Smooth Transition: Ty Harris groomed to be Gamecocks' leader

Smooth Transition: Ty Harris groomed to be Gamecocks' leader

By Josh Hyber/Photo illustration by Lauren A. Haley

Editor’s note: This article appears in the December issue of the Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe, click here or the subscribe link above.

Every February, as predictable as a central Indiana snowstorm — no matter what she does to prevent it — Ty Harris gets sick. Every winter, like clockwork, Harris gets her common cold for a few days and it moves on. No harm, no foul.

But when Harris’s Heritage Christian (Ind.) basketball team advanced in the state playoffs her senior year of high school and her February sickness came, it didn’t leave. Not only that, it got worse and worse and became the flu. The week of the state semifinals, Harris couldn’t practice. 

“I think I had a sinus infection and the flu,” Harris said. “It was really bad.”

Harris’s status for the game, though, was never in doubt. She dragged herself to school and, on what little food she ate that week, led her team to a victory over rival South Bend Saint Joseph.

“Ty being Ty, she’s not going to miss a game,” said her dad, Bruce Harris. “I can see her run into a wall and she’s not going to tell you she’s hurt. You have to protect Ty from herself.”

“I call it my Jordan Flu Game,” Harris said smiling, referring to Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals when a dehydrated and exhausted Michael Jordan willed himself to 38 points.

“I was drinking a lot of Gatorade. I tried to act like him.”

The story comes up often when talking with Harris and those closest to her. They use it to explain not only the player she is, but the person. They use it to prove how Harris, now the starting point guard at South Carolina, lets her play do the talking. 

They use it to describe her as a leader.

The 20-year-old junior admits she shies away from attention. She prefers to let her play do her talking, something that speaks volumes considering she steered the ship as a freshman on the Gamecocks’ 2017 national championship team and led Heritage Christian to three state titles in her final three years of high school.

It’s impressive, considering she was a 2018 All-SEC second-teamer and before this season was named to the watch lists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, given to the nation’s best point guard, and the Naismith Trophy, given to the nation’s best player.

“Being a leader is not easy at all,” Harris said on a late November day in the lobby of the Carolina Coliseum. “Some days you’re going to struggle, and you need your teammates to pick you up. But you have to be the person who’s always doing the right things at the right time.

“People look up to you, so you can’t have a bad day. And if you do have a bad day you’ve got to have a poker face, because your teammates are watching you and how you react. 

“Being a leader isn’t easy, but it’s fun.”

About 24 hours later those teammates looked to her more than they had all season (with the program on the verge of losing three games in a row for the first time since November 2010), and she delivered, scoring double-digit points in the third quarter as SC held on and beat Dayton 65-55.

“Ty has been leading since her freshmen year,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said at SEC Media Day in October. “And sometimes her leadership goes under the radar because of who we had on those first two teams [she was on here].

“This year it’s wide open for her to step in and utilize some of her leadership skills.”

THE BIRTH OF 52

Tyasha Harris was born into a basketball family in East Lansing, Mich. but grew up in Noblesville, Ind. One cousin, Shay Murphy, played professionally, while another, LaSonya Collins, played at Michigan State. Rumor also has it that one of Harris’s grandmothers played one summer in a Gus Macker 3-on-3 tournament.

“My grandma used to say I would always watch my dad play on the blacktops outside,” Harris said. “That I used to sit in the stroller and watch him go back and forth.”

But the local YMCA didn’t have a girls’ league, so Harris played from the time she was 3 or 4 years old with boys. “I had a 6, 7, 8-year-old daughter out there dominating boys,” Bruce Harris said. “Ty being Ty, she was always bossy, running point guard, telling everyone what to do.”

One day, though, Ty stopped scoring.

Little did the Harris’s know the league had a rule preventing players from scoring more than 18 points. “That’s when the commissioner of the league told us she was really good and should play travel ball,” Shannon Greer Harris, Ty’s mom, remembered.

It was also around then that Harris decided on something that would define her uniqueness as her career went on. 

“We had to go to this facility to pick out our numbers, and I was waiting in line for like five hours,” Harris said, only a slight hint of sarcasm in her voice. “I was ready to go, and by the time I got up there and they asked me what number I wanted, I was like, ‘No, I’m ready to go.’ They were like, ‘Just pick a number.’ 

“So the first number that popped in my head was 52. I don’t know where it came from or how it came about. It stuck from the fourth grade until now.”

THE MAKING OF SMOOTH 

It took about an hour for Stephanie Roach to determine she needed Ty Harris. Harris, the only star player on her school team, scored or assisted on every basket and led her team to victory over Roach’s travel team, one that featured a several future Division-I prospects. “Ty was the only kid that gave us problems,” Roach said. “I knew then that she was something special.’” 

“She just destroyed us,” said Katlyn Gilbert, who now plays for Notre Dame.

That summer, Harris played for a team out of Best Choice Fieldhouse in Fishers, Ind. at an AAU tournament at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando. Though she was in fourth grade, Harris played on a team with fifth and sixth graders.  

