Jerry Harkness plays game-changing role in basketball history (Part 2)

by Mark Montieth Writer

Part 2 of a 2-part series on former Pacers player Jerry Harkness' game-changing contributions to the sport.

Click here to read Part 1 »

Jerry Harkness completed his college career on a puffy white cloud. He had been the captain of a team that won the NCAA championship with a dramatic overtime victory, and he was voted a consensus first-team All-American after the season.

The glow continued into the Spring. He was voted the Most Valuable Player in the East-West All-Star game in Kansas City following the season, playing for a team coached by UCLA's John Wooden. And then, on April 30, his hometown Knicks drafted him with the ninth overall selection – the first pick of the second round – in the NBA draft. It seemed a perfect fit. Harkness would be going home, playing in Madison Square Garden where he had led his high school team to the city championship four years earlier, and the Knicks would seemingly benefit from adding a local kid who had achieved national fame.

It didn't work out. The 6-3 Harkness had played a small forward position in college, but would have to make the transition to guard in the NBA. The Knicks needed all the help they could get, having finished the previous season with a 21-59 record, but it wasn't the right fit for Harkness. Duke's 6-5 All-American Art Heyman had been the Knicks' first-round pick, the No. 2 choice overall, and averaged 15.4 points that season. Harkness played just five games, scoring 29 points, before he was released. The transition to a new position and already-aching knees had limited his production. "I just didn't play well enough," he recalls.

He had options, though. He had a college degree, a well-known name and a solid reputation as a leader. He landed a sales job with Quaker Oats back in Chicago, with a territory on the north side. He also would run youth clinics, emphasizing physical fitness. As the company's first black salesperson, he was participating in another breakthrough. He was earmarked for promotion within the company, seemingly destined for management. He also played semi-professional ball for a championship team in Benton Harbor, Mich. on weekends, scratching his playing itch.

He seemed entrenched in his new life when, three years later, he read a short item in one of the Chicago newspapers about a new professional league, the American Basketball Association, that intended to compete with the NBA. Indianapolis was one of the cities planning to start a franchise. Harkness, still believing he had more to offer than he had shown with the Knicks, wrote a letter to Bob Collins, the Indianapolis Star's sports editor, inquiring about a tryout. The letter was passed on to Pacers' management, and Harkness was invited to the team's open tryout in June.

According to a story in the Star in November of that year, the gist of the letter read: "I'll never be satisfied until I prove to myself once and for all that I can't play pro basketball. I don't ask for a contract or anything else. All I want is a chance to try out. I'm willing to quit my job if you'll give me that chance."

It was a huge risk on his part. What if he didn't make the team? What if the league didn't survive? Could he get his job back? Could he get another job good enough to support his family? Quaker Oats had invested in him, put him on a track toward management – no small thing for a black man in 1967. But Harkness couldn't get basketball out of his mind. He had taken the chance of going out for his high school team because of Jackie Robinson's inspiration, and it had worked out wonderfully. Why not try again?

Harkness joined an open tryout the Pacers put on in June. Bob "Slick" Leonard and Clyde Lovellette were put in charge, and ran the practices like a boot camp to weed out the less serious contenders. Harkness was among those caught off-guard. He finished poorly in the sprints, and vomited. And there was no fanfare for the former All-American. The first mention of his name in the local newspapers came after one of the public scrimmages, when he had scored 10 points, but the Indianapolis News' article referred to him as "Larry" Harkness.

The Pacers' first coach, Larry Staverman, had seen enough in him to invite him back for the next phase of pre-season preparations in September, though. The front office arranged a summer job for Harkness with the Indianapolis Urban League, which allowed him to stay in the city and work out at the Downtown YMCA to get in shape. He ran, he swam, and he played pickup games. When training camp opened at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, he was winning sprints and playing better because of his advanced conditioning. He wound up the team's fourth-leading scorer in six exhibition games, averaging 10.5 points. When he was told he had made the team, he went into the tiny, dingy locker room at St. Joseph's and "cried like a baby."

His gamble had paid off.

Jerry Harkness

Mike Storen, the Pacers' first general manager, wasn't aware of the risk Harkness had taken to try out for the team, and doesn't recall the discussion that led to keeping Harkness on the roster. But he does remember the intangible qualities that Harkness brought to the team.

"You knew when you met Jerry that he was an accomplished person," Storen said. "He wasn’t somebody who was a basketball junkie who was going to spend the rest of his life trying to demonstrate that he could play basketball. It was clear he had a great head on his shoulders. The perception was he didn’t need the basketball psychologically like a lot of people do.

"His leadership capabilities and his maturity level were evident from the time you met him. Those were contributions that he would make to a team environment in addition to his basketball skills. If you’re going to build something successful in business or sports, you have to have people with leadership qualities."

Harkness' brief career with the Pacers isn't remembered for intangibles, though. It's best-remembered for a fateful fling one Monday night in Dallas that won a game and vaulted him into history.

It came in the Pacers' 15th game in franchise history, on Nov. 13. John Beasley had scored on a short jump shot with one second left to give the Chaparrals a two-point lead despite the fact Bob Netolicky had gotten a hand on the ball. Teams didn't usually call timeout at such moments in those days, they simply played on. Oliver Darden flipped a short inbounds pass to Harkness, who heaved a high-arcing left-handed hook toward the opposite basket. It was one of those moments in which the world seemed to shift into slow motion. As the ball sailed through the air, the Dallas players were still celebrating Beasley's shot, and the echoes of the cheers from the small collection of fans could still be heard. The final buzzer sounded, too. And then the ball miraculously banked off the board and dropped through the basket, silencing everyone.

The immediate reaction among the Pacers was that Harkness had tied the game and forced overtime. The ABA had installed a three-point shot, but this wasn't a jump shot taken from behind the three-point line. This was pure luck. But it counted just the same, and it gave the Pacers a 119-118 victory.

It was first recorded as a 92-foot shot because it was taken just a couple of feet inbounds on a 94-foot court, but it was later realized that the rim stands four feet inbounds, so it was adjusted to 88 feet. It stood as the longest shot in the history of professional basketball until Baron Davis hit what was reported to be an 89-footer at the third-quarter buzzer in 2001. But that shot hadn't won a game.

"I've been practicing that shot all day," Harkness joked in the locker room afterward. "Really, I didn't dream it would go in. I didn't aim it or anything. I knew I could get one shot off, though, so I let it fly."

The shame of it is that there's no video record of it. The game was not televised, and television stations in those days did not shoot highlights at games. The attendance was listed at 2,115, but Storen, who attended the game, estimates there were fewer than a thousand on hand.

"It was depressing for me from a business standpoint," he said. "It was a gorgeous day, a nice arena, everything seemed great, but nobody came to the game. I remember sitting in different locations around the arena and hearing our radio announcer (Jerry Baker) call the game. It was very depressing."

Jerry Harkness receives sharpshooting medal

It turned out to be the highlight of Harkness' professional career, and his only three-pointer in five attempts. Two nights later, the Pacers played Oakland at the Coliseum. Before the game, a member of the United States Marine Corps color guard pinned a sharpshooting medal on Harkness' jersey in a pre-game ceremony before the Pacers' smallest crowd of the season to date, 5,885. Harkness scored eight points in a 119-110 victory that improved their record to 13-3.

That turned out to be the high point of the season, however. They finished 38-40 as the rest of the league – which hadn't been as well-organized or conditioned before the season began – caught up, and they were eliminated by eventual champion Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs.

The following season started well for Harkness. Although still a reserve to start the season, he was voted a co-captain by his teammates, alongside newly acquired center Mel Daniels. A pre-season article in the Star declared that he "doesn't have the raw talent to be playing pro basketball. But nobody has more heart. He is probably the Pacers' best defensive guard and his savvy makes him surprisingly effective offensively."

The Pacers started 0-3, but won their fourth game, over Denver, as Harkness "handcuffed" former Duke All-American Bob Verga and contributed 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Harkness then scored a career-high 17 and "played tenacious defense" in the next game, a loss to Houston. He eventually was moved into the starting lineup, and scored 16 in a loss at Oakland that dropped the record to 1-7. Staverman was fired the morning of the next game in Los Angeles, coached it anyway, and got a 112-107 win as a parting gift.

When Bob "Slick" Leonard took over upon the team's return home from the three-game road trip, Harkness remained a starter. He scored 11 points in Leonard's debut, a loss at Minnesota on Nov. 15, but was served a harsh notice that the end was near. When he tried to fake Chico Vaughn, he felt a sharp pain in his back. He stayed in the game, but couldn't move well enough to contribute. His body was breaking down.

