Asked how it felt to be one of the greatest players in the history of Western New York boys basketball, Paul Harris showed off perhaps his best basketball talent: He took the compliment and passed it off.
"I never really thought about that -- I know as far as a team, it was an unbelievable season," said Harris, who was talented enough to dominate games by himself but, by distributing the ball, allowed his team to take over. "I think my teammates fed off that (sharing the ball). That's just how I play normally. It's the way I think basketball should be played."
Niagara Falls set a standard for a local team's vertical jump -- winning the Class AA state Federation tournament and being ranked in the top three in the nation by six polls -- behind a player who did the same for high school highlight films.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Harris can score inside and out, is a monster on the boards, plays fiery defense and possesses an impressive unselfishness. That's why Harris is The Buffalo News Player of the Year for the second straight season, just the fourth player to go back-to-back, after Nichols' Christian Laettner (1987 and 1988) and LaSalle's Tim Winn and Traditional's Jason Rowe (co-recipients in 1995 and 1996).
"Paul Harris is that good, but he still gives the ball up," Falls senior guard Robert Garrison said. "And Niagara Falls is that good, but we still share the ball.
"Paul set the tone. That's the main reason we did what we did, because we didn't care about individual egos."
Harris captains the 46th All-Western New York team, which is chosen by The Buffalo News in consultation with area coaches and officials. Harris is joined by two other repeat first-team selections -- senior guards Ray Blackburn of Lackawanna and Rodney Pierce of Hutch-Tech -- as well as Niagara Falls teammates Greg Gamble and Garrison.
Niagara Falls made a strong case to be named Western New York's greatest team by becoming the first local squad to win the largest class at the state Federation tournament after winning the public school final four -- Harris was named the MVP of both -- and earning unprecedented national praise. The Wolverines finished the season ranked first in the country in two polls (Student Sports Magazine and Prepnation.com) and were rated third by USA Today. Hoops-USA.com and ihigh.com ranked Falls second, while School Sports Magazine had them third.
All-Western New York second-team selection Jonathan Flynn, a sophomore guard, gives Niagara Falls another honor. It is the first time that one school has put four players on the first two teams since The News began naming an All-Western New York team in 1976 (the All-Western New York team was created in 1959 by the defunct Courier-Express, which named only a first team). Falls' trio on the first team equals the All-Western New York record of three-time state public school champion Traditional in 2001 (Terry George, Daryl Jacobs and Greg French).
The four Falls honorees were excellent at hitting three-pointers, sharing the ball, taking off in transition and playing the Wolverines' trademark tough defense. But there are things Harris can do that few players in Western New York -- past or present -- could match.
There's the crossover move from the top of the key that is usually the weapon of a much smaller player. There's the headband-and-shoulders above others rebound followed by a coast-to-coast burst that would end with a dish for an easy layup or a kickout for a three-pointer.
And there are the dunks. It will be a long time before a Western New York player creates the kind of buzz in the bleachers that started when Harris was part of a Falls fast break. There were one-handers in which he flew past defenders, or two-handers off of rebounds. The best jams came off of passes -- especially when Flynn or Garrison bounced one off the backboard to a trailing Harris.
It was almost as entertaining to watch an opposing player head in alone for what he thought would be an easy layup. Harris would gauge the angle and elevate to swat the shot.
He relished playing defense, eager to take on the toughest of opponents, yet he was smart enough that he hardly ever got in foul trouble. And while Harris admits he is not the best of outside shooters (he even joked after he broke his right thumb on his shooting hand late in the season that he didn't have much of a jump shot), in every big game, Harris drained at least one three-pointer (overall he hit 39 of 96 for 40.6 percent).
After Harris broke the thumb in a Section VI Class AA championship win over Riverside, coach Dan Bazzani said it would take a "miracle" for Harris to play in the Far West Regionals.
But when coach Bazzani saw the look in Harris' eyes as they boarded the bus for Rochester that morning, he knew Harris was going to try to play. All Harris did was collect 20 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in a 72-68 win over East to send Niagara Falls to Glens Falls. He played with the injury as he averaged 21.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists in four games in the state championships.
Harris averaged 19.7 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists for the season to give him career-record totals at the 5-year-old school in points (1,116) and rebounds (670). His 146 assists broke 2002 grad (and point guard) Demondi Johnson's mark by Harris' uniform number: 11.
The next uniform worn by the 18-year-old will be for a prep school in order to meet academic qualifying standards for Division I schools. Syracuse appears to be leading the recruiting race, and Jim Boeheim opened the recruiting season Wednesday by visiting Harris in Niagara Falls' gym.
"All I ever wanted to do was win a state championship," Harris said. "The Federation was a bonus, and I thought about being ranked, but not No. 3 (by USA Today). That was a bonus, too. I'm happy, but I'm also kind of sad, knowing that it's over and there's no more practices or games for us."