“Ty was Ty. She went out there and did what she needed to do,” Roach said. “She was not one to out-show anybody or outplay anybody. That’s just how she is.” 

They named her Smooth. “There was no holding back,” Roach said. “She took off at that point.”

Even with a roster loaded with talent, Roach put the ball in Harris’s hands. 

“It was her basketball IQ,” the coach said. “And then she has a way with other players of directing them. She was our coach on the court. Even at that young age, she was always directing.”

“You could always tell she had something different about her,” Gilbert said. “I always knew she would be big and do big things. … She was always head and shoulders above everybody else.”

Along the way, Harris naturally became the team’s leader.

“Most kids at her position are very … they’re very barky. ‘Do it this way.’” Roach said. “But Ty relates to everybody on the team. If you got in the game, Ty was going to make sure you got a shot. Ty, she led. She was that type of leader. She speaks to every single player on her team.”

Added the coach, “She’s the one, if you take a bad shot or you piss your coach off, and the coach hollers at you, Ty’s coming up right behind you like, ‘Hey, if you feel like that’s the right shot, take it again.’ Or, ‘That’s OK, we’ll get it next time.’”

“She was a natural-born leader. She wasn’t a leader that always told you negative things. She would go around and tell you positive things and give you high-fives. You may have a disagreement on the court, but off the court she was one of your best friends,” Gilbert said. “She has everyone’s best interests on her mind.”

There were many memorable tournaments along the way, like one in Michigan she and her team won — large crystal trophy and all — after finishing second several years in a row. Or one during the team’s later years in Tennessee that Ty was, in Bruce Harris’s words, on a “totally different level, couldn’t be guarded and couldn’t miss.”

Above all, there was the Deep South Classic in Raleigh, N.C. when Harris was a freshman in high school and played against some of the country’s top upperclassmen. Seventy-five to 100 college coaches watched every game, despite BCU being the only unaffiliated team in the tournament.

“But everyone was coming to our games,” Roach said. “And they were coming to watch Smooth.”

 

HERITAGE’S IT FACTOR

Coach Rick Risinger, who has led Heritage Christian to six state titles in the past 10 years, said it was an easy decision to name Harris a starter as a freshman.

“She had a lot of the same traits you see right now,” the coach said. “I mean, there’s a certain level of confidence, a certain level of competitiveness and obviously a skill set that was really nice. Some players are good players. Some players have the It factor.

“She had the It factor.”

As a freshman, Harris led her team to a state semifinal appearance, but it lost to by seven. The game — which Harris mentions first when asked about her most memorable high school games — made her realized that there are times players who have the It factor have to take over. 

“She was always confident in her ability to play and her skill level,” Risinger said. “She was kind of a quiet leader. She was not a rah-rah, let’s get it done type of leader. The leadership came more from stepping up and doing the things we needed.” 

Harris led exemplary and skillfully. She didn’t yell.

When Gilbert came to Heritage, Harris pulled her aside. “Play your game. You’re good enough. You deserve to be here,” she said. “Our team needs you. Play your game and be confident.”

According to Risinger, Harris became frustrated in the months leading up to her senior season. The coach didn’t know why, so he spoke with her mom. It turns out Harris was thinking too much about asserting herself and taking control. 

She did, leading the Eagles to a 26-4 record, including the infamous Flu Game that was followed by a 51-45 victory in the state title game after the Eagles trailed going into the fourth quarter.  

“I saw that light switch go off in her head and her say to herself, ‘My team needs me,’” Gilbert said. “She just went out and dominated. You could see that the girls on the court couldn’t guard her.” 

Iowa and Michigan State were in the mix for Harris, who averaged 23.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.5 steals and 3.8 assists as a senior, but something intrigued her about playing for someone who once played her position — Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley.

LEARNING TO LEAD 

Harris admires South Carolina program legend A’ja Wilson, someone she often referred to during their two years playing together as her “safe house.” But this season, and from here on out, Harris doesn’t have that safe house.

It’s now Ty’s Time.

“I try not to think about it being my time or that I have to do all the scoring now,” Harris said. “I think now, not having A’ja, anyone can show up at any time.”

As Staley said at SEC Media Day, Harris has a clean slate to be able to lead.

“She doesn’t have a choice,” Wilson said before this season. “It’s just one of those things and situations that I was put in when Aleighsa Welch and Tiffany Mitchell left. It’s tough. It is tough at a young age, especially for her to step up in this way, but the clock is ticking and it’s not stopping for no one.

“She’s getting there. She’s vocally getting there. But at the same time, vocal leaders aren’t always the best. Some lead by their actions.”

Wilson hit the nail on its head. 

Though Roach, Risinger, Gilbert and even Harris herself agree that she’s not the “rah-rah” type, she leads in her own way. “I don’t like being all in the lights and stuff like that,” Harris said. “I kind of like just to sit back and pick and choose when I want to do something.”

