MILLIGAN COLLEGE — Del Harris never dreamed the road to the NBA would run through King Springs School.
But that’s the route Harris took, and it’s taken him to great heights in professional basketball.
After graduating Milligan College in 1959, Harris wanted to be a pastor. He took a job coaching middle school kids at nearby King Springs School thinking it would be very temporary. Instead, his team scored more than 100 points four times and the coaching bug had bitten him.
“We won all sorts of games,” Harris said Saturday during Milligan’s homecoming weekend. “In fact, we even played one game against a high school freshman team and we won against a high school JV team. We were beating everybody around here.”
Harris’ team was so prolific even without a 3-point line and despite the fact that it was playing six-minute quarters.
“We did it with pressure defense that just froze the other guys,” he said. “And, to be perfectly honest, we did have a couple of guys that probably were doing the eighth grade for the second time.”
Stints at a high school in Indiana, Earlham College and a team in Puerto Rico led Harris to a job as an assistant with the Utah Stars in the ABA’s final year. That led him to the Houston Rockets as an assistant and he never looked back.
For the past 37 years, Harris has been cashing a paycheck from an NBA team.
“I never even thought about the NBA,” Harris said about the start of his coaching career. “There were only eight teams. The games weren’t on TV. It was really just getting started.
“There were a lot of guys who could have played in the NBA — I wasn’t one of them — that chose not to because they got better jobs.”
Along the way, Harris was the head coach of three different teams — the Rockets, Lakers and Bucks — amassing a 556-457 record. He coached the Rockets to the NBA Finals in 1981 and was the league’s coach of the year with the Lakers in 1995. The list of notable players he’s coached includes Moses Malone, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose.
These days, Harris is the general manager of the Texas Legends in the NBA Developmental League.
While Harris was making a name for himself in the NBA, his former teammate at Milligan, Sonny Smith, was doing the same on the college level. Smith, a 1958 Milligan graduate, went on to become head coach at Virginia Commonwealth, Auburn and East Tennessee State.
“You wouldn’t think you would find many being more successful than we were coming from a school this size,” Smith said.
The two were together again on Saturday, joining former coaches Phil Worrell and Dale Clayton while speaking to the Milligan men’s and women’s basketball teams at Steve Lacy Fieldhouse.
“I’ve known Del for a long time,” Smith said. “We’ve always been really close. Del is not only a great basketball person, but he’s really a brilliant person.”
Smith, a Roan Mountain native has become as well known for his down-home humor and dry wit as he was for coaching.
“Sonny made the doctors laugh when they delivered him,” Harris said. “He just has that way. He could read nursery rhymes and you’d fall out of your chair.
“The funniest people are those who don’t try so hard. He’s a natural funny man, yet he also has a depth of character and personality that goes with it. It’s a unique combination and he’s always a pleasure to be around.”
“I just try to be funny,” Smith admitted. “Problem is, you get borderline truths when you start telling too many stories.”
While at Auburn, Smith coached Charles Barkley, who went on to become an NBA MVP and a Hall-of-Famer. Coaching Barkley was a challenge, he said.
“Like getting a root canal,” Smith said. “Charles Barkley was a very difficult player to coach. He was so skilled, so talented, that he didn’t think he had to work hard.”
Smith made sure Barkley worked hard. He placed a trash can at each end of the court during practice so the future All-American didn’t make a mess when he got sick.
“He thought I was trying to kill him,” Smith said. “He was just lazy and I worked him to death. He looks at me now as a father figure when he didn’t back then. I knew he could be something special and he already thought he was.”
These days Barkley makes his living with his mouth, telling funny stories on television and being outspoken. If that sounds a lot like his former college coach, it’s because Smith’s personality definitely rubbed off on Barkley.
“I hate to take credit for it, but I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Smith said. “He realized the value.”
Smith recalls being asked to say the pregame prayer late in the season during his senior year at Milligan. He was nervous, but somehow got the words out.
“I was on a team with four preachers and they wanted me to pray,” he said. “Then I went out and scored 36 points.”
Another fond memory of his playing days was a game against Lincoln Memorial University in which Harris and Smith combined to score “all but six” of Milligan’s points.
Harris, an Indiana native who was all set to go to Butler University before Duard Walker convinced him to come to Milligan, said he learned plenty of life lessons during his years in East Tennessee.
“Here it was more learning how to deal with people and the ups and downs of life,” he said. “It’s more faith-based. You can learn the Xs and Os of coaching, but in the end, what is important is how one deals with people more than knowing tricky plays.
“We’re all coaches in life to somebody. The best way to be a coach, teacher or mentor is to have a good foundation in terms of caring about others.”
Harris spent some time on Saturday afternoon signing his newest book — “On Point.” His fifth book is different than his previous efforts, which mostly dealt with basketball.
“We are all a member of various life teams, starting with the family we’re born into and the family we create,” Harris said. “In between, you have various sports teams, teams at the office, teams in the neighborhood.
“We all have within us a certain influence quotient that we can build up. All of us can’t be the leaders of every life team that we’re members of, but we all want to have influence for good on those teams.”
The book uses four steps that are “very scriptural and very logical as well” to illustrate his points.
Harris and Smith actually got the starts of their coaching careers, albeit uncredited, while playing at Milligan. As team captains of the varsity, they were charged with running the junior-varsity team.
“We’d coach the JV team in the preliminary games and then play in the varsity game,” Harris said. “So we got our start of college coaching right here at Milligan. That’s probably never been written.”