For Tobias Harris, having a basketball in his hand is second nature. The Islip native has been playing the game since he was 3 years old, and 20 years later, is a rising star in the NBA as a forward with the Orlando Magic.
It’s hard to keep your eyes off Harris as he moves down the court. At 6’9” and 235 pounds, Harris is a force, effortlessly weaving through players to drive the ball to the net. His height makes him unstoppable when it comes to dunking, rebounds and blocking shots. Last season, he ranked 28th in the NBA for scoring and scored in double figures 61 times.
It’s a career that’s been two decades in the making, cultivated at a young age with the help of his family.
“My whole family is competitive,” Harris said. “My dad put the ball in my hand when I was 3 years old and from there I fell in love with the game. I always worked hard and loved playing, and I thrive off the game and winning.”
Basketball courses through the veins of the Harris family. Torrel, the Harris patriarch, played college basketball and passed on the love of the game to his five children. Harris’ younger sister and brother both play collegiate basketball and his first cousin, Channing Frye, is also a forward on the Magic.
Growing up, the basketball court was like a second home to Harris. He remembers his dad taking him and his siblings to the Bay Shore YMCA on Sunday mornings, and at an early age he had Harris playing in the city. It was there that Harris became a stronger, more confident player.
“There’s a different type of mentality there,” Harris said. “That helped me be the player I am today because I had to learn to be a tougher player against guys who were older than me. It pushed me to work harder because I knew there were people who were better. And when I got back to Long Island, I used to destroy the competition, even at a young age.”
In eighth grade, Harris joined the varsity team at Half Hollow Hills in Dix Hills. There, he says he found a supportive community of people who wanted to see him succeed not only on the court, but off of it as well. The school is the alma mater of Jets player Stephen Bowen, and as a student, Harris would often hear about Bowen’s exemplary character.
“Teachers would tell me the type of person and player [Stephen] was, and my coach would tell me how he conducted himself and that he wanted to see me be that type of person—professional on and off the court,” Harris said. “I had people there who wanted to see me be successful, and kept me humble and grounded. They wanted to see someone come out and be a role model.”
He graduated from Half Hollow Hills in 2010 and went on to play basketball at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, getting drafted by the NBA in 2011. He started off as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks, before being traded to the Orlando Magic in 2013.
In just four years, Harris has gone from rookie to all-star status within the NBA. He made headlines this past year when he signed a four-year contract for $64 million, making the 23-year-old the highest paid player on the Magic.
But Harris doesn’t let the money or the fame get to his head, saying that he always wants to keep improving his game.
“You can never get used to the success,” Harris said. “You have to be humble and know what type of person you are. The game is the game, but you have to know who you are off the court.”
And off the court, Harris has become the role model his mentors imagined him to be. He’s involved in several community outreach programs and has a particular penchant for helping children. This past summer, he ran a week-long basketball clinic on Long Island where he taught young athletes basketball and life skills, such as nutrition, character development and careers.
“It’s tough sometimes for kids to have role models and people they look up to, but they really appreciate it,” Harris said. “Knowing I can impact them means a lot.”
It would be easy for a highly paid, star athlete who has the world at his fingertips to become smug. But Harris maintains a modest air that he says comes from his Christian faith.
“My faith in God and reading my Bible and digesting what I’ve learned, that helps keep me humble,” Harris said. “It’s taught me to work as hard as you can and give your all in all you do.”