By John Denton
Sept. 26, 2013
ORLANDO – Before he was cheered and high-fived by 90 kids from the Altamonte Boys and Girls Club and the Rosemont Community Center on Wednesday, a jarring thought popped into the head of Orlando Magic forward Maurice Harkless.
``Just a couple of years ago I was one of these kids who looked up to NBA guys and just wanted to be around them,’’ said the 20-year-old Harkless with a chuckle. ``It’s great to be able to put a smile on these kids’ faces now.’’
Harkless was joined by fellow forward Tobias Harris, Magic Community Ambassador Bo Outlaw and the Magic Dancers on Wednesday when they hosted the students for a private screening of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. The two Magic standouts donned 3-D glasses and watched the movie while snacking on popcorn and sodas with the students.
Harris, who came to the Magic from Milwaukee last February in a trade, addressed the students and talked about the importance of getting good grades and having fun. At times on Wednesday, it was difficult to tell who was enjoying themselves more – the students or the happy-go-lucky Magic players.
``It’s always great to just give back to the kids. I remember when I was a kid, and if I met a professional athlete, smiles were on my face all week,’’ said Harris, who averaged 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in the final 27 games with the Magic last season. ``To be here with these kids and give them a little break from school because they have been working so hard, watch a movie with them and have some fun, it’s just a great opportunity.’’
Brenda Scott, the facility manager at the Rosemont Community Center, said the Magic once again proved that they are much more than just a basketball team by investing in the well-being of the community. Many of the students in Rosemont’s after-school program are considered at-risk kids, and for Magic players like Harkless and Harris to show an interest in them it could almost be viewed as a life-changing event, Scott said.
Scott had students submit essays about what the Magic mean to the Central Florida community and the best ones were picked to attend Wednesday’s movie – two days before the heavily anticipated debut of the animated film.
``The Magic bring out some of the new players that our kids have never seen before and (the players) are just so humble and our students love them,’’ Scott said. ``Overall, I just commend the Magic for doing events like this for these kids and I can’t say enough good things about them. The Rosemont Community, the kids there don’t get a lot and they’re high-risk children, and this gives them great opportunities.’’
Harkless and Harris came to the movie theater on Wednesday from the team’s headquarters at the Amway Center where they had just gotten in a voluntary workout.
Both forwards spent much of their offseasons in Orlando, working hard to better their bodies and improve their basketball skills. Harkless was rail-thin last season as a Magic rookie, but his arms are noticeably bigger. He struggled to bench-press 225 pounds when he came into the NBA, but can now throw up several three-repetition sets of 275 pounds. Harkless, who said that he’s also grown an inch to 6-foot-9, hopes to be stronger this season so that he can better defend in the post and hold his line on hard drives to the hoop. ``I’ve worked on my ball-handling, I gained a few pounds of muscle and my shooting has gotten a lot better. I’m just a lot more confident this year,’’ Harkless said. ``It’s just me getting older and more mature and I feel more confident out there. That plays a big role being in this league.’’
Harris played at 223 pounds last season – an undersized weight for a power forward in the NBA. He worked hard this summer on being stronger and in better condition, while continuing to keep the burst that makes him unique. Harris, who scored at least 20 points nine times and had two 30-point games for the Magic, is expected to split time at power forward and small forward this upcoming season.
``Right now I’m probably about 240 pounds, so I’ve added about 10 pounds of muscle to bulk up a little bit. But at the same time I want to keep my explosiveness and speed. I’ve put a lot of time into conditioning in the weight room and on my overall game.’’
The Magic will hold Media Day and a team dinner on Monday and they then start training camp on Tuesday. The first preseason game is Oct. 9 in Jacksonville against the New Orleans Pelicans, while the first home game of the preseason is Oct. 11 against Cleveland. The regular season begins on Oct. 29 in Indiana, while the home-opener will be Nov. 1 against New Orleans.
Harkless said the Magic will hit training camp with an incredible chemistry forged by the hard work that the players put in this summer. Just two weeks after the season-finale last April, many of the Magic’s young players such as Kyle O’Quinn, Andrew Nicholson, Doron Lamb, Harkless and Harris were back at the facility getting in work. Rookie Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 pick in the June NBA Draft, has since joined the group on a daily basis.
``We’re always together. I’m always with one of the guys, whether it’s Kyle, Tobias, Doron or Victor, and that’s pretty much the same for everyone on our team,’’ Harkless said. ``We’re more than teammates; we treat each other like brothers. I just think that’s going to help us out there on the court.’’
Follow John Denton on Twitter here