He was about to label it a calling, but the wrinkled brow revealed that he thought it sounded corny or ecumenical, and he stopped short. So Devin Harris explained it this way: The capacity to do good is in everyone, he suggested, but when you’re a professional athlete, your name recognition is such that you’re more likely to hold people’s attention a little longer when you have something to say or promote.
So using your influence in ways that could benefit the public good is … what? An obligation, perhaps?
“I wouldn’t call it an obligation,” the Nets captain said. “No, it’s something you should feel you want to do — otherwise, you’re just doing it for the wrong reason. Because when you want to do something, you pour your heart into it.
“But not everyone is obligated — it doesn’t work that way. It might not be how you were raised, or how your DNA is configured. And that’s fine. That’s your prerogative. I just can’t be that way.”
He’s been in Jersey for only 33 months, and we all know him pretty well by now. That remark above is basically what Harris is about, which is what makes him different from some public figures. We all like sports, yet too often we feel let down by the sportsman.
Harris is the kind of kid who restores your faith. He not only likes people, there is a palpable humanity about him.
Some find it easier to see his talent. When the Nets showed a rare poise and confidence in those wins over Detroit and Sacramento last week, yes, we saw his greatness again. But we always thought it was easier to see his goodness — at least Diana Munson agrees with that part.
You know Diana as Thurman Munson’s widow, a woman of uncommon grace who has carried on her husband’s legacy with the AHRC-New York City — the Association for the Help of Retarded Children, a monolithic organization (albeit with a non-politically correct name) that has raised nearly $10 million for children and adults with developmental disabilities since the Yankees catcher made it his passion in the late ’70s.
Harris has never worked directly with the AHRC, but Diana took one look at his résumé and the work of his 34 Ways To Assist Foundation and decided that he is worthy of the Thurman Munson Award on Feb. 1.
“My foundation has worked with sick kids and (Make A) Wish kids more than the developmentally challenged,” Harris admits, “but I’m blown away by this honor.”
A pause — long enough for his grin to max out: “Have you seen the list of the recipients?” he asked.
Actually, yes. It’s the kind of roster in which surnames are optional: Willis, Clyde, Ali, Yogi, Mariano, et al.
“Many of the athletes that I’ve met at the dinner, it seems like the bigger they are, the more they want to give back — and they often do it quietly,” Diana explained Monday in an e-mail: “I have so much respect for that. If you are giving back for the right reasons, it speaks volumes what kind of a man you are. And that’s the reason I am looking forward to meeting Devin Harris.”
The list of his foundation’s deeds is too lengthy to annotate here, but Harris can remember its genesis. He was in seventh grade when his best friend, Andrew Cook, was diagnosed with cancer, so the Make-A-Wish Foundation sent him to meet Scottie Pippen at the All-Star Game.
“He missed the year because of chemo treatments, but when he got back from that All-Star Game, it gave him an outlook that changed everything,” Harris recalled. “He went on to Pepperdine, and today he’s a financial adviser in San Diego and the smartest guy I know.”
The lesson of that transformative experience was something Harris never forgot. From that moment forward, he understood the impact an athlete could have on kids — not just those born fit and fortunate, but all kids.
And in an age when we are forced to think that compassion is not the business of governments — whose weird ethic prioritizes bailouts and wars over hunger and education — Harris seeks to help those who are most vulnerable.
Indeed, it was telling that the first responders to Eric LeGrand was Harris and the Nets organization, who presented Rutgers with a $75,000 check for Eric on opening night last week.
“You deal with kids today and realize how it’s pretty much the luck of the draw — having the right parents, who give you the discipline and support when you need it,” Harris said. “So sure, I was lucky. And I was raised to think in terms of helping those who aren’t so lucky.”
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