Photo by Les Stukenberg.
Originally Published: December 16, 2016 5:55 a.m.
PRESCOTT VALLEY – Northern Arizona Suns starting guard Shaquille Harrison’s father, Jack, not only named him after a certain famous former Los Angeles Lakers star center. As a child, he was a fan of the iconic NBA franchise, partly due to the influence of his uncle, John Francis.
These days, Harrison has tempered his allegiance to the Phoenix Suns’ Western Conference Pacific Division rival.
Harrison, an undrafted affiliate player, is a rookie with the Suns’ first-year NBA Development League affiliate that plays at Prescott Valley Event Center. He’s traded in Lakers’ purple and gold for Suns’ purple and orange.
And the clean cut, soft-spoken 6-foot-4, 189-pound Harrison is not bothered one bit. Through Dec. 14, he was averaging 10.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 10 games for an NAZ team that owned the D-League’s best record at 10-2.
“My whole life, I’ve always thrived on kind of wanting to do everything – not just being one-dimensional,” said Harrison, one of NAZ’s best all-around players, this past week. “It was just to win games. I’ve been competitive my whole life.”
Harrison said he’s grown close with his NAZ teammates over the past two months, ever since being cut by the Phoenix Suns at training camp. He’s closest with forward Derek Cooke Jr. and center Gracin Bakumanya.
“This is a selfless team – everybody wants to win,” Harrison said of the NAZ Suns. “Everyone’s goal here is to make it to the NBA. But you also have to learn to play with each other and help each other out. You can’t do it on your own.”
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Harrison, 23, was an All-State guard at nearby Lee’s Summit West High. He was also a first team All-State receiver for the football team and ran track.
In 2012, Harrison had to choose between playing college football at Kansas University in Lawrence or college basketball at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.
“I talked with my mom, and she asked me a question that sticks with me to this day,” Harrison said. “She said, ‘If it’s 6 a.m. and you don’t feel like getting up, what sport would you get up for?’ I knew I didn’t want to get up for football.”
At Tulsa, he was an iron man. From 2012-16, Harrison did not miss a start in 133 games for the Golden Hurricane, averaging 11.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals a contest.
“I’ve always been that energized dude,” said Harrison, who’s ambidextrous. “I’ve always loved playing fast. Getting steals, and going to get layups – it just kinda happened. That made me into the player I am.”
Although Harrison could be NAZ’s point guard, the team moved him to shooting guard since the Suns had two strong guys at the point in Askia Booker and Josh Gray.
Cooke Jr., Harrison’s roommate and “road dog,” is fond of Shaquille.
“We hang out every day,” Cooke Jr. said. “Outside of basketball, he’s a great person to be around and everybody loves him. He smiles every day and he’s a happy-go-lucky person. On the court, he’s always looking for me and I’m always looking for him. We just build that team camaraderie.”
Named after Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal, Harrison is a middle child. He has two brothers and a sister. His younger brother, Monte, plays minor league baseball for the Milwaukee Brewers.
At age 3, Harrison remembers shooting balled up pairs of socks into a clothes hamper with Monte. By age 4, Shaquille was playing “bitty” basketball.
In the ensuing years, his father would drive him to the local track and make him run a mile. Then, when Shaquille was in the second grade, the unthinkable happened: His dad died of a heart attack.
“When I think of times when it’s rough – things aren’t going my way – I think back to that time,” Shaquille said. “It gives me motivation because I know he would be proud of me for what I’m doing.”
Harrison’s mother, Michelle, worked long hours to make ends meet, and he eventually learned what it took to be a responsible, caring parent. (Michelle hopes to visit Prescott Valley for a game in January or February when Monte returns to Spring Training in Phoenix.)
Harrison’s maternal grandmother, Eunice Francis, who loved sports, also helped raise and motivate him. Eunice died on May 7, 2015. Harrison wears a dark rubber bracelet on his right wrist in her honor.
“I’ve been pretty strong,” Harrison said of handling his grief. “My grandmother, I felt like it was her time to go. When I was 6 or 7 years old, she was like, ‘Do you want to be the next Michael Jordan?’ I was like, ‘No, I want to be Shaquille Harrison.’ And she was so shocked with my answer, she started crying. I promised I’d make it to the NBA for her.”
In high school and at Tulsa, Harrison distinguished himself as a hard worker, just like his mother. He stayed longer at practices and in the weight room.
Harrison’s banking on his work ethic and skill to get him to the NBA – whether or not it’s in Phoenix. For NAZ, like Tulsa, he wears No. 3, the family’s jersey number.
“In life, everything happens for a reason,” Harrison said. “And with me going undrafted, that’s more motivation for me to work harder. You’ve got to be optimistic in this business. At the end of the day, if you’re a good player, you will be found.”
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2039, or 928-642-7865.
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