DIX HILLS, N.Y. – Patty Smith was brought to tears.
It was late morning on April 12 at Half Hollow Hills West High School. Social studies teacher Billy Mitaritonna, who until two seasons ago was the Colts’ basketball coach, escorted two visitors to the nurse’s office to meet Smith, known here as Nurse Patty for 21 years.
Unbeknownst to her, they were on hand to talk to the faculty about 2010 graduate Tobias Harris, the 76ers’ top acquisition before the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
Realizing that, Smith spread her arms, approached one of the visitors, and embraced tightly.
“Promise to give Tobias a hug for me,” she said afterward as tears of joy fell from her eyes. “Hug him just like I hugged you.”
Smith went on to speak about the pride of one of New York state’s top academic high schools that caters to a middle-class town in Long Island with a median household income of $152,263 as of 2017. She mentioned that the 2010 New York Mr. Basketball is a dedicated young man with a kind heart and a passion for hoops.
Smith said that Harris is part of a religious family in which academic achievement is as important as sports.
Moments later, Smith broke down in tears again.
“He is like an answer to a prayer for me,” she said, “and all of my people in Haiti where I have my church and my school.”
Answer to prayers
For the last six years, Harris has been funding the Jean Bonte School and True Love Missions Church that Smith cofounded with close friend Jean Bonte in Bizoton, Haiti.
But that’s just a small portion of what the philanthropist does for youth.
Harris has mentoring programs for at-risk sixth- to 10th-graders in Orlando and Detroit even though he no longer plays in those cities. He’s not cancelling the programs, but he wants to focus on youth literacy.
An avid reader, he realizes literacy is one of the main things young people lack.
Harris also supplies sneakers for the basketball team at Success Academy Charter School, a kindergarten-through-third-grade school in Far Rockaway, Queens. He hosts free annual basketball camps at the Yes We Can Community Center in Westbury, N.Y.
And on March 21 – just 42 days after being acquired by the 76ers – he hosted and moderated a panel discussion for about 40 middle-school girls at Shepard Recreation Center in West Philadelphia. His event was designed to motivate, inspire, and provide them an early opportunity to explore careers.
“I can’t say enough good things about Tobias,” Smith said. “What I find most impressive about Tobias is his heart to help everybody. I believe with my heart his gifts and passion that God gave him, he is just using and blessing everybody back with 100 folds over.
“He wants to be that father figure. He wants to be that. You got the real deal here. He’s one in a billion people."
So it’s not surprising that the power forward is one of 10 finalists for the 2018-19 NBA Community Assist award.
An African American athlete being an inspiration to at-risk youth in underserved communities is nothing new. You often hear of athletes using sports as a way to get out of an underprivileged environment. Once they make it, they’re focused on using their lives as an example for youth to realize they can achieve their life goals.
Harris’ situation is different.
He never had to share a story about eating syrup sandwiches or missing meals growing up. Nor did his parents, Torrel and Lisa, have to work multiple jobs as a way to put food on the table for Harris and his five siblings, Torrel Jr., Tyler, Terry, Tori, and Tesia.
His father played college hoops at Duquesne and professionally with the Albany Patroons of the old Continental Basketball Association. He later was an agent who had George Gervin, Cliff Robinson, and the first female Harlem Globetrotter, Lynette Woodard, as clients. Torrel left the business for some time to advise and train his family of basketball players.
But he’s back in the business, running Unique Sports Management, which represents Tobias, Tyler, and Terry.
Torrel and Lisa stressed to their children, at an early age, the civic responsibility of giving back to the community. And Harris witnessed the disadvantages while playing for his father’s AAU team.
“I used to go in the city on the weekends and play basketball,” Harris said. “My father used to pack up the van, pick up the whole team. We were picking up kids in the projects. So I got to see that and see the struggle that they had, and they were able to relate that to me, too.”
However, it was a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2014, as part of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, that changed Harris’ life.
While there, Harris and other NBA players visited some areas of deep poverty where children kept asking if he wanted to keep his socks. One day, Harris asked a child why people kept asking for socks. He learned it was because they didn’t have any socks. So Harris gave his socks to the kid.
That’s when Harris knew it was time to visit Nurse Patty.
Pictures of the students of the Jean Bonte School and members of the True Love Missions Church in Bizoton are all over the walls and windows of Smith’s office. Several show Haitians wearing outfits or using things donated by people from the Long Island school. A huge bag of empty water bottles donated by students is in one of the rooms. Smith will cash in the bottles and send the money to Haiti.
“I was doing my stuff in Haiti when Tobias was here,” she said.
Her first trip to Haiti was in 2009. At the time, someone in the Caribbean country asked her to come see their school. Smith looked at going to Haiti as a bucket-list item to cross off. It was going to be great, she thought.
