FOX Sports Exclusive
Family first for Moe Harkless
Arguably the biggest roar of the night at Thursday’s NBA draft came when David Stern announced the 15th overall pick to the anxious Prudential Center crowd: Moe Harkless to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The ultimate local boy done good — and maybe the best player to come out of New York City since Ron Artest — Harkless was a prep star in Queens, then played one year of college ball at St. John’s before declaring for the draft in March.
In addition to boisterous gang of Johnnies fans who made the trek across the Hudson River, the 19-year-old hometown kid had a veritable entourage of his own — one comprised mostly of family — in tow for Thursday evening’s proceedings.
And as Harkless crossed the stage and shook the commissioner’s hand, soaking in the most important moment of his life to date, the cheers only grew louder, the loudest among them coming from the three women who raised him: His mother, Rosa; his grandmother, Barbara; and his big sister, Shakima.
“She's excited about just being here,” the bashful Harkless said later of his mother’s tearful reaction. “The team didn't matter; she was really emotional and she's probably out there still crying. I'm definitely glad I could make her happy and make my dreams come true.”
A career in basketball wasn’t always the ultimate goal for Harkless, though, and as a kid growing up in the hoops Mecca, just blocks from the end of the E-train line in South Jamaica, Moe was more drawn to soccer, football and even chess, making his ascension to lottery pick that much more unexpected.
REGIONAL DRAFT REPORTS
- Bobcats: Fans not pleased by pick
- Bucks: Young player has potential
- Cavs: Bennett their top choice?
- Clippers: Snagging a shooter
- Grizz: Franklin steal of draft?
- Hawks: Master plan becomes clear
- Heat: Swing a deal for Ennis
- Lakers: Kelly best player left
- Magic: Oladipo will help defense
- Mavs: Get Larkin but want Howard
- Pistons: Passing on local favorite
- Suns: Len a 'no-brainer' pick
- Thunder: One safe pick, one reach
- Wolves: Muhammad in good situation
“Honestly, I always saw Moe becoming a lawyer or a doctor,” Rosa said, beaming at the very mention of her son. “Moe is intelligent, he’s really, really smart and he always did really, really well in school. He didn’t even begin to really love the game of basketball until he was 13 or 14.”
Thankfully, Harkless came to recognize his calling, and after being named the Queens High School Player of the Year by the New York Daily News following his junior year at Forest Hills High School, Harkless transferred to South Kent, a boarding school 85 miles away in Connecticut.
There, Harkless averaged 27.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 3.1 blocks and 1.6 steals per game as a senior, earning the 6-foot-9, 207-pound small forward a No. 14 national ranking from Scout.com and scholarship offers from top programs all across the country, including Cincinnati, Maryland, Memphis, Oregon and Rutgers.
Harkless turned them all down, choosing to return to his hometown and enroll at St. John’s in a decision that was as much about family as it was about basketball; Harkless joined the Red Storm mostly to be near his sister, who had just been diagnosed with cervical cancer for the second time.
“He had offers to go to all these different colleges, and he turned them down and went to St. John’s so that he could be close to me and close to my mom and be here for the family, and that meant a lot to me,” said Shakima, who is now 24 years old and, after two rounds of chemo and a partial cervicectomy, cancer-free.
Call it Moe’s unspoken way of showing support, because, truth be told, he’s the strong, silent type and didn’t — and still doesn’t — like bringing it up.
“He didn’t speak much to me about it, but I know it bothered him a lot,” Shakima said. “I guess he didn’t want to worry me, so we just kind of pretended that I didn’t have cancer. It was never discussed between me and him. It worried him, but he didn’t let it wear off on me. He held it together so that I wouldn’t worry.”
And much like Moe tried to protect Shakima, Rosa did the same for Moe.
“My mom kind of kept it a secret from me for a while, because she didn’t want me to worry about it, but once I found out, it was heartbreaking,” Harkless said. “I didn’t know what to think. I just wanted (Shakima) to be better. … But I’m glad she got through it, I was with her the whole time, and she’s healthy now.”
During his one season at St. John’s, Harkless would make it a point to make the 10-minute trip home from campus at least a couple times a week, no matter how busy his basketball schedule got. But he wouldn’t come to the too-small apartment to worry about his sister or dwell on her illness — but rather, just to be there in the presence of a huge family with plenty of affection to go around.
After all, in addition to Rosa, Shakima and Barbara — who took care of the kids while Rosa worked as a waitress and bartender to pay the bills — the Harkless household is also home to Moe’s seven-year-old brother, Tyler, and Shakima’s three children, 14-month-old twins Madison and Phoenix and six-year-old Mekhi.
“I call them both my little brothers, they kind of look up to me,” Harkless said of Tyler and Mekhi. “Tyler is probably my biggest fan.
“He runs around school talking about me, and tells all his little friends about what I’m doing. He comes to all my games, and if he’s not there, he watches on TV. He’s real supportive, and he wants to be just like me. It makes me want to keep doing the right things for him; I want to set a good example.”
Harkless is everything a role model should be for his pint-sized protégés, but coming up in one of New York’s roughest neighborhoods — one Harkless plans to move his family out of now that he’s been drafted — it would have been just as easy to get caught up in the trouble that affects so many of the kids in that area.
Fortunately for Harkless, he had the focus and better judgment to keep his distance.
“There’s so much stuff going on around you, and I pretty much like to stay away from it,” said Harkless, who has no tattoos and doesn’t drink, smoke or curse, making him a rarity in that area of the city.
“I had a few friends get messed up by that stuff, whether it’s gangs or drinking alcohol or smoking weed and stuff like that. They kind of messed their lives up. And growing up, I saw older people who were still like that, and I didn’t want to be like that. So I just had tunnel vision and focused on what I did.”
And if he ever strayed, even for a second, his mother and grandmother had no problem reminding him of his priorities.
“My mother was strict, and my grandma was stricter, but it wasn’t strict as far as we couldn’t do things — it was more strict in that we had to do positive things,” Shakima said. “If (Moe or I) want to go to a friend’s house and play games, that was OK, but just hanging out in the street and running around, no, that wasn’t allowed at all.”
Of course, even the best-behaved kids get in trouble from time to time, but when Harkless did get on his mother and grandmother’s bad side, he did it in a way that was undeniably Moe.
“When he was little, when they would tell him he couldn’t go outside and play, Maurice would throw his sneakers through the front window,” Shakima recalled, hardly able to contain her laughter. “Then he’d go to ‘check the mail,’ but then he wouldn’t check the mail; he’d put his sneakers on and go play basketball.”
Occasionally, Moe would come home late from the park, and that’s when he’d get in the most trouble — but given the alternatives, missing curfew wasn’t exactly the worst a kid could do.
“I remember I had to be in the house by 8:30 one day, and I came in the house at like 9:00 and my grandmother spanked me,” Harkless said, with a wide grin. “It didn’t hurt, but it’s just funny because she basically is like the sheriff of the house.”
She also may be the biggest fan of the bunch in this basketball-crazed family. A Michael Jordan die-hard during His Airness’ heyday with the Bulls, Barbara has now shifted her allegiance, and these days, her grandson is her favorite player.
The same can’t be said, however, for 7-year-old Tyler — not yet, anyway.
“(Tyler) said one day, ‘You know, Moe is going to the NBA, and usually when guys go to the NBA, they become friends with all the other guys in the NBA, so I need Moe to introduce me to Michael Jordan,’” Rosa recalled.
“I asked him, ‘Michael Jordan?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, Michael Jordan is No. 1; Moe is No. 2.’ But I guess after Michael Jordan you can’t go wrong.”
Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner