither one of us was following the play by play.”
Chris and Barbara, who have been married 57 1/2 years, moved to Florida in the mid-1980s and now live in a condo in the Clearwater area.
With some of their children living in the Miami Valley, they return here often and for Chris that always means get-togethers with his old teammate, whom, he said, are all “like brothers.”
In recent years, though, one subject did begin to wear on Harris at those gatherings. Guys would wonder aloud when he was going to be taken into the Hall of Fame.
“I had given up on the idea,” he said. “I figured it was just for the high scorers and the great rebounders and I knew I sure wasn’t a Donnie May. So every time the guys brought it up, I said, ‘Look, drop it. Just drop it. It’s not gonna happen.
“And then I got word and to be truthful I was just overwhelmed. I was humbled. And to be truthful, I owe it all to my buddy Pete Boyle. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have met my wife and my great friends and I wouldn’t have become a Dayton Flyer.
“Thank God Pete Boyle finally decided to say something to me … thank God.”