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Harris down but not out Former Falls star harbors NBA dream with new focus Cover Story: Once a teen-age phenom, Paul Harris tries to keep his career alive in NBA D-League.

The entourage in waiting walks in unison across the court, gathers near the player tunnel and the stories begin.

None of them thought it'd come to this. None of them ever believed Paul Harris -- a national phenomenon at Niagara Falls -- would ever be fighting for his basketball life with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League.

But, 15-strong after Maine's game here, memories are fresh. Tales of Harris' man-child reign in the Falls begin, one after another, back to a time when he was a prodigy.

Uncle Dexter remembers the first dunk. He was officiating the boys club game and Paul was 13. A teammate threw Harris the ball, he rose into the air and "Booooom!" Dexter yells, backpedaling in hysteria. "We had to stop the game!"

Dad? Paul Harris Sr. remembers the first broken rim. It was at the YMCA and grandma was in the stands. "My mother just grabbed her heart!" Dad says. "I mean, he broke the rim." Again, the court was rushed. Again, the game was stopped.

Sherron Collins, the former Kansas star demoted to Harris' D-League team, remembers Nike Camp. Fear took on a life form. In the corner of Collins' eye, Harris appears from the locker room and Collins points at him.

"He's been that size since his freshman year of high school," Collins says. "That size. Guys on my team would say, 'Man, we have to go against Paul Harris!?' "

He should be bitter, should absolutely loathe this banishment to Maine. The 10-hour bus rides. The three years at Syracuse that started this. The next-to-impossible odds he'll actually turn this opportunity into a long-term NBA career.

But as Harris embraces each family member, his lottery winner's grin never fades. He's not stressed, not worried, not panicking whatsoever.

Standing nearby, Dad nearly sheds a tear. That smile. He hasn't seen it in years.

For the last half-decade Harris has resembled lost hope, expectations gone haywire. His buildup was unlike anything Western New York basketball has ever seen. Then, without warning, his career began to drown.

Don't worry, he says. No need for the life preserver quite yet. For once, he isn't bogged down by expectations. He's at peace. These days, only one thing matters.

"I can just really focus on basketball," the 24-year-old said. "It's kind of different to only have to worry about basketball."

> Worst time of his life

Paul Harris is a fighter. Always has been. Dad made sure of that.

Back when his son was 9, 10 years old, one-on-one games were war. Dad shoved him, elbowed him and yelled "Bang Patrol!" while ramming into the paint. After scoring, he'd spit on the basketball and punt it off into the distance.

"Way, way, way over there and tell him to go get it," Paul Sr. said. "I told him, 'This is how it's going to be when you grow up.' "

Punch or get punched. That's life on the east side of Niagara Falls. Dad instilled a swagger to survive it.

So maybe this was a collision course all along at Syracuse. Harris, the fighter. Jim Boeheim, the epitome of structure. The lease for eternal residency in his coach's doghouse was practically inked on signing day.

"Paul was somebody who always wanted to prove himself," said Sal Constantino, a mentor and coach of Harris' at Niagara Falls. "If you walked onto the court and said, 'Paul, you're a terrible shooter,' and he had a game that night, he was going to show you."

The creative, explosive Harris that led the Falls to a state title was replaced by a rigid, tentative shell. The system didn't fit. In Boeheim's 2-3 zone, Harris appeared out of his element. Lost, at times. Jonny Flynn, Harris' old running mate in high school, saw Harris' confidence suffer.

"With the hype he had coming out of high school," said Flynn, "it's hard to match that."

Eventually, Harris reached his tipping point. Midway through his collegiate career, he bolted Syracuse for home. Just ran away. Alone in his room, he coiled up into bed and cried. And cried, and cried.

Dad never saw anything like it.

"He was in the corner, in the [expletive] corner of his bed," Harris Sr. said. "That was the worst time in my son's life I couldn't help but cry right along with him. He wanted to leave. And I said, 'Son, if you want to leave, I'm a hundred, thousand, million, billion percent behind you.' "

The rocky marriage lasted three years, with Harris averaging a modest 11.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. After his junior year, he declared for the NBA Draft. Or, Boeheim put his name in with Flynn and Eric Devendorf.

The truth remains blurry. Boeheim declined to be interviewed. Dad says Harris hadn't decided yet. Either way, enough was enough.

Harris would get drafted by an NBA team and finally -- once and for all -- prove to everybody he is still feared, still some Marvel-superhuman force.

So much was riding on draft night. He's the first member of his family to reach college, period. Countless friends and family members were in need of money, hope. He has two kids of his own. Getting drafted was Harris' cure-all ticket to bliss.

And all 30 teams passed.

A half-hour after the draft, Harris knocked on his dad's door in Niagara Falls. The knock surprised him. Dad figured his son would be missing for days. They hugged and hopped in the car. Together, they drove around the city for an hour, heading nowhere in particular.

