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More than a dad: Torrel Harris, father of Sixers’ Tobias Harris, sees a lifelong dream unfold

How the Harlem native used his business mind and faith to enrich the lives of Sixers star Tobias, five other thriving children and the countless lives he touched

The Harris family (right to left) Torrel, Lisa, Tyler, Terry, Tori, Tobias, Torrel Jr. and Tesia.
The Harris family (right to left) Torrel, Lisa, Tyler, Terry, Tori, Tobias, Torrel Jr. and Tesia.Read moreCourtesy of Torrel Harris

Torrel Harris had one consistent dream as a child.

It was never about climbing the ladder in an occupation or becoming a celebrity. Harris, 62, always dreamed and prayed about becoming a caring father and a loving husband.

“My mother had to raise six kids by herself [after a divorce],” Harris said of Zoe Bowie. “I had a part-time dad. My dad told me when I was 8 years old, you are a man. You are on your own.

“So I asked God, ‘If you give me children, I promise that I am going to be there every step of the way with your blessings.‘”

In his dreams, Harris always had six children. That’s what he knew, growing up with three sisters and two brothers.

“Basically, at a young age, I asked him for that,” Harris said of his prayers.

His wish was granted, and then some.

Some 76ers fans may recognize Harris for being the father and agent of standout forward Tobias Harris. His vision and faith led to Tobias’ signing of a five-year, $180 million contract in July. But he’s more than a father who helped his son get paid. The Harlem native is one of the best business minds around.

Harris is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Unique Sports International, whose clients include Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. In addition to contract negotiations, his agency provides financial planning, investment strategies, counseling, brand endorsements, help with charity work, leadership skills, and marketing strategies.

The self-made millionaire has a former client list that includes Hall of Famers George Gervin and Lynette Woodard. Harris has represented former Sixers forward Cliff Robinson and Philly legends Gene Banks and Lewis Lloyd, among other players, and got Lloyd reinstated in the NBA in 1989.

Harris is also a pioneer in the apparel industry. The former basketball player at Duquesne and Murray State secured NBA and NFL licenses from 1994 to 2005. In the process, his company Unique Sports Generation was the only minority-owned business licensed by the leagues to manufacture, design, and distribute apparel.

During a three-year stretch, Harris sold $30 million to $40 million annually in NFL and NBA merchandise. These days, Unique Sports Generation has taken a consultant role and recently helped Oubre release his clothing line, Dope Soul.

But his most gratifying accomplishments involve living out his dreams.

He’s been a devoted husband to Lisa, his strong and supportive wife of 38 years. He is also a committed father to Torrel Jr., Tesia, Tobias, Tyler, Terry, and Tori.

“As I get older, I have more of an appreciation for the way that he kept us as a family, put so much emphasis on the family,” said Torrel Jr., nicknamed T.J., who works as a consultant for Unique Sports. “He’s probably one of the most empowering people.

“Nothing we wanted was ever out of reach. He always kind of instilled in us we were able to achieve it.”

Living a legacy

The kids are achieving their goals.

T.J., 37, went to Maryland on an academic scholarship and majored in economics. The digital marketing specialist is a consultant with Unique Sports. He also oversaw the design, manufacturing, and sales of high-end T-shirts and jacket lines for Unique Sports Generation.

Torrel and Lisa’s other five children each received college basketball scholarships. Tesia, a former standout at St. John’s who played professionally in Slovakia, is Unique Sports Management International’s vice president of basketball operations. The 31-year-old has also worked for the NBA and held assistant coaching positions for the women’s basketball teams at Winthrop University and New York Institute of Technology.

Tobias, 27, is in his ninth NBA season and a Sixers standout. Tyler, 26, played professionally in Argentina this season. Terry, 24, is a member of the Delaware Blue Coats, while Tori is a 20-year-old junior on St. Bonaventure’s woman team.

“I can’t ask for anything better as a father,” Harris said. “I said, ‘God if you ever give me six kids, I promise that I would try to be the best father I could possibly be in my life.'

“So God just answered my prayers all around.”

Destined for greatness

Torrel moved around growing up because of his mother’s businesses.

He was born in Harlem but moved to Watts in the inner city of South Los Angeles, back to New York City, Springfield, Mass., and Albany, N.Y., before graduating high school. Tired of moving, he lived on his own at 14 years old in Springfield, while his family moved to Albany. Torrel wanted to stay in Springfield to finish the ninth grade at Kiley Middle School.

