Long before he was an NBA star, Al Harrington was simply a longshot.
Too heavy to make weight for his Pop Warner football team, basketball was an afterthought during his early years growing up in Orange, N.J.
He was more focused on helping his mother keep a single-parent household together after his father “Levi” died of an illness in 1988.
Harrington was 8 years old at the time.
“I had to man-up,” he said. “It was just me and my mother. We had family around, but at times I had to watch my brother and sister when my mom went to work, so it forced me to grow up quick. It put me in a position that I was ready to take care of my family at a young age. Thank god I was mature enough to handle it.”
Harrington, in his first season with the Nuggets and 13th in the NBA, shared his story with 750 juniors and seniors at Denver’s Montbello High School in hopes of reminding them that the path to success often starts with hard work and humble beginnings.
“I really tried to focus on making good decisions, because I hear that’s one of their No. 1 problems,” Harrington said.
When looking for a place to make an impact, Harrington immediately chose Montbello, where the graduation rate is about 60 percent and just 4 percent of incoming freshmen go on to attend college without taking remedial classes.
The situation at Montbello is so dire that Denver Public Schools is planning to divide the campus into three specialty schools as part of one of the largest turnaround projects in DPS history.
“Al’s visit to Montbello was a great example of a professional athlete who has embraced the responsibility of being a role model,” said Doug Fulton, senior manager of fan development for the Nuggets. “He spoke about how to turn obstacles in their lives into opportunities and to take pride in their education.”
Montbello teens are constantly being reminded about the importance of staying in school and making good decisions, but the messages are easily tuned out when they come from familiar sources such as teachers and parents.
As a successful NBA player with a background that many Montbello students can appreciate, Harrington’s message resonates a little deeper.
“If you’re throwing out clichés, your credibility is going to go down,” said Montbello communications specialist Mindi Onwuegbu. “If you’re truly trying to address the issues that students are going through, they’re going to listen.”
Harrington took center stage at Montbello with Altitude Sports and Entertainment reporter Maya Starks. After talking to Starks about his road to the NBA, Harrington answered several questions from the students and presented the school with an autographed jersey.
He also donated 1,500 Nuggets tickets – two for each student in attendance – and spent time talking to members of the boys and girls basketball teams before their practice.
“It was great,” Onwuegbu said. “The kids were absolutely excited to have someone like that take the time to come speak to them. His advice was thoughtful, wise and real, which was refreshing. The kids really got a lot of out of it.”
Harrington, 30, shared stories of baby-sitting his brother Harvey, now 26, and sister Tiffany, now 22. His assistance allowed his mother Mona to work double-shifts for the New York Port Authority.
By the time Harrington started high school, his mom had saved enough money to move her family from their two-bedroom apartment to a four-bedroom house outside the inner city. It was around that time Harrington grew 6 inches in just a few months, prompting him to start playing basketball for his freshman team.
Four years later, he made the jump from St. Patrick High School to the NBA. As an 18-year-old rookie with the Indiana Pacers, he received counsel from veterans such as Antonio Davis and Reggie Miller.
“I had a great upbringing since I was young,” Harrington said. “I’ve been very fortunate to be around a lot of good people. That’s another reason I feels it’s important for me to talk to kids and tell them about my experiences. Even if you affect one person, I feel proud about that.”
After he’s done playing basketball, Harrington said he would like to start a mentoring program in an effort to reach children as early as kindergarten.
“Sometimes when you get them in high school, it can be too late,” he said. “The earlier we can get to kids in the school systems, the better. We’re losing a generation of kids. It’s scary.”
Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin shares Harrington’s philosophy of speaking honestly and directly to young people. Martin spoke to Montbello students in 2006 and his foundation focuses on social issues such as youth violence, teen pregnancy, single moms.
“Guys like Al, myself, Melo (Carmelo Anthony), Renaldo (Balkman), Chauncey (Billups) come from the inner city, but you can make it out,” Martin said. “We grew up just as bad or worse than some of these (Montbello) kids. Staying out of trouble ain’t hard to do.
“There’s difficult walks of life where they can be successful. There’s lawyers, doctors – even the president. It doesn’t just have to be sports or music. You can use your brain.”
Montbello graduate Chris Dempsey did just that.
After playing basketball for the Warriors in the early 1990s, Dempsey went on to get his bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado and is now in his seventh season covering sports for the Denver Post.
“When respected athletes like Al Harrington speak, it has an enormous impact in the Montbello community,” Dempsey said. “The message gets through with greater success not only because of the person, but because the students can look at him and know he's been through many of the same things they are going through. That connection is really important.
“It's also important for the athlete to reinforce what's being taught at home and in school – that education is important. And even though he and others have found success in the world of sports, it did not come at the expense of hitting the books and doing what's right in life. That success comes, in fact, because of that discipline in class and in life. It can never be stressed enough.”
Real-life examples ranging from Dempsey to Harrington to President Barack Obama – who was raised in a single-parent household – will continue to inspire young people to utilize their potential and imagine the possibilities.
“You’ve got to dream,” Harrington said. “Life is boring if you don’t dream and have goals and aspirations. Nobody said it’s going to be easy and there’s no guarantees, but die trying. Everything you do, you’re going to feel good about what you accomplish.”