Jerry Harkness

Derrick McKey, Darnell Hillman and Jerry Harkness

Before I had received final approval for the One on One program, I lined up Harkness for an interview as sort of an audition. I had gotten to know him well by then and written about him for the Star, so I knew his story well. It’s a great one, and Jerry is a great guy, so I thought he would be willing to participate even if the conversation never aired.

I went to his house on a Sunday night, sat at his dining room table and recorded the show with a hand-held digital recorder and plug-in microphone that Kevin Lee loaned to me. It was the first show I recorded but the second one to air, after John Wooden. It’s a story everyone should hear, because it explains the impact a legendary athlete can have on a life.

Jerry was kind of a lost kid growing up in Harlem.  He was a good athlete, but afraid to go out for his high school’s basketball team. His father had left home and he didn’t want to risk getting cut and face another disappointment. Then one day he was shooting around at the local YMCA and none other than Jackie Robinson walked through the gym. Robinson, just a couple of years beyond his retirement from his Hall of Fame baseball career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, gave him a quick compliment — something along the lines of “Hey, you’re not too bad!” Inspired by the icon, Harkness went out for his team, earned all-city honors, got a scholarship to Loyola of Chicago, became captain of a historic national championship team, earned a spot on the Pacers’ first roster in 1967, hit the longest shot in the history of professional basketball, became the first black sportscaster in Indiana and ultimately a dedicated member of the community.

Yes, all of that from a simple compliment from a sports legend. Harkness is still active in the community, and returning the favor of influence to young people in Indianapolis. He often attends Pacers games, as he did the night I took the photo above of him with Derrick McKey and Darnell Hillman.

First aired 2009

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