But she really didn’t know where Haiti was, or anything about the country. The nurse actually thought she would see a school like Half Hollow Hills West.
“As the plane was coming down and I started to look and I saw what I saw, I started crying on the plane,” she said.
Smith cried pretty much her entire time in Haiti. She couldn’t believe people lived the way they did.
“There’s literally no toilets,” Smith said of the place she visited. "These people have never taken a shower in their life. They are lucky, happy, and feel blessed to wake up each day.
“So when I was there, I made a promise to them and I made a promise to God that I was going to do whatever I can in my power to make their lives a little bit better.”
That’s when she started raising money and giving a lot of her own money to Haiti.
Bonte and Smith started their church in 2010. A year later, they started to build the school.
The summer of 2014, after his trip to Africa, Harris visited Half Hollow Hills West. The then-21-year-old headed to Smith’s office, where she was finishing paperwork.
He shared with her the details of his trip and about the children asking for his socks. At that point, they both were crying, and Harris said, “I’m here to help.”
And he’s been helping ever since.
“I have never once had to ask him for help,” Smith said. “He just comes once or twice a year and he is either writing me a check” or supplying things for the school.
Smith recounts one time a couple of years ago when Harris ran into her office saying, “Nurse Patty, Nurse Patty. Where’s your car? Go to your car. My brothers are in my car. Where is your car?”
She told him that her car was at the tennis courts. So Smith ran to the tennis courts to learn that Harris and his brothers had gone shopping.
He had purchased Nike sneakers, soccer balls, shorts and shirts of all different sizes for the kids in Haiti.
One day last summer, Smith was at an Amish store in Lancaster. Her phone rang and it was Harris. He wanted to see how things were going in Haiti. Then Harris informed her that he had just won money in a three-point contest. Harris told her that God told him to give whatever he won to Haiti.
Within two days, she had a check.
Enrollment at her school has increased from 50 to 244 students. According to Smith, a lot of the students don’t have parents and were once “used as slaves.”
“They have nothing,” she said. “If I say they were half naked, they were half naked. These are kids now that are coming to school for free.”
Smith pays the teachers and workers once a month.
“Because of his help and dedication, kids are learning,” Smith said of Harris. “They’re growing. Their whole lives changed. They have hope.”
Harris makes it a point to touch the lives of every kid he meets.
That’s why he’s heavily involved in his basketball camps, instead of just making cameo appearances. That’s why he hasn’t stopped being involved with youth in Orlando and Detroit long after he was traded away.
He wants to be a constant in their lives -- someone they can contact in time of need for advice. Not a celebrity they met in passing.
“Still, to this day, he’s picking up the phone and answering," close friend Marcus Damas said of Harris’ interaction with the youth he comes in contact with. "I don’t know if you know how crazy that is that this guy is accessible to communities all over and all these kids can touch and feel him and pick up the phone and call him and consider him a friend.
“They way he touches their loves moves mountains.”
He’s definitely moving mountains for the basketball players at Success Academy. A friend and former high school teammate, Will Hennep, teaches at the school. He’s also the coach of the basketball team, which completed its first season this year.
For a lot of his players, this marked the first time they picked up a basketball. Yet Harris supplied the team with Nikes.
“It made them feel wanted,” Hennep said. “Far Rockaway is one of those places where kids don’t have a dad or their dad is really not around. So it’s good to see that male figure [in Harris]."
Harris also sought to make the middle-school girls at Shepard Recreation Center feel that there was nothing they can’t accomplish. He was the moderator of a panel that included Philly Startup Leaders executive director Kiera Smalls, Sixers data scientist Ivana Seric, NBC Sports Philadelphia reporter Serena Winters, and CNN contributor Maya Francis.
The middle schoolers were members of the Team Up Philly organization, which empowers girls living in underserved Philly neighborhoods to lead confident, successful, and healthy lives through sports and enrichment programs.
Harris had the program in March to honor both National Reading Month and Woman’s History Month. And there was a reason his panel included females from four professions.
“I’m big into having the youth understand different options,” he said. “Like when I mentor kids, I always ask them, ‘What’s your goal? What do you want?’ "
They usually say they want a car like his or a house. They think they can do it only by playing professional sports.
“So what we like to do is show them different professions that come to mind [where they can] make a good living ...,” Harris said. “So they understand that, dang, this dude that owns a car dealership is making X amount of dollars. That’s why I like to show them different options.”
There are plenty of stories of Harris’ goodwill.
Two years ago, Mitaritonna received a phone call from someone Harris went to high school with who’s now a student at Delaware.
The former student was working at a hospital near the university where a 7-year-old cancer patient was a huge fan of Harris, who at the time played for the Los Angeles Clippers. She called Mitaritonna to see if there was a way that Harris could send the boy some paraphernalia. So the coach reached out to Harris.
"Two days later, she was in the hospital room and texted me a picture, " Mitaritonna said. "The kid had the sneakers with Tobias’ signature and a T-shirt. You just want to cry. He shipped it immediately.
“It got there in two days from California to Delaware. ... She was freaking out, saying, ‘Oh my God. It got here in two days.’ ”
None of this is surprising to anyone who comes in contact with Harris.
Nor it is surprising that he’s not the stereotypical athlete concerned only about his game.
A well-read scholar
It doesn’t take long to realize that Harris takes education seriously despite spending just one season at the University of Tennessee.
That was a business decision for a standout basketball player who was the 19th overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets in the 2011 draft and immediately traded to the Milwaukee Bucks.
No one can argue with his decision. He has made more than $70.8 million while playing for the Bucks, Magic, Pistons, Clippers and Sixers. The Sixers could offer him a five-year, maximum salary contract of $188 million in July.
“He’s always telling us to read up on a book and read up on politics,” Hennep said. “He’s always keeping us on our toes even though we finished school. He’s definitely well-educated in a sense, because of the amount of reading he does do.”
After basketball, he wants to make a living educating others as a school principal.
Not just at any school.
“I want my own school, my own recreation center in an at-risk-type neighborhood where kids come and play sports and enjoy,” he said. “Do their homework or different activities. Those are the things I like.
“You have to teach the younger generation,” Harris added, “so they can learn and teach, too.”
Back at Half Hollow Hills West
His former high school teachers knew a long time ago that Harris was special.
They recall his 5:30 a.m. daily workouts in the gym with his father. They also recall how he befriended the special-needs students and greeted them with handshakes in the hallway.
Kelly Madden, Harris’ 10th-grade English teacher, still has a personal connection because she was always ‘keeping it real’ with the basketball star.
He appreciated that she challenged him academically, disapproved of the one time he showboated during a game, and always treated him as person, not a basketball player.
“That’s the type of relationship we have,” said Madden.
Then there’s baseball coach and gym teacher Tom Migliozzi, a 28th-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 1991 who had a brief minor-league stint.
In addition to running the scoreboard at home basketball games, he used to challenge Harris to foul-shooting contests.
Did Migliozzi hold his own?
“Hell yeah,” he said. “I could beat him from the line. One-on-one is a different story. But from the line, I don’t know now, but [back then yeah].”
In addition to shooting fouls shots with Migliozzi, Harris did yoga with Lisa Benson, his 12th-grade English teacher. She’ll tell you his favorite book in the high school was The Alchemist.
And Mitaritonna will tell you that Harris is always there when he needs a favor.
A few years ago during the NBA All-Star break, Harris even practiced with the Half Hollow Hills West team. His younger brother, Terry, was on that squad.
The people at Half Hollow Hills West love Tobias Harris, and he loves them back.
The standout transferred to Long Island Lutheran after his sophomore year. However, he transferred back during the April break of his junior year.
“He hated it,” Mitaritonna said. “He’d get on a bus every morning and go 40 minutes to Long Island Lutheran.”
As a senior, Harris led the Colts to the NYSPHSAA Class AA state title game, where they lost to Christian Brothers Academy. The team finished the season 25-1. That season he was ranked the nation’s fourth-best player in the Class of 2010 by Scout.com.
The school surprised him on Jan. 22, 2015, while he was with the Magic. Orlando was in New York for the following night’s game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Harris attended a ceremony at his high school, thinking it was to honor him and his 2007-08 teammates for going 23-2 and winning the Suffolk County title.
But in addition to that, the Colts also surprised him by retiring his No. 12 jersey. Harris broke down and cried because of the significance of the number.
"It was definitely an honor to get my number retired, but it was really emotional for me because – I didn’t tell too many people about it – but that’s my best friend’s number,’’ Harris would tell the media in Manhattan the next day. ``Seeing that number up there kind of broke me down. And having my family there, and how far I’ve come as a basketball player … it was a memorable moment for me.’’
Harris switched to No. 12 late in his school school career to honor former teammates Morgan Childs, who died at 16 from a rare blood disease.
It meant a lot to Harris to be able wear No. 12 in honor of his late friend.
It’s also obvious that he means a lot to the people he meets.
“I just know when he gets to heaven, he’ll look around and see a multitude of people whose lives he touched and he didn’t know,” Smith said. “Not just here on Long Island, but in every state. God’s got him going from one place to another for a reason.”
The nurse prays every day for Harris, and she said the people in Haiti do the same.
“He’s just a really special young man, and I love him dearly,” she said, wiping away tears. “You got to give him that hug for me.”