They talked about Harris Sr.'s mother, who had just passed away. They talked about Niagara Falls, talked about Syracuse. And Harris, looking squarely in his dad's eyes, talked about still making it.

"It's going to be all right," he told his dad. "It's going to be all right."

> Back on his feet

Rap blaring, 70 minutes before tipoff, a bunch of pro hopefuls making chump change warm up half-heartedly.

"Teach Me How to Dougie" -- today's infectious dance craze -- comes on and some Maine players suddenly show life, bobbing their heads and lip-syncing the lyrics. Collins ignores his ball entirely and gets his Dougie on.

Harris doesn't flinch. His demeanor stays the same -- cold, focused, oblivious to the noise around him. Shot after shot, his gray long-sleeve darkens with sweat. This is no joke. To Harris, tonight's game in Erie is another opportunity to prove he belongs.

Far, far away, Harris has found tranquility. The 2003 drug possession charge, 2004 third-degree assault charge and three-year migraine at Syracuse are all behind him.

In Maine, Harris' daily schedule is simple: wake up at 9, go to practice an hour early, stay after an hour late, come home. Harris insists his days "living the fast life" are over. Instead, he's loving this new apartment-living, penny-pinching, one-dimensional lifestyle.

"It's straight basketball," he said, "and I'm cool with that."

This season, Harris is averaging 12.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He rarely ever calls home. An occasional phone home to his parents, text to Constantino, call to Flynn. That's all.

But with each snapshot, all three agree that the on-court Harris of old -- the one Flynn remembers opponents literally running away from on fastbreaks in high school -- is resurfacing.

"Oh, he is hungry," Flynn said. "He is hun-gree. This is the Paul Harris I saw in high school right now. His confidence might have taken a slight hit at Syracuse because of the situation. But he's back at it now."

Harris' brief taste of the NBA last year ended abruptly. The date -- September 21, 2009 -- is stitched in his memory. In the Utah Jazz's training camp, Harris received a text message from all-star guard Deron Williams and couldn't contain himself.

He'd mark his territory. He'd send a message. One problem.

"I was so excited to go play, I didn't get my ankle taped," Harris said. "I came down bad on my ankle and was out eight months."

Utah waived Harris and the Red Claws drafted him. When Harris returned home, Niagara Falls became some cruel bizarro world. Friends, everywhere, abandoned him. Back in high school, people always pretended to be Harris' cousin. That was the trick to somehow wire into his future bank account.

When that account appeared to dry up -- Maine? You're in Maine? -- they fled.

"I couldn't wait to get out of there," Harris said. "The best thing for me to do is to stay away from Niagara Falls."

One of Harris' (actual) cousins from the Falls, Tim Winn, saw this coming. Rarely does talent ever rise out of the eastside muck.

"And because it's so rare, everyone in the world jumps on your side," Winn said. "When things are going good everyone wants to take credit for what you accomplished. There's three types of people -- your family, your real friends and fake friends. When you can tell the difference between the three, that's when your life springboards ahead."

So in Maine, Harris will stay. Playing in the NBDL has been, well, humbling.

During a halftime promo on this night, a man on a scooter crashes into bowling pins and nearly detours into Harris' ankles. Soon after, a Bayhawks' Christmas message on the JumboTron malfunctions. And then, with some superfan in a cape known as "Bubba Luv" heckling the Red Claws from the first row, Harris takes off on a fastbreak.

Showtime. Harris leaps, extends and -- out of nowhere -- is T-boned by an Erie player. Harris' body slingshots forward, his head smashing violently into the base of the basket. But here's the beauty of it all: someone's always watching. Blending in with the crowd is Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach LaSalle Thompson. His eyes are glued to Harris.

"He has a shot," Thompson said. "It depends on how hard he wants to work."

> One purpose

The reason to suck it up and play sprints after Harris screaming "Daddy!" after Maine's first game in Erie.

Right here is why he must get to the NBA. His two sons, 7-year-old Paul III and 3-year-old Nakyhi.

"I definitely want to succeed, just so I can provide for them," Harris said. "Those are two people in this world that really depend on me."

This Christmas, Harris wasn't even sure he could come home. To fully maximize this opportunity, Harris needs to stay in Maine, stay focused.

So he asks Paul III for a Christmas list and cherishes this fleeting moment. Together at Applebees, they share each other's food, both dipping their spoons into apple sauce and eating mozzarella sticks.

The instant stardom most expected vanished a long time ago. This is a process, one that's forced Harris to look into the mirror constantly.

But for once in his life, he's in no rush.

With a Zen-like calm, Harris takes a deep breath. Someday, he half-winks, maybe there will be new stories to tell.

"We'll just have to wait and see."

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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