BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — As Paul Harris has matured through his basketball adventures around the world, so have his court fashions. The headbands, hair braids and high tops of his youth have been replaced by turtlenecks, sport coats, wingtips and tightly cropped waves.
A high-flying phenom from Niagara Falls and prized recruit for Syracuse University, after playing 12 professional seasons in the NBA developmental league and overseas, Harris has transitioned to the next phase of his basketball career with the vibrancy he brought to filling the lane on a fast break.
“I’m really enjoying it,” said Harris, in his second month as an assistant coach for University of Hartford. “I don’t consider this work. Being around the guys, it keeps me young. And being around the game I love, it’s a blessing to have this opportunity.”
Harris brings a world of experience to the sidelines. He played in Turkey, France and the Phillippines, where he starred for a championship team in the world’s second-oldest league.
“I always thought about how I could be an assistant coach, because how they relate more to the players,” said Harris, recalling his connection with former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, now the head coach at Washington. “I’m giving the guys my real life experience. I didn’t read it in a book. I actually went through it. And especially in this era now, with a lot of young guys, you have to have done something for them to respect you.”
A schoolboy star who was breaking backboards by the time he reached middle school, Harris led Niagara Falls High School to a New York State Federation championship in 2005 and was a Jordan Brand Classic all-star in a prep year before arriving at Syracuse as a blue-chip prospect.
If his playing resume doesn’t resonate with the Hartford players, Harris dynamic personality will, said his cousin, Tim Winn, the recent Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
“He was the ultimate team player. I don’t know of another superstar who came through Western New York who was as unselfish as Paul was at Niagara Falls,” said Winn, who led LaSalle to a state title and St. Bonaventure to the NCAA tournament.
“He’s a natural giver,” Winn continued. “He’s the perfect example of paying it forward. There’s a lot of guys who when they stop playing sports, they stop living a little bit. But he’s been able to find that next chapter in his life, and I think it’s going to be a seamless transition.”
Harris joined a Hartford program in transition from NCAA Division I to Division III. Longtime assistant Tom Devitt is the interim head coach following the preseason resignation of John Gallagher, who coached the Hawks to an America East championship in 2021, just prior to the transition.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we are going to build this into a powerhouse,” Harris said.
Harris became friendly with the Hartford basketball staff over the past eight years living near the campus. He coached his 11-year-old son Mason on the AAU circuit this past summer, when a seat on the Hawks’ bench opened at the start of the season, Harris was recruited for the job.
“My first thought was that I didn’t really know if I should do it,” Harris said. “But then my wife pushed me toward doing it. And the way I am, if I start something, I have to go all in.”
Impressed by his new assistant’s grit, determination, humility and soft-spoken nature, Devitt said Harris “combines touted college and professional playing careers with a passion for teaching young people. He’s grateful to call West Hartford home, and we’re thankful he can now positively impact the lives of our student-athletes.”
Harris praised fellow assistants Jeff Rafferty and Jason Dunne for guiding him as a rookie in the coaching game. Harris has so far focused on strengths, his ability to relate to players and lead conditioning workouts by example.
Applying a work ethic honed at the Niagara Falls YMCA and the Gluck Park playgrounds, Harris has developed a grueling regimen that combines basketball drills with endurance training, pool exercises and long recovery sessions in the sauna.
“I’m always getting to the gym an hour or two early, and staying late,” Harris said. “That’s the only way I know how to do it. I’m trying to show the guys my routines, and what it takes to be a professional.”
The wisdom Harris offers the Hartford players is unvarnished, calling upon his best and worst experiences, including domestic disputes that led to misdemeanor arrests during high school and after college.
“I don’t mind sharing the mistakes or flaws that I have had,” Harris said. “I share it all, the good and the bad. Not just in basketball, but in life.”
Coach Jim Boeheim might not have always seen eye-to-eye with Harris during his three years at Syracuse, but the player-coach relationship has strengthened over the years, Harris said.
“From the outside, people saw the way he coached me hard and took it a different way than I took it,” Harris said. “It was all love. And I am forever grateful and thankful for Coach Boeheim.”
Sal Constantino, the coach who used to open the Niagara Falls YMCA gym for Harris at any and all hours, said the image that was portrayed early in his playing career never matched Harris’ true personality.
“People knew what they saw in the news or on TV, but they didn’t know the true Paul,” Constantino said. “Anyone in our high school that knew him would say he was a kind-hearted person. He made some poor decisions. He wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. But even when he made mistakes, his heart was pure.
“As he’s gotten older, he’s really become a man. His maturity, the experiences he’s had, and the way he looks at life is going to be a good influence on college-aged players. I’m really glad to see him stay in the game.”
Harris never fulfilled his NBA potential. But having enjoyed a long and successful basketball career that is continuing after his playing days are over, he has made his Hall of Fame cousin proud and thankful.
“It’s fulfilling to see him in this realm,” Winn said. “I don’t know of another job that better fulfills what comes naturally to him.”