It was the moment that changed everything, the moment when Tobias Harris went from a happy-go-lucky kid who loved basketball to one determined to make it in the NBA.
Harris, now a starting forward for the Orlando Magic, had just completed his sophomore year at Half Hollow Hills West High School when he received a call that his close friend and former teammate, Morgan Childs, had died at age 17 in California after a battle with leukemia. Harris attended the funeral with his father, and as they walked out of the church, he made a promise to himself and his friend.
"He looked at me and said that he was going to make it to the top and he was going to do it wearing Morgan's number, No. 12," said Harris' father, Torrel. "He knew how much Morgan loved the game, and he made a promise to keep his spirit with him always."
Though it hasn't always been possible for Harris to fulfill that promise, he will be wearing No. 12 Wednesday when the Magic plays the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Harris wore No. 12 in high school and the University of Tennessee, but the number already was taken when he got to the Milwaukee Bucks as a rookie, so he had to wear No. 15.
When the Bucks traded Harris to Orlando last month as part of the J.J. Redick deal, one of the first things he did was ask if No. 12 was available. The move caused a minor stir in the Orlando media, given that it had belonged to Dwight Howard, the superstar who deserted the team for Los Angeles. Orlando, however, gave him the number. That -- plus the change of scenery -- has brought Harris good fortune.
Harris, only 20 years old, is averaging 15.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists and shooting 49.6 percent for the Magic. Unlike Milwaukee, which had restricted Harris to small forward because it had so many frontcourt players, the Magic has used him at both forward positions and he has started the last four games, playing 40 minutes in the last two. Harris has gone from a bench player averaging 4.9 points with Milwaukee to a versatile, essential piece in Orlando's rebuild.
"This has been a great opportunity for me," Harris said. "I learned a lot playing in Milwaukee, and now I'm trying to take advantage of the opportunity I have here to show what I can do."
Harris said it has been an honor to be able to wear Morgan's number again, and said he often thinks of the player he first started teaming with in second grade. The two won a 10-and-under AAU national championship when they were on the Unique All-Stars, a Long Island-based team coached by Harris' father. They remained close even after Childs' family moved to California before high school.
No one has been more thrilled to watch Harris' success than Reggie Childs, Morgan's father.
Said Childs: "My son and Tobias, they were both tremendous players who came up together. It says a lot about Tobias for him to remember my son the way he does. For me, and for the rest of my family, every time we see Tobias out there, it's like we got to play in the NBA, too. Tobias is a special player and a special person."