NEW YORK — An hour before watching their son drop 25 points on the New York Knicks last week in his fourth game as part of the Philadelphia 76ers’ vaunted new starting five, Torrel and Lisa Harris sat at a cafe steps away from Madison Square Garden recalling the journey that brought Tobias Harris to the cusp of NBA stardom.
The rigid diet and hours in the gym, the shed fat and refined jumper, the various personal coaches all over the country and the personal attention from NBA legends. Trips into the Bronx and Queens and Manhattan from their home in Dix Hills on Long Island, trying to get their four sons seen and scouted. Long car rides home after bad games that had Tobias Harris on the verge of quitting.
They called it The Plan.
That The Plan has collided with The Process — the 76ers’ controversial, half-decade-long attempt to reenter NBA relevancy through intentionally losing to gain better draft picks — could become one of the dominant stories of the second half of this season.
It could pay off with an NBA championship. But ultimately, whatever happens, it is the intersection of two colossal bets, one between Harris and his father-slash-agent, and one by the Sixers themselves.
For Torrel Harris, a former Duquesne and Murray State forward who never achieved his own NBA dreams, the goal was not riches and fame.
“Basketball gave me a chance to be a kid with my kids,” said Torrel, who made it as high as the minor league Continental Basketball Association, where he played for the Albany Patroons under a young coach named Phil Jackson. “I didn’t look at it like I was pushing Tobias to become a pro. It was, how am I going to get all these kids to college?”
Torrel, who became a financial adviser and estate planner after his playing days, served as a sports agent for an extended period in the 1980s and ’90s. He represented future Hall of Famer George Gervin, among others, and as Tobias grew into a player with promise, Torrel would lend his son to the Iceman or Dale Ellis or Bernard King to learn some tricks.
With their kids, as Torrel handled the basketball, Lisa handled the homework. Their eldest son, Torrel Jr., earned an academic scholarship to Maryland, and the five other siblings all played at least college basketball.
By the time Tobias was a sophomore at Half Hollow Hills West High in Dix Hills, he was a viable prospect. By his senior year, he was an all-American and among the most coveted players in the country, headed to Tennessee to become Bruce Pearl’s gem. After one season, in which he averaged 15 points and 7.3 rebounds, Harris was off to the NBA, where a whirlwind tour began.
A draft-night trade, sending Harris, the 2011 No. 19 pick, from Charlotte to Milwaukee, was his first taste of the NBA business. There were three more trades in six seasons — from Milwaukee to Orlando to Detroit to the Los Angeles Clippers — despite improving numbers at each stop. In L.A., Harris emerged under Coach Doc Rivers, averaging 19.3 points in 32 games last year, earning an $80 million contract offer, his father said, which the Harrises turned down in hopes of a max deal this summer.
“Eighty million is a lot of money,” Tobias Harris said. “People said, ‘How you turn that down?’ . . . Look, I know my trajectory. I know when to bet on myself. We looked at the salary cap, looked at free agents, and with all the work I put in, we thought I’d be one of the top guys.”
He backed up the bet with continued strong play for the Clippers this season, receiving considerable all-star buzz. But on Feb. 6, on the eve of the NBA trade deadline, he was sent packing again: this time, to Philadelphia.
It was Harris’s fifth trade, but this one finally landed him on a contender, something for which the family is grateful.
Harris’s arrival is key to the biggest question surrounding Elton Brand’s five-month tenure as the Sixers’ general manager: Is this actually the end of The Process?
It began for the Sixers in 2013, on the heels of just one playoff series win a decade. Then-general manager Sam Hinkie, who coined both the term and the strategy, boldly decided to play the long game, tanking entire seasons and storing draft picks in the hopes of landing a superstar or three. His plan drew substantial ire before he eventually stepped down in April 2016. It also worked: The team drafted Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two future all-stars and franchise cornerstones.
Following the Sixers’ run to the second round of the playoffs last year, Brand took over in mid-September with a mandate to propel The Process forward. He first swung for the fences in November, acquiring Jimmy Butler, a disgruntled, talented star in the final year of his contract with no guarantee of re-signing this summer.
But the addition of the 26-year-old Harris — and the later subtraction of former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, whose excruciating development had become an anchor for their championship hopes — indicates the Sixers have essentially declared The Process over. Assets are no longer being hoarded for the future. For Coach Brett Brown, the time is now.
“I feel like this is the third team I’ve coached this season,” Brown said last week, reflecting on the two blockbuster trades that suddenly gave him a possible contender.
“This starting lineup is stupid good,” added Sixers reserve guard T.J. McConnell of a group that places Harris alongside all-stars Butler, Embiid and Simmons as well as sharpshooter J.J. Redick.
That group will see how far it can go now, while Harris, Butler and the team keep free agency this summer in mind.
For Harris, a max deal is the expectation, the final phase of The Plan.
“This is something I’ve worked toward,” he said. “This is not something you just wake up and get. If you saw my day, what I put into it — it’s been a whole plan. An investment.”
“We don’t look at dreams,” Torrel Harris added. “We look at vision. This isn’t a dream come true. This is a vision come true.”