His knees hadn't been good when he first made the Pacers' roster as a 27-year-old, and his efforts to baby them had put too much strain on his back in his second season. He had missed a couple of exhibition games as a result, and never felt 100 percent. He returned home after the game at Minnesota to try to rehabilitate while the team went on to complete a seven-game road trip. He rejoined them for a home game against Dallas on Nov. 27, scoring two points, rode the bench the following game two nights later, and was left home for the ensuing road trip that began on Dec. 2.

Finally, on Dec. 4, his retirement became official. The roster limit for ABA teams that year was 12, but they could only take 10 on the road. Harkness could have been kept for home games, at least, and given time to try to rehabilitate, but to his surprise he was cut loose.

"I guess they don't want to take a chance on my back going out again, but I think I deserved a chance to win my job back," Harkness said at the time. Years later, he would recognize he had nothing left, and that it had been a blessing that he got out before doing further damage to his body.

Harkness stayed on with the Pacers' front office for awhile, and worked as an analyst on some television broadcasts. A year later, in 1970, Storen took over as general manager of the Kentucky Colonels and offered Harkness a front office position there. He turned it down, preferring to stay in Indianapolis. He had more worlds to conquer. He became the city's first black professional fund-raiser, working for the United Way. He was a co-founder of Black Expo. He became the state's first black television sportscaster, working weekends for Channel 13. He also worked mornings for a radio station, WTLC. For awhile he multi-tasked like a mad man, going to the radio station in the morning, working for United Way during the day and then handling weekend sportscasts on Channel 13.

He admits he wasn't a natural for television, only doing it to blaze another trail and find a few rays of the limelight he had grown accustomed to in basketball.

"I was awful at first," he said. "I got to be mediocre. I was scared to death. Being the first really played a part in it. I was willing to try anything like that. But the pressure of being the first black and wanting to do so much, I started to feel the way Jackie felt."

Harkness was so involved in community activities, and so well-embraced by so many people because of his eagerness to find common ground that some of the more radical members of the city's black community suspected him being an FBI informant. He has continued his community involvement to this day, serving on the Board of Directors of the Indianapolis chapter of the 100 Black Men organization. Earlier this year he was honored as its Mentor of the Year. He has coached or mentored countless city kids over the years, out of the spotlight.

He can't help but wonder what would have become of him if not for those few, simple syllables Jackie Robinson had directed his way in the summer of '58.

"I probably would have been a postman or something like that," he said. "I wanted to get a good job. My father washed windows at United Nations building, and made $100 a week. I thought that was great.
I still would have been OK but I never would have gotten the opportunities I got from playing basketball."

One of those opportunities came from his association with Joe Dan Gold, the Mississippi State captain whose shared handshake with Harkness had set flash bulbs popping on that historic day in East Lansing. They and their wives became friends after reunions brought them together, and Harkness attended his funeral service in Kentucky in 2011. "He would have attended mine," Harkness told the Star.

Harkness was the only black person in attendance, but embraces ensued and tears flowed. A photo of the two in their midcourt meeting was displayed to the left of the casket. Nothing could have better crystallized the meaning of that historic tournament game in 1963 than that moment.

Harkness, by the way, never got a chance to thank Robinson in person. He saw him one day on the streets of New York, when Robinson was working as a vice-president for Chock Full O' Nuts, a coffee company. He saw Robinson just ahead of him, noticing his distinctive pigeon-toed walk. He wanted to approach him and tell him of the impact he had had on one man's life, but couldn't muster the courage. Oh, well. It would have been a difficult story to relate on a busy sidewalk, and Harkness' life from that point on had served as non-verbal gratitude.

Which brings to mind another postscript to Harkness' story. When Loyola won the championship in '63, an 18-year-old student in Pine Bluff, Ark. named O.T. Gordon watched in awe on television. He was a black kid from the South, with seemingly limited options. But if a team consisting of four black starters could win a national championship, who was to say he couldn't make something of his life? He became a doctor. He eventually began practicing in Indianapolis. Nearly 50 years later, during an examination of a patient, he found early indications of colon cancer. Thanks to the early detection, it was eradicated and the patient is cancer-free.

The patient's name, of course, is Jerry Harkness. Just as Robinson had inspired Harkness, Harkness had helped inspire Gordon, who perhaps helped save Harkness' life. Which was just another way of saying thanks.

Part 1 of a 2-part series on former Pacers player Jerry Harkness' game-changing contributions to the sport.

Click to read Part 2 »

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