Back on his feet
Once, Warner Pacific College forward Stephen Harris wondered whether he would ever walk again. Once, Harris was told by doctors that he would never play basketball again. Once, Harris had given up his dream of playing college basketball.
The odd thing about medicine and science is that it does not account for the power of the human spirit, nor the power of faith.
Science and medicine also do not account for a man like Stephen Harris, who would not allow his dream to slip away from him.
Just a few years after being told that he would never play basketball again, the 6-foot-5 Harris is the star player for Warner Pacific, averaging a double-double in his senior season.
Character is developed, Warner Pacific mens basketball coach Jared Valentine says. That kind of experience shaped (Harris) and caused him to value his body and the ability to play basketball. Hes been through a number of things as a student, as a person, in the classroom, in his personal life and on the basketball court.
Its been nice to go through those experiences with him and see how theyve shaped him and the person he is.
Harris went to Hillsboro High from 2002 to 2006, where he was named Second Team All-Metro League as a senior after averaging 10.6 points per game.
Some of my best friends are the ones who I created on my basketball team, Harris says. It was a good experience. I lived like 100 yards away from the school. It was really easy for me to get back and forth from school. I really enjoyed going to that school.
After Harris finished his prep career with the Spartans, he chose to go to Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho.
I had a couple of options and I felt like that was my best option, Harris says. My dad and I took a road trip and visited there. I felt really good about Lewis-Clark ... and the coaching staff that was there.
Harris redshirted his first year at Lewis-Clark. One day, Harris was in the weight room. He was lifting weights just like he would any other day. As he did a power clean, though, he felt a sharp pain in his back.
It felt like there was a knife in my back, Harris says.
Harris tried to cowboy up and ignore the pain.
I was dumb about it, Harris says. I thought I had just pulled a muscle. I continued to play and continued to work out and just aggravated it and aggravated it and aggravated it. A month later, I could barely move. I couldnt even get out of bed.
Finally, Harris had to have back surgery. After the operation, the doctors told him that he had a staph infection and he had to have another operation. Even more serious was that the L-4 and L-5 vertebrae in Harris back were bulging out and hitting a nerve that ran down his right leg.
The disc was so far protruding and hitting the nerve so much that it was causing nerve damage and starting to paralyze my right leg, Harris says. I was 50 percent paralyzed in my right leg.
It got to the point where the only way for Harris to walk was to swing his right leg out like a plastic action figure that has been manufactured with a hip joint but no knee joint.
That was when the doctors told Harris that he would never be able to play basketball again. By that point, though, he was not terribly concerned about stepping onto the court. Just taking a normal step was a far more important goal for him.
At that time I had given up my dream of playing college basketball, Harris says. But, by then I wasnt worried about playing basketball again. I just wanted to get my leg back to normal and live a normal life and not have to worry about sitting in a wheelchair or something like that.
At the time I was only 19 years old and I was 50 percent paralyzed in my right leg. It was pretty scary for me.
The rehab process was long, slow and torturous. Eventually, Harris was able to start walking normally again. Then, he began playing recreational basketball during open gyms at Warner Pacific College, where he had transferred.
I never really thought that I would be able to play college basketball again, Harris says. But, I started working out again. I wasnt playing any serious basketball. But, I started attending open gyms.
In those open gyms, Harris realized that his back was not hurting him as much as he had thought it would. He also realized that he still had talent and a love for the game. Harris began working hard, trying to see if perhaps he would be able to play competitive basketball again.
It became a reality, Harris says. I started working hard to get back into shape and doing lots of push-ups and sit-ups and low impact stuff that wouldnt injure my back. Its gradually gotten better and better and better.
Harris knew that if he ever stepped onto the court again he would be defying all medical odds. As a man of faith, he prayed about the precipice that he was standing before and asked God to watch over him.
Im a real big believer in my faith, Harris says. I believe that God had a lot to do with it. I just prayed a lot about it and said that if He wanted me to play basketball, then He would allow me to; and if He didnt, I told Him that I would give Him all the glory and all the honor.
Depending on your views of divinity, what happened next could either be looked at as the will of God, or as an incredible bit of human fortune.
One of Harris best friends from Hilhi, Reggie Guyton, transferred from Oral Roberts University to Warner Pacific to play basketball.
