South African trip an eye-opener for Tobias Harris

Orlando Magic player Tobias Harris directs a yoga Orlando Magic player Tobias Harris directs a yoga session with the kids at his basketball camp at Half Hollow Hills East high school in Dix Hills, Friday, August 22, 2014. Photo Credit: George A. Faella

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On a hand-written sign outside the gym at Half Hollow Hills East High School in Dix Hills, hand-written in purple, blue and green lettering, are these words, cited as the motto for the Tobias Harris Basketball Camp: "One small act of kindness."

The sign contains color photos of Harris, a Dix Hills native, dunking a basketball for his current NBA team, the Orlando Magic. Harris runs the camp, along with his parents and five siblings, and on a recent trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the NBA's Basketball without Borders program, the former Half Hollow Hills West star put his motto into practice.

"We went to some areas of poverty. At one place, the kids were asking me, 'Do you want your socks?'" Harris said on Friday, on the final day of his camp's second and final session of the summer. "One of them asked me, 'Do you need them?' I said, 'Why do you ask me that?' He said, 'If you don't want them, I'll take them.' It wasn't just because he wanted an NBA player's socks. It was because they didn't have socks. I gave them to him."

Just as he is at his hometown camp, where youngsters ask him about playing in the NBA, hang on his every word as well as his arms and legs and ask him to sign jerseys, photos and basketballs, Harris was a Pied Piper in Johannesburg. Kids followed him everywhere and left a lasting impression.

"It opened my eyes about a lot of things," said Harris, whose camp just completed its fourth year of operation. "Just helping those kids in Africa learn basketball and being in the community with them. The best part of the trip was seeing how happy those kids were to see us. They come from so little but they really appreciate life. It was definitely a different culture out there. Everybody was grateful just to be living."

Johannesburg was just part of a whirlwind, world-wide summer for Harris. In late July, he was a member of the USA Select Team that played against the touring U.S. National Team. "Playing against the best of the best and doing well was a big confidence builder to show me that my game is getting better," said Harris, who averaged 14.6 points and 7.0 rebounds for the Magic last season, his third in the NBA. "It was an honor to be part of that group."

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When he returned from South Africa, Harris joined NBA stars like Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker, J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony at Anthony's private gym in Manhattan, Terminal 23. "It's the Jordan gym and it's only for NBA guys," Harris said. "I went into the city quite a few times and played pickup games. Going against those guys and having that good pro run is valuable for a player like me, just to see how I'm developing."

Harris may live a privileged have-basketball-will-travel life, but he's always happy to be home, laughing with kids who know his name, his game and some of whom wear a white, pinstriped Orlando Magic shirt with the number 12 and the word Harris on the back.

"I love these kids. I love all of them. They're not shy about letting me know they have my jersey. 'Can you sign it? Can you sign it?' But it's so cool and it's pretty special," Harris said, as several boys lined up for autographs during a pizza break in the cafeteria. "I'm always here, every day all day. It wouldn't be right for me to have a camp with my name on it and only show up for an hour."

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