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It was never really about the game of basketball, but the game of life

Young boys grew into men and credited Forrest Harris with helping to set their lives on the right path at a Boys Club that became an oasis.    

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Say his name: Forrest Harris.

Not a CNN Hero. Not an ESPY Award recipient. Not a Nobel Prize winner.

But a community crusader. A good man. Builder of men. Difference maker. Life changer.

He “scratched their imaginations,” one friend recalled. He taught boys how to plan, build, dream.

Say his name: Forrest Harris.

A Chicago basketball legend who envisioned pro players sharing their experiences and shooting hoops with amateur athletes in a tough urban neighborhood like those from which many arose. And they came, legend has it, flocking each summer to the Martin Luther King Boys and Girls Club on West Washington Boulevard.

Drawing the likes of Chicago Bulls Norm Van Lier, Bob Love and other NBA stars, as basketball and possibilities shone gloriously for black ghetto boys once upon a season in their lives.

And boys, like Dan Davis, now 72, grew into men, many crediting Harris with helping to set their lives on the right path.

“He was important because at a time when we were 16, 17, and 18, we needed a role model like him,” said Davis.

“He cared about the kids and put kids above all else,” said Christopher Reed, 77, a Boys and Girls Club 40-year board member and former president. “He was deeply involved in basketball,” said Reed, also professor of history emeritus at Roosevelt University.

Except for Harris, it was never really about basketball. But the game of life.

Harris died at home of heart failure on April 22. He was 84.

His lessons — extolling the virtues of academics and good citizenship — however, were not lost. Davis remembers when he, like many other neighborhood boys, was “rambunctious” and potential prey for the elements — drugs, violence, gangs.

“If not for people like Forrest Harris, I could have been in one of those gangs. He was like a crime stopper.”

Under Harris’ reign, the Boys Club was an “oasis,” Davis and others like Sam E. Gage, Harris’ friend and former Boys Club program director, told me. The club was off limits to gang activity. A safe haven. Safe passage was guaranteed even to rival gang members as long as you said you were headed to “the club.”

Inside, you had to abide by Harris’ rules: Hats off. No foul language. Respect women. Respect your fellow man. Respect yourself.

Harris was known to check grades. To warn against becoming a “bum.” To push kids to want to “be” somebody. “He was about development and results,” Gage, 76, said.

Davis describes his mentor as a “strict disciplinarian.”

“But he was very fair. He taught us discipline,” Davis said. “He taught us that anything worth having was worth working for. …He taught us to care.”

Davis, a Crane High School graduate, went on to Northwestern University on a basketball scholarship and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Years later, he returned to his old mentor, grateful for the difference he had made in his life, and wanting in some way to pay him back.

“What do I owe you?” he recalls asking Harris. “‘You come back to this neighborhood and do the same things I did for you,’” Harris answered. “‘Pay it forward.’”

“It was never about him,” one of Harris’ five daughters, Loren Crocket Jordan, told me.

Said Dolores C. Harris, his wife of 21 years: “He was my friend, my dear friend.”

Husband. Father. Selfless. Sacrificial. Principled. Uncompromising. Humble.

That is the way family, friends and those whose lives he touched will remember him, even as they celebrate his life at a public remembrance service, at 3 p.m. Sunday, at Quest Multisport, 2641 W. Harrison St.

Say his name. Forrest Harris.

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Email John Fountain at Author@Johnwfountain.com