DALLAS — Former NBA coach Del Harris grew up in Indiana idolizing fellow Hoosier Stater John Wooden. During Final Four weekend next month in North Texas, Harris will receive the Coach Wooden “Keys to Life” award at the Legends of Hardwood breakfast.
Harris, 76, coached for more than 50 years, starting at junior high, high school and college before guiding the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. He spent many more years as a top assistant, including in Dallas under Don Nelson. Harris, who lives in Dallas, remains tied to the game as the vice president of the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate Texas Legends in suburban Dallas. Harris is also a part-time studio analyst on New Orleans Pelicans broadcasts.
The “Keys to Life” honor is akin to a lifetime achievement award. That it is in the name of the legendary Wooden means the world to Harris, who as an ordained minister started out in life as a preacher, “and I still do that most of the time,” Harris said Friday prior to the Mavs taking on the Pacers, “but it became obvious early on that what I was called to do was coach basketball, primarily.”
The significance of coach Wooden’s influence on Harris’ life and his career is best told by Harris, a walking, talking basketball encyclopedia in his own right:
“When I was growing up in Indiana, I grew up 30 miles or so from Martinsville, where he played. When I was quite young and starting to play, the NBA hadn’t started yet. So our heroes in those days in Indiana were the high school players and the college players that had established themselves. Guys like coach Wooden, he was the No. 1 as a player winning the championships in high school and then being at Purdue, the best player at that time, in our little world. Those were our heroes.
“Then in the ’50s in high school, the NBA by then had started up. There were eight teams playing, nothing on TV or anything like that. John Wooden was a guy that was the epitome of basketball for me and for a lot of others when we were kids. And so when I started coaching, he was on top, obviously, and I went wherever I could to listen to his clinics. I went to New York one time just to hear him. I patterned as much as I could from his work and what I learned from him and also from Dean Smith, just a little bit later on he came into our place in 1966-67 and spent a few days in my home. Those two guys were the foundation for what I tried to do. Now, I was a poor representation of John Wooden I’m sure, but later on when I was in L.A., I was able to spend time with him, I sat in on UCLA practices and watched the team practice, I took him to lunch, I sat in his apartment for an entire afternoon and talked about basketball and life.
“My dad, when he died, I was going through his things and he always — he called coach Wooden, coach Wooten, but he also thought Iowa was Ioway, too, so — but anyway he thought he [Wooden] was the best ever and so forth. When going through his things, he had a picture, I don’t know where he got it, of the Wooden family — he had a Wooden family photo among his things. And so I know that, he’s been gone now since 1998 and it was a life-changing event for me when he died, I know that of all the things that might have come my way, this would be the most important thing that my dad would have appreciated.”
Congratulations to Del Harris.
Also to be honored during the Final Four is another Dallas resident and basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. She has been named the Naismith Outstanding Contributor to Women’s College Basketball.
Lieberman became the first women to coach a professional men’s team when she guided the D-League Legends for one season. She currently joins Harris in the franchise’s front office and is a full-time studio analyst on Oklahoma City Thunder broadcasts.