It happens “occasionally” that Harris will get in someone’s face or give the passionate speech, but most of her pregame chats with her teammates include only scouting reports on the opponent. She tells them to “give all the glory to God and have fun.”

Wilson, who won WNBA Rookie of the Year was named a WNBA All-Star, said Harris has the ability to play in the WNBA because of her IQ.

THE REAL TY HARRIS LEGACY

“Ty was always very independent, and people were just drawn to her,” Shannon Greer Harris said. “Even at school, teachers would always say, ‘Ty is very quiet at first, but once you get to know her and once she trusts you, then she’s funny and very talkative.” 

It takes a bit, but once Harris’s wall comes down, she’s sneaky funny. Polite. Insightful.

Most importantly, she’s a role model to her two younger sisters.

“She motivates me to be a great dancer,” says 10-year-old Tamara, who enjoys riding in cars with Ty because “she plays music really loud and we sing along.” 

“And she always has me show her my dance moves. Then she tries them herself.”

Twelve-year-old Talia wants to be just like her big sister. (“She’s Ty’s clone. And she may be just as good as Ty, if not better,” Roach said.) Talia, too, enjoys the car rides, as well as when Ty cooks for her and lets her hang out with her friends at restaurants.

There’s also a budding rivalry between the two, which came to a head once when the Harris family dropped Ty off in Columbia. “There’s the practice facility,” Bruce Harris told his daughters. “Let’s go. No more excuses.” 

It was 11 o’clock at night and both were wearing flip flops.

“I wasn’t even really going hard and [Talia] was making these lucky shots,” Ty said. “I’m like, ‘What?’ I got a little mad and then she went behind the back. I reached for it and then she crossed me over. The best crossover. And then she laid it up for the win.

“She going to hold that over me for the rest of her life.”

“She started hooting and hollering,” Bruce said. “That made her world.”

“If you ask her right now she’ll tell you she can beat me,” Ty said.

Talia agrees, especially because Ty turned down a rematch in December. “She didn’t want to get beat again,” Talia said. “But I still want to play her.”

THE BREAKFAST CLUB 

About 40 minutes into Harris’s first workout with trainer Derick Grant at Best Choice Fieldhouse back in 2014, she left the gym to throw up. “But she came back and finished the last half hour,” Grant said. More importantly, she also came back for more workouts. 

Harris knew. She knew if she wanted to become a Division-I athlete she needed to be in the best shape of her life. So she put her trust in Grant.

“When we first started, the skill was there, you could tell she was an extraordinary player. She had something you can’t teach,” Grant said. “But the motor and the work ethic were just a little behind what her skill was.” 

Harris, Gilbert, future Virginia star Kyle Guy and a few others dubbed themselves the Workaholics and The Breakfast Club and worked out together every morning.

“There were times when she’d workout, throw up and then come back and finish the workout,” Grant said. “That’s how Ty is. Ty is a go-getter. When she starts something, she’s going to finish it.”

Before this season, Harris flew to Naples, Fla., where Grant now lives, to go through a week of conditioning. Grant put Harris through sprints, shuffles and backpedaling on the beach. On the court, he beat her up in full-court one-on-one situations. They worked on dribbling with both hands and jumping off of either foot, two things Staley told her she needed to work on.

“I can say now she’s at that point,” Grant said. “She’s hungry. If I told her to run through a brick wall she’d say, ‘Alright. What time do you want me to be on the other side?’ “If she can learn how to still be that skilled when she’s tired, there’s not a girl in the country who can stay in front of her,” Grant said.

The week’s lessons also centered on leadership, when and what to say in what situations, mental aspects of the game and how Harris needs to be mentally there 100 percent of the time.

“Last year I kind of went through the motions sometimes,” Harris said. “I was there just to be there. That wasn’t good for my team and it wasn’t there for me. I needed to be mentally there and mentally strong and fight through.”

She had to make training and practices game-like.

“I have a tendency to worry or not think I’m good enough at the moment until I get into the swing of things,” Harris said.

It took her a few days to realize she could compete with the Team USA players she scrimmaged against at a camp this summer. 

“You’re going to have to be more vocal for the level you want to get to,” Grant told her. “You’re going to have to be the point guard, the general on the floor. You can’t be the quiet one that takes someone to the side. That works sometimes, but for the most part you have to be known as the voice of the team.

“You can’t worry about what someone’s going to say or think if you have your heart in the right place. If you’re genuinely trying to help the team, you won’t care what other people think. Because there’s a goal in mind. That’s what true leaders do, they put their own feelings aside if it’s better for the whole team.”

There’s also this: Grant also believes Harris is just hitting her stride and she’s “not even close” to her ceiling. 

Bruce Harris sees it.

“You can see her pointing or actually getting on somebody or trying to motivate her teammates or pick them up,” he said. “I would say, in the last two games [against Oregon State and Drake], you can really tell that they’re starting to follow her lead and believe in her.

“And I think she’s starting to believe in herself as a leader too.”