Guyton told then Warner Pacific coach Bart Valentine about Harris. Bart Valentine (the father of current head coach Jared Valentine) found out that Harris still had four years of eligibility remaining. After watching him play in an open gym, Bart Valentine asked Harris to join the Knights team.
Ive been here ever since, Harris says.
When he first began playing at Warner Pacific, Jared Valentine was impressed by Harris athletic ability. Harris was still raw, though.
When he first got here he was coming off a pretty significant back injury and physically he wasnt quite right, Valentine says.
Over the last four years, Harris has had only minimal pain from the back injury that almost ended his career.
As Ive continued to play, Ive had minimal amount of pain, Harris says. It always hurts a little bit but nowhere near with what it used to be.
Playing without pain, Harris has grown tremendously as a player. This season he is leading the Knights in both points (16.4 per game) and rebounds (11.1). He is also second on the team in assists (3.7).
Hes made significant progress, Valentine says. Hes really developed an overall game. He was a nice athlete when he came to us and a very good rebounder, but his skills have really improved. Hes really developed an outside shot, some playmaking ability and his back-to-the-basket game has developed significantly as well. Hes also one of the better leaders weve had in our program over the last 10 years.
Given who he is and the amount of time hes been here and how hard hes worked, Im not surprised that hes developed into the type of player he is. Hes earned it. Hes got a great mindset about himself, about development and about who he wants to become. Hes worked hard. Hes confident.
Valentine says that Harris being a senior who has spent the last four years at Warner Pacific has been crucial to his development.
Hes been in the program for four years and that always helps players, Valentine says. When youve been in one place for a significant amount of time that always helps their ability to feel comfortable with a certain coach and a certain system.
Over the last four years, Harris has done more than just play basketball.
A few years ago he met a girl named Jondi Das who played both volleyball and basketball for the Knights. The two began dating, and soon Harris decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Das and asked her to marry him.
The wedding wound up being expedited after Harris and Das found out that she was pregnant.
We had previously been engaged and then she wanted to get married before we had our baby, Harris said. We wound up getting married a few months before she had the baby.
Bart Valentine, who retired as the Knights coach after Harris sophomore season, was the one who married the couple.
Eight months ago, the couple welcomed a baby girl who they named Sophia. It has taken a lot of planning for both Stephen and the new Mrs. Jondi Harris to make things work with a baby. Jondi had to give up volleyball, but she is still playing basketball as a sophomore. Juggling a relationship, a child, school and an athletic career has been a challenge, but Harris says that they have figured out how to make it work.
Its a little bit difficult, he says. But, I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult than it actually is. My wife and I have worked out our schedules so that when I have class she has the baby and when she has class, I can watch the baby. We just do the same thing for basketball practices. We have such a good baby that its not really that difficult and Im actually really enjoying it.
Now, in his final season playing collegiate basketball, Harris has big goals for the Knights.
I want to make it back to the national tournament, Harris says. It would be great to get back. Its an unbelievable experience to get to go there. They take great care of us and we just get to experience so many things.
Another goal of ours is to win our conference. We havent won our conference since Ive been in school, so winning our conference tournament would be a huge accomplishment.
Harris, who is a business administration major, is not quite sure what he wants to do after college.
My wife still has one more semester to go, so shell have to come back to school next fall, Harris says. When I was with her in Hawaii I got a couple of job offers. And I havent ruled out going overseas and playing some professional ball somewhere. Im just keeping my options open and once I finish up my last semester, my wife and I will sit down and explore my options and see what Im going to do.
Wherever Harris goes, Valentine is certain that they will remain friends for the rest of their lives.
I really value the relationship I have with him, Valentine says. Hes a really interesting guy. Hes the type of person who is really friendly and knows everyones names. Hes got a tremendous skill set to know people and be appreciated and liked by others.
I certainly feel like he has a special relationship with our coaching staff. Hes been here for a while and some of the things that hes gone through helped him trust the coaches here. I definitely expect that well be friends for the rest of our lives.
It is relationships like Harris has built with Valentine and with his teammates and with his family that have made his time at Warner Pacific College so amazing for him.
Harris has been able to build those relationships because he defied medical odds and went from a 19-year-old who feared never being able to walk again to the best player on a college basketball team.
As Valentine said, Character is developed.
Harris character was forged by fire.
Says Harris: To be able to come back to play and meet new guys and create the friendships that Ive created at this school and meet my wife and start a beautiful family, words cant describe the way that I feel about playing basketball for Warner Pacific.