Vince Ellis Detroit Free Press
Published 6:01 AM EST Feb 4, 2019
A special audience awaited Los Angeles Clippers forward Tobias Harris early Saturday evening.
Fresh from overcoming a 25-point deficit in beating the Detroit Pistons, 111-101, at Little Caesars Arena, a freshly dressed Harris walked toward the section of seats behind the visitors’ bench.
There, more than 100 Detroit-area kids, bearing T-shirts acknowledging their connection to the former Piston, waited anxiously from a few words from Harris.
It’s a continuation of the mentorship programs he started while with the Pistons for almost two years.
And it showed his determination in keeping the programs going — despite being traded to the Clippers last year in the transaction that brought Blake Griffin to the Pistons.
It’s reminiscent of how he has kept the programs going in Orlando after he was traded to the Pistons before the 2016 trade deadline.
All of it is evidence of Harris’ high character.
And all while averaging nearly 21 points per game and shooting 43 percent from 3-point range for a team battling for a playoff spot in the rugged Western Conference.
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But the eight-year veteran is still seeking respect.
He was denied his first All-Star Game appearance on Thursday when coaches picked seven others as the Western Conference reserves.
He was traded four times before his 26th birthday.
Harris admitted he wonders why he is always deemed expendable.
“I pride myself on being professional, doing right,” Harris said in explaining how his value goes beyond the stat sheet. “But that could also be a value to another organization. God always has a plan for you. Every situation I’ve been traded to, I’ve been blessed and fortunate to be in a good situation. I came here, and it was a great situation to be coming to, to be part of a good culture.
“I got to the playoffs (in 2016), that was great experience for me. Also to be able to play in this new arena. I really enjoyed my time here, I embraced the city. It was fun time to be a part of it.”
Harris’ situation reminds of Pistons great Chauncey Billups.
The MVP of the 2004 NBA Finals, he had his No. 1 jersey retired by the organization in 2016.
Though he was one of the catalysts of the Pistons’ last title team, that didn’t stop former team president Joe Dumars from trading Billups to the Denver Nuggets in November 2008 for Allen Iverson.
He played for seven different franchises and was traded five times.
Although he had a measure of stability with the Pistons for six seasons, he expressed his frustration when the Knicks used the amnesty provision to waive Billups in 2011.
It was also an attempt to dissuade teams from claiming him off waivers.
“I’m tired of being the good guy,” Billups told Yahoo! Sports. “I’m tired of being viewed as the guy. After a while, you just kind of get taken advantage of in these situations. I’ve been known as a leader, and I am a leader, but a leader can be as disruptive as he can be productive, especially when you carry a strong voice and people rally around you. This is about me now. This is about me, and teams should know that right now.”
Billups was a constant victim of the business of the game — Dumars traded the franchise stalwart to create cap space while looking to keep the Pistons remain competitive on the fly.
It didn’t go well.
In Harris’ case, he was traded to get Griffin, who is having one of the best statistical seasons in franchise history.
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The Clippers wanted to move Griffin’s contract and Harris allows them to remain competitive until his contract comes off the books this offseason when the organization will have the cap space to sign to max free agents.
Harris likely understands it; he just doesn’t have to like it.
And he will hold the hammer this offseason as an unrestricted free agent who can dictate his next destination.
“That moment will present itself when it happens, but I don’t really look too much into right now,” Harris said. “I’m just focused on our team and helping my team get to the playoffs. That’s the biggest thing.”
An All-Star berth would have been a little icing on his successful season.
Harris admitted his disappointment.
“I thought I played at that level, but next year,” Harris said. “That’s what I look forward to. We’ll see what happens.”
Leaving his footprints
At one point, Harris appeared to be a key part of the Pistons’ future.
And he threw himself into community initiatives. Harris and former Pistons teammate Marcus Morris sponsored a town hall event on race relations in 2016. He partnered with an inner-city grocer to donate 500 turkeys to city residents last year.
And with the help of his parents, he developed mentorship programs.
But with no obvious tie to Detroit, why does he insist on helping the city?
His father, Torrel, said Tobias was touched when after he was traded to the Pistons, an Orlando-area youth was distraught, openly wondering if Harris was going to leave his life forever.
The child didn’t understand that Harris making a true commitment that wasn’t based on geography.
“A lot of the kids have different figures go in and out their lives and for me, I always want to be a part of that and show consistency,” Harris said. “It’s something they can move forward with.”
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