Tobias Harris has made a career out of keeping his composure on the court, but Thursday night, in the high school gymnasium where his NBA dreams took shape, Harris lost it.
His No. 12 Half Hollow Hills West jersey had just been retired -- a surprise wrinkle to a ceremony honoring the Colts' first basketball county championship team of 2007-08. Harris was in the process of thanking his father, Torrel, and mother, Lisa, when he got so choked up that he had to halt his speech just moments after presenting flowers to his mom and embracing his dad.
"These two people are so important to me,'' Harris said, through tears, cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd that remained after the Colts' 83-48 victory over Riverhead. "I want to thank them. A special thank you. This is such an honor and a blessing to have my number retired. It's a major achievement.''
Harris, the Orlando Magic's second-leading scorer with an 18-point average, arrived at the gym at 6:50, during halftime of the boys' varsity game. He sat with his parents, sisters Tesia and Tori, and brother T.J. behind the Hills West bench. He was joined there by most of his teammates on the 2007-08 Hills West team that went 23-2, including a school-record 23-game winning streak. Balloons in the school colors of red and gold hung in that section of bleachers.
About an hour later, Harris, 22, was announced as a "pretty good sophomore on that team'' by coach Bill Mitaritonna, who also introduced John Conneely ("the best pass-first point guard we've ever had here''), David DiMaria, Will Hennep, Cory Knox, John Matzelle, Chris Pabisch and Steven Rollino. Four others were unable to attend the event that was the brainchild of Mitaritonna.
"I wanted to take care of my first group of county champions, but I wanted to wait until they all were done with college,'' Mitaritonna said. "When the NBA schedule came out in September, I spoke to Tobias. The Magic are playing in the Garden [tonight]. Credit should go to Riverhead, too. Coach John Rossetti agreed to switch this game. It was supposed to be at Riverhead.''
Mitaritonna never told Harris that his jersey would be retired, adding to the drama of the evening.
"That's why it was emotional for me,'' Harris said. "I was thinking about how far I've come as a player and as a person. I was surprised about the jersey. This was a memorable night. Not a day goes by that I don't think about my high school career and playing for the county championship. I grew up here, dreaming about playing in the NBA.''
Harris became the second Hills West athlete to have his jersey retired. The first one, Redskins defensive end Stephen Bowen (Class of 2002), was at the Dix Hills gymnasium and presented Harris with a framed, glass-enclosed jersey that the forward wore in high school. Harris had done the same, presenting Bowen with his high school football jersey in a 2010 ceremony.
The current players had a major role Thursday night as well. While the 2007-08 players were being introduced, the 2014-15 squad climbed to the top of the bleachers and carefully hung two large banners that were covered with brown paper until the moment when they were unveiled.
One was for the team, listing the roster and team record. The other was for Harris, with a replica of the jersey he had just been presented.
"Anybody that saw him speak just now and how he acted knows and understands how special he is,'' Mitaritonna said. "He did all the little things that made him special. He's a role model on and off the court for the guys on this team and for my three kids.''