“We moved around so much, and I wanted to graduate with this graduating class,” he said. “My mother owned a whole house and I knew the lady from upstairs. So I said, ‘Can I stay in one of your rooms?' Then my mother cut her rent a little bit, and she let me stay there.”

That year, he had his first introduction into the workforce, taking a job at a Big Boys restaurant. But his job the following year as a salesman at an Albany leather jacket store served as his entry into the fashion industry.

Harris had accompanied the owner to New York City’s garment district to buy three-quarter suede and three-quarter leather jackets. The owner bought $4,000 worth of jackets for around $30 apiece. Torrel would sell those jackets in the store at $100.

“I thought, wow, that was really cool,” he said. “That’s how I got into wanting to be a buyer.”

Harris also blossomed into one of the state’s top basketball players at Ravena High before attending Fulton-Montgomery Community College. Spending weekends with his sister, Teresita Johnson, who was battling leukemia in Springfield, Mass., quickly became more important than advancing his basketball career at the time. So he never played for the junior-college team after the coach gave him an ultimatum.

But while attending a UMass-Duquesne game with her in Springfield, Teresita told Torrel that she liked Duquesne. After that game, he introduced himself to the coaches in the locker room. Shortly afterward, he was hosted by Dukes standout Norm Nixon on a recruiting trip there and signed a scholarship on April 12, 1977, two days before his sister lost her battle with leukemia.

He enjoyed his time at the Pittsburgh campus and has remained close with Nixon, who went on to star for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Because of a lack of playing time, Harris transferred to Murray State, where he played from 1979 to 1981 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in the summer of 1981. He met Lisa while completing his final six credits at the University of Albany. .

On one particular day, he was on the phone with his employer from Mercantile Sports. Torrel had accepted the company’s job offer as a manager trainee to become a buyer. The guy wanted him to start in August. But after seeing Lisa, he rushed the employer off the phone.

“So as soon as I got off the phone, I went over there and talked to her,” he said. “Then it was just love at first sight, basically. That’s how we met. Six months later, we got married.”

The couple briefly lived in Franklin, Tenn., where Harris made $12,000 a year working for Mercantile Stores. But Lisa wanted to return to New York, and Torrel took a job making $14,700 year as a buyer for Macy’s in the Big Apple.

“Coming back to New York, that wasn’t going to make it,” he said of his salary at the time. “So one of my buddies, he worked for this company, this insurance company called Northwestern Mutual. He was riding around in nice cars. He said, ‘Hey, man. I’m making $20,000 a month.'

“He said, if I could make $20,000, you could probably kill it.”

So Torrel gave it a try while on a week-long vacation from Macy’s and after work for the remainder of the month. He made around $10,000.

“I called Macy’s back and I said, I was done,” he said.

His own boss

By 1984, in the second year with Northwestern Mutual, Harris was making $300,000 a year in commissions. As one of the company’s top sellers, he qualified for a program that trained people to become a sports agent. He flew to Chicago on the weekends to train for a sports agency, Coordinated Sports, which represents baseball players Wade Boggs and Cecil Cooper, among others.

Harris brought Cecil Fielder to the company. He also started the basketball side of the agency before starting his own agency in 1988.

One of his first clients was Gervin, a close family friend whom he had worked with since retiring after the 1985-86 season with the Chicago Bulls.

“He represented me in Europe,” said Gervin, who was named an All-Star nine times in the NBA and twice in the ABA. “He helped me get a job over in Spain.

“But he is a go-getter, man.”

So much that being an agent wasn’t enough.

In 1991, Harris began his apparel company. Then he focused exclusively on Unique Sports Generation once it became licensed by the NBA in 1994. That proved to a great decision. Not only was he the pioneer of the reversible nylon warm-up suits, the apparel business gave him more time to spend with his children.

As his family continued to grow and Reebook assumed both the NBA and NFL licenses, Torrel turned his focus to being the father figure he always dreamed of being in the early 2000s.

A spiritual person, Harris made sure all of his children had a relationship with God. He also set a goal to send all of them to college on scholarships.

“My father taught us that work ethic of working out, balancing academics, having that work-balance life and again, hard work would pay off,” Tesia said.

The family worked out in the morning and after school when everyone finished homework. He also coached them on his Unique All-Stars AAU teams.

