CLEVELAND: Jon Harris and his father, Darryl, were shooting baskets on one of three courts separated by nets at Twinsburg Fitness Center, when an air ball signaled a dramatic change in the family’s life.
Jon played basketball for Twinsburg High School. Darryl, a Cleveland Heights pastor, remained proud of the skills he retained from his baseball days at Florida State and the University of Cincinnati.
The camaraderie of their workout was broken when Darryl went up to shoot and threw the ball out of the court.
“I’m looking like, ‘Did you do that on purpose?’ ” Jon said. “He said, ‘No, something’s really wrong.’ ”
Darryl remembered, “My arm just wasn’t … I was struggling. I’m not used to struggling. I thought it was just age.”
It wasn’t age. It was multiple sclerosis.
When Darryl, 56, was diagnosed with the chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system in November 2007, he lost all movement on his right side. He’s since regained use of his right arm, but now must use a walker or wheelchair because of peripheral neuropathy in his legs and feet, a condition he shares with TV talk show host Montel Williams.
“It’s very painful, it’s like walking on tacks,” Darryl said. Jon said his father not only needs special shoes, but hasn’t been able to wear socks for probably five years.
When Jon was in high school he hardly noticed his dad’s issues, although he sometimes used a cane. Darryl’s brother Ron Harris drove Jon to AAU tournaments and that exposure — and Jon’s 6½-inch growth spurt going into his sophomore year — led to a scholarship at Miami University.
Last March, when the RedHawks reached the second round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena, Jon’s mother, Tanya, told him that his father’s MS had progressed. His mobility was deteriorating, and she could no longer care for him alone.
“That kind of hit me like, ‘Wow, maybe I need to be closer to help out,’ ” Jon said. “Not just for him, but because of my mom, it was a lot of stress on her.”
Help from Miami coach
Miami coach John Cooper, who succeeded the late Charlie Coles after the 2012 season, told Jon to apply for an NCAA hardship waiver so he could transfer without sitting out a year, even though Cooper didn’t know where Jon would end up.
Darryl thought obtaining the waiver would be a “slam dunk,” as he said is usually the case with MS, but Tanya expected a long process. She said the compliance department at Cleveland State did a “tremendous job,” quickly informing them when the NCAA demanded another piece of documentation.
“I’m thankful [the NCAA] listened to my story and they understood the circumstances,” Jon said.
It was Cooper who called Cleveland State coach Gary Waters, who miraculously had a scholarship available after a player transferred.
“We were thinking about giving it to another kid,” Waters said by telephone Wednesday. “When John called, it was early enough, it allowed this to happen. Would I have done this for a weaker player? I don’t know. We knew there were times he might have to do certain things for his father, but he’s just around the corner. If he were miles away it would be a different issue.
“It was a gift to us from God. You can’t even picture what has gone on here.”
Jon lost several credit hours and had to switch majors. Had he stayed at Miami, he would have graduated by now; he’ll receive his communications degree from CSU in July. His parents didn’t insist he change schools, leaving the decision up to him.
Time to bond with team
Jon arrived at CSU in May, in time to accompany the Vikings on their annual European trip. They went 5-0 in August exhibition games in the Netherlands, France and Belgium as Jon bonded with his new teammates.
Averaging career highs in points (11) and rebounds (6.2) this season, Jon is a candidate for the Horizon League’s Sixth Man of the Year. Because of his perimeter shooting, rebounding and vocal leadership, some consider the 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward the team’s MVP. The Vikings (18-10, 10-3) are battling for the No. 2 seed in the league tournament with three regular-season games remaining, including a 2 p.m. home game today against Milwaukee.
As they sat in the Wolstein Center on Feb. 15 before a home game against Green Bay, the Harrises said they realize how lucky they are Jon is playing so close to home. Darryl’s worsening symptoms and the harsh winter would have made the five-hour drive to Oxford impossible. They might have missed their only son’s senior year.
And Jon might have missed the time to bond with his father, the family birthdays and holidays he realized were passing him by while he played at Miami.
If his father needs a place to rest after his monthly treatments at the Cleveland Clinic, Jon brings him to his nearby apartment. If Tanya asks for help around their Twinsburg home, Jon is there. He shoulders the driving load as his father performs weddings, funerals, preaches and counsels members of Abundant Grace Fellowship, the Cleveland Heights church he and another man founded eight years ago.
“I try not to make it a distraction. It’s actually helped me flourish,” Jon said after practice Tuesday at the Wolstein Center. “It’s the daily motivation I need. You’re playing for much more than just yourself, your stats, your team. It’s bigger than basketball. Being the best son I can be.”
Jon left his pals and his girlfriend, a RedHawks softball player, but now he can enjoy watching his father preach. He can attend Indians games with his dad this summer.
Soon all three Harris children will live in Northeast Ohio. Jon’s twin sister Jasmine is already here, finishing cosmetology school. Their older sister, Lauren Bell, who played basketball at Twinsburg and was recruited by John Carroll before knee injuries ended her career, is moving back from Tucson, Ariz., with her husband.
For Jon, following in the CSU footsteps of his uncle Ron, whom he called “a father figure,” makes his return even more special. Ron played basketball at Cleveland State from 1977-80. In the summers when Jon was in high school, he let Jon live with him in Cincinnati so he could take Jon to AAU tournaments.
Darryl spent many years as an account executive for Levi Strauss & Co. before being laid off in 1999. He lived in Minneapolis, his wife’s hometown of Columbus and Twinsburg, which he later came to find out are all part of the “MS Belt,” an area with very little sunlight where MS is prevalent. He said the belt stretches from Minneapolis, through Ohio to Buffalo, N.Y. Jon said an aunt on his mother’s side who lives in Philadelphia also has MS.
The disease has no known cause or cure, but Jon said he and his father rarely question what the family is going through.
“Just the fact that he used to be an athlete, he took care of his body. ‘He works for you God, why him?’ ” Jon said. “This is God’s plan. He’s testing our faith.
“One time he fell, that kind of shook me up a little bit. It’s just the acceptance part, for him, too. He wants to stand up by himself, but he might need help. I trust in God. If anybody could have this, my dad could handle it.”
Recounting his journey as he sat in a wheelchair in the handicapped section of the Wolstein Center, church friends interrupting to greet him as they arrived, not an ounce of self-pity crossed Darryl’s lips. He is grateful he found a second career in the ministry, initially starting in 2000 as a youth pastor at New Community Bible Fellowship in Cleveland Heights.
“I tell the story, I went from selling jeans to selling Jesus,” Darryl said. “God knew this is about the only job in the world I would still be somewhat working.”
He’s also grateful Jon left Miami to ease the burden on him and his wife of 32 years.
“I told him, ‘I appreciate what you’re doing for your mom and for me. It shows a lot of character,’ ” Darryl said. “All I could do is say thank you.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.