It was a chilly, overcast Monday morning in December and the Sixers were coming off an ugly loss to the Nets in Brooklyn the night before.
Still, Tobias Harris had somewhere to be. He was headed to Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia to brighten up an otherwise gloomy day.
Harris surprised all the Black, male teachers — a small demographic among educators — at the school with a night out at a Sixers game. He gave out gift cards for all the teachers to get supplies and read to a group of kids while donning a Dr. Seuss hat. He spent time in the principal’s chair and in the barbershop the school has for kids that can’t afford haircuts.
This was just one day for Harris. The 28-year-old has been in Philadelphia for a little over a year and has already made an impact all over the city with similar endeavors.
Whether it’s making charitable contributions or protesting racial injustice or keeping his teammates unified, this is who Harris is.
He may not have an All-Star appearance to his name as a basketball player, but Harris is an All-Star human who’s leading the Sixers.
When Harris first arrived here in a blockbuster trade last February, all the stories were about how he could help the Sixers on the court — and for good reason. Harris was considered an All-Star snub by some and slid into a starting lineup that already featured Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick.
Harris was businesslike in his approach when he first arrived. He didn’t have much time to adapt to his new surroundings, but always said the right things in his raspy voice. While the season didn’t end how Harris and the Sixers would’ve liked, there was obvious interest between the pending free agent and team in a long-term deal.
The Sixers then signed Harris, who finally found a place to call home in a nomadic career, to the richest contract in franchise history.
“Well, yeah, right now [it’s the richest contract]. It’s just the logistics of the game,” Harris said on media day as a guest on the Sixers Talk podcast. “But obviously with that there’s a responsibility and there’s accountability too. That’s another reason why I work as hard as I do to improve my game and get better. When I signed for four years and $64 [million] in Orlando, that was all the chatter, ‘Oh, you’re not worth that, blah, blah, blah.’ I outplayed that deal. Now I look to do the exact same thing with this one.”
There was a pattern with Harris that maybe we didn’t see at the time. A pattern of being humble yet confident. A pattern of being selfless and wanting what was best for those around him.
In the offseason, Harris changed his number from 33 to 12. No. 12 was worn by his best friend, Morgan Childs, who died at the age of 16 from a rare blood disease. When Childs lost his life, Harris said he was determined to make it to the NBA to fulfill both their dreams.
The 2019-20 season would also mark the first time Harris wasn’t teammates with his good friend Boban Marjanovic since the pair first played together in Detroit in 2016-17. They were traded to the Clippers and Sixers together. Harris revealed that he encouraged Marjanovic to go to Dallas because it was the best situation for the big Serbian.
When the Sixers acquired Josh Richardson as part of the sign-and-trade that sent Butler to the Heat, we heard another story about Harris. When Richardson first arrived at Tennessee, the NBA was in a lockout, so Harris was back at his alma mater working out. Harris took the freshman Richardson out to dinner, something that left a lasting impact on Richardson.
Harris has made an even larger impact on standout rookie Matisse Thybulle. Ask Thybulle about Harris and he can’t help but smile and laud the player he refers to as his “big brother.” Harris sat with Thybulle on the team plane and has helped him navigate his first pro season — even if he’s also given the rook a hard time in the process.
But nobody could prepare for what transpired during this NBA season. The Sixers failing to meet expectations became a footnote in one of the most bizarre years in history.
People talk about leadership in sports all the time. Is it instinctive? Can you develop into a leader? Do circumstances create leaders? For Harris, it might be a combination.
On Jan. 26, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others tragically died in a helicopter crash. Bryant was Harris’ idol. Harris got to spend time with the Hall of Famer during the offseason while working out at Bryant’s facility. When the Sixers had to face the media, it was no surprise that Harris was one of the first players to step to the mic.
When the world was shook by the coronavirus pandemic, the Sixers were forced to go their separate ways. The players began trickling back into their practice facility in early July and there was a recurring theme when they were asked about how the team kept in contact. Just about every player mentioned Harris as the guy that organized Zoom calls and kept everyone together.
Harris also stepped up with more charitable contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When George Floyd was murdered on May 25, Harris didn’t sit idly by. He joined in protests on the streets of Philadelphia. He went after a local politician, calling for his resignation over a “disgusting” statement surrounding Black Lives Matter. He penned an open and honest piece for the Player’s Tribune. He used his time with the media earlier this week to call for Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron to arrest the officers — Brett Hankison, Jon Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove — involved with the death of Breonna Taylor.
Tobias Harris’ media availability today lasted 59 seconds.— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) July 20, 2020
He had one message.
“We want to make sure that Daniel Cameron (Kentucky Attorney General) will arrest the cops & the officers involved with Breonna Taylor’s death and that’s all I got to say.” pic.twitter.com/AxKUDGlcIA
At every turn, Harris has stepped up and led this year.
“Tobias has embraced that type of role that you’re referring to the second George Floyd’s murder happened,” Brett Brown said Tuesday. “He has just jumped into this racial injustice area and heightened awareness that the country is now under in a significant way. ...
“And so Tobias’ comments [Monday] are such a bigger discussion — that is a reflection of how he thinks in general.”
Bethune Elementary is a Trauma Informed elementary school that resides in the 25th police precinct. The area sees a high number of homicides and incarcerations that affect children growing up there.
For at least one day, Harris made a positive impact on the students and teachers there.
“Usually when you see this area on the news, it's a homicide or something bad,” Principal Aliya Catanch-Bradley told NBC Sports Philadelphia's Serena Winters, “so today, we get to have one of the 76ers come, and really bring with him such great joy, that's not associated with tragedy and travesty happening. It's like, I took time out of my day to see and spend some time with this school, because you matter.”
So when you see Harris protesting or calling out politicians, it’s not an act. Harris walks the walk.
While Embiid and Simmons are the stars of this team, Harris has become its leader. On the court, off the court, in the community, Harris has proven to be the heart, soul and conscience of the Sixers.
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