More than just a basketball star


by David Morain

It’s nighttime. In a cluttered apartment bedroom, surrounded by bare walls save for a movie poster from “Boiler Room,” on a mattress covered by a solitary sheet, Jesse Harris finally finds time to relax.

“I spend a lot of my time in here,” says Harris, the 6-4 senior forward for the Storm. Every night at around 11 p.m., he will lie down in his bed and watch “Special Report” with Brit Hume or “Hardball” with Chris Matthews. Such is the life of the most complex man to ever play at Simpson.

Harris is a dinosaur; something left over from a time when the term student-athlete meant something.

Nowadays, the dumb jock getting by on pre-made test cards and essays written by his tutors is considered a student-athlete. Harris is something more. Much more.

Harris is an enigma. He can rattle off the five Iowa delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives in seconds flat, but he struggles to name one of the five starters for the Iowa Hawkeyes. He can zip through heads of state and their respective vice presidents without batting an eye, but he can’t tell you the leading scorer in the NBA.

He’s one of the best players in Division III, yet he rarely watches college basketball until the tournaments start. There’s too much to learn, too little time.

Let me try to explain by walking you through a typical day in Harris’ life. From 8 to 11 a.m. there’s class. Study at the library afterwards, sneaking in a quick lunch, usually cereal. Attend another class at 1 p.m. At 3 p.m., head to practice for the top team in the Iowa Conference. Once practice gets done at 6:30 p.m., grab a bite to eat and head back to the library for more homework. Then, at 11 p.m., it’s back to the room to unwind.

This kind of agenda would make anybody else crazy, but Harris soaks it up. He loves the pressure, loves the fact that he does more in a day than most of us do in a week. And what does he have to show for it? A 3.97 GPA which is tops in the departments of his majors, history and political science.

He also has over 1,400 points in his career and is poised to overtake David Otte for fifth on Simpson’s all-time scoring list.

So which points are more important, grades or basketball?

“I think the GPA is more important,” asserts Harris. “Basketball only lasts four years, but learning lasts the rest of your life. It’s not just learning, either, but understanding how you learn and how you process information.”

This isn’t the typical rhetoric of a Division III All-American. But how many All-Americans do you know that have been up for a Rhodes Scholarship?

“I applied for it with low expectations,” said Harris, his eyes drifting sheepishly toward the floor. “I got a lot of help from Simpson. The interview was nerve wracking.” Harris was one of only 10 students from the state of Iowa to be considered for the prestigious honor.

They were all supposed to get together for dinner before the interviews. Harris didn’t make it. He had a game that night against Upper Iowa.

All of this came close to never happening. Four years ago things were different for him at Valley High School. Back then it was touchdowns before rebounds for Harris, a second-team all-state wide receiver despite the fact that he played tight end.

He thought about playing football in college after being recruited by South Dakota University, Truman State and Augustana. But after talking with Bruce Wilson, Simpson’s Head Basketball Coach, he knew he was headed for the Storm.

“One of the things Coach Wilson told me,” said Harris, “was how choosing a school that was right for me was a gut feeling.”

More than just his gut told him to pick Simpson. Cosmo and Lucy, his Jack Russell terriers, played a big part.

“I was trying to decide between Simpson and Buena Vista. [Brian] Van Haaften (Buena Vista’s head basketball coach) came and talked to me. I told him I had a dog and he said he didn’t like dogs. When Coach Wilson came to my house to talk to me, he was really nice to my dogs. [Coach Wilson] still tells people that’s why I came here.”

And he didn’t let Wilson down. Harris has always been a fantastic shooter, both from the field (career 49.8 field goal percentage) and from the charity stripe (career 81.2 free-throw percentage). But it’s his finesse game that really makes him stand out. It happens every game.

Once the Storm set up their offense and drops the ball into the post, the “Jesse Harris Show” begins. Ball fake, shoulder lean, shimmy, then up and in before the defender even realizes that he left his jock back near the baseline.

The man can flat out score and the numbers never lie. Freshman year: led the team with 14.2 points per game. Sophomore year: again, led the team with 17.6 ppg. Junior year: you guessed it, led the team with 16.6 ppg.

That gets us to this season, where Harris is averaging 12.9 ppg and, perhaps the most rewarding statistic of all, a team high 7.1 rebounds per game. Rebounding is a product of hustle and determination. Harris has both in spades, though you wouldn’t know it from talking to him.

“Sometimes the ball just bounces your way,” he said. “I guess everybody tries to make improvements every year. It’s just a product of steady progression.”

Steady progression in deed. In the 1999-2000 campaign, Harris managed only 3.8 rebounds a night. Now, he is the third leading rebounder in the conference. His Spartan-like lifestyle is a testament to his diligence.

Drinking? “Nope.”

Smoking? “Never.”

Parties? “I don’t like large crowds.”

Fast food? “Only when the team stops there.”

So what does this never-do-wrong basketball wonder boy do for fun? “I like going home,” he said. “It’s the place I can relax the most. I’m a senior, so this is probably the last time I’ll be able to do that. It’s nice.”

What does the future hold for Harris? Perhaps he’ll attend graduate school and get his Ph.D. in political science.

“I can see myself as a professor, maybe even at a small school like Simpson, or be involved in politics full time. I’d like to try my hand at speech writing. It’s very difficult, though. You have to understand how issues and subjects connect together,” said Harris.

Whatever he chooses down the road can wait. There’s unfinished business to attend to. Harris is looking to close out his career with a trip to the Division III National Tournament. To get there, however, the Storm will have to weather Wartburg on Friday and Buena Vista on Saturday.

“This is make or break time for us,” said Harris. “We have to come out and make sure we do everything well. We have to put together a complete game.”

Especially against Buena Vista, a team that beat the Storm earlier in the year at Storm Lake.

“I really want to beat Buena Vista. We’ve only got one win against them while I’ve been here. I want to beat Van Haaften and Chris Peterson (the Beavers’ 6-5 senior center) and all those guys.”

And if they do win out and make it to the tournament? Maybe then he’ll finally be able to take a little more time to relax.