It wasn’t only about his children. Harris’ goal was to be a father figure and secure scholarships for anyone who played for him. Sixty players went on to have their college educations paid off.

He also had a notable list of players who played at least one game with the All-Stars in a tournament, including NBA players Kyrie Irving, Will Barton, South Philly’s Dion Waiters, and North Philly’s Marcus and Markieff Morris. New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman also played on the team.

“I remember he used to takes the kids and get in that truck, and go play AAU tournaments all over the country, a drive!” Gervin said. “He drove. So he puts boys and girls out there to compete against the best.

“If you know how I know, that’s the only way you can realize how good you are by playing against the best.”

Going to the maximum

Torrel’s second stint as a sports agent came nine years later and proved to be lucrative for Tobias.

Back in July 2015, the forward re-signed with the Orlando Magic for $67 million over four years. Then he turned down a four-year, $80 million extension with the Los Angeles Clippers in July 2018.

“I said to him, if you are about to go into your prime, now you are about to light it up,” Harris said. “You are about to set it on fire. So after five years, when you set it on fire, and we are signing $80 million, that will be like, ‘Who the heck is your agent?' That shows that you shouldn’t have a father doing your contract if he only signed you for $80 million.”

Harris actually did a lot of research. He knew that his son would be one of the top-five free agents last summer. He knew that with a solid 2018-19 season, Tobias would be eligible to receive a five-year, $188 maximum salary deal with the Clippers or any team Los Angeles traded him to. Elsewhere, he could receive a maximum deal of $140.6 million over four years.

He also identified teams that would have been a perfect fit in free agency. The Sixers topped his list.

It turns out the Sixers had a mutual interest in Tobias . In the final year of his deal, they packaged standout rookie Landry Shamet and two first-round picks to acquire Harris in a multi-player deal from the Clippers in February 2019.

Surrendering those assets, the Sixers basically had no choice but to give Harris close to a maximum contract. Not signing a player who cost the Sixers two first-rounders and a sharpshooter would have made them, once again, the laughingstock of the league.

So in July, they re-signed him to the richest contract in franchise history.

“Tobias got $180 million, man,” Gervin said. “So Torrel knows the system, because think about it. Tobias didn’t even make an All-Star team, but he got an All-Star salary. Now, you got to be a special guy. Now, Tobias is an All-Star. He can play now. It’s just that he didn’t make the team yet.

“So that tells you a lot about dad’s ability to figure out the system and make it work for them.”

Proud of pop

Tobias’ max contract is just a fraction of what Torrel does for his kids.

To know him is to know he’s a spiritual person, who puts God first in everything he does. Every morning, Harris texts a prayer to his friends.

Folks at Shiloh Baptist Church in Philly are still talking about when the unannounced and unknown visitor attended service several months ago and left a sizable donation in the offering plate. Harris was friendly and polite while fitting in the congregation. The congregation learned who he was only days after looking up the name Torrel Harris written on the check.

“He’s definitely raised our family first with faith in God,” Tesia said. “He’s extremely passionate about basketball and just wanted us to be followers of God and just be good people.”

Tobias will tell you how his father taught him and his siblings to always respect themselves and others. At the same time, they knew they had to work for whatever they wanted to achieve.

Tobias marvels at how his father was a basketball player, a basketball agent, the first black man with an NBA and NFL license to manufacture and distribute clothing.

“He just taught me a really great groundwork of a base to becoming who I wanted to be,” Tobias told Turner Sports on Wednesday night. “At a young age, I got that and I’ve been blessed and really truly fortunate, myself, my brothers and sisters to have a father figure like my dad.”

As the oldest, T.J. has been around the longest and nearly every step of the way of his father’s life as a businessman. He holds his father in high regard as a businessman and as a basketball player.

In his second year after college, Torrel was one of the final cuts of the Albany Patroons of the CBA. The team was coached by Phil Jackson, who went on to win 11 NBA titles as a coach.

“I didn’t have to look far for a role model,” T.J. said. “He was always right there. Anything that I do is essentially in his footsteps.”

But Torrel will tell you that his wife deserves the praise. That’s because Lisa supported him in everything he did in being a great father.

The 38 years of marriage to Lisa and the love his children have for him are some of the main reason he doesn’t have any ill will toward his late father, Daniel. Looking back on his life, he realizes the role his father played.

“That role made me who I am today,” Torrel said.