Former Valley, Robert Morris standout Chipper Harris dies
A sparkplug of Valley's 1979 state championship basketball team and a key to Robert Morris's first NCAA basketball qualifier three years later, Chipper Harris always was looking to improve his game.
Harris, the first member of the Robert Morris basketball Ring of Honor in 2014 and an Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame inductee later that year, died Saturday after a lengthy battle with diabetes.
“Chipper and I first met when we played Little League baseball in New Kensington,” said Ron ‘Mac' McNabb, fellow guard on the 1979 Valley team. “We followed that with our love of basketball. We played all summer at the JFK courts in New Kensington and at the old Ridge Avenue school courts. We forged a great friendship. He made me a better player, and I made him a better player.”
“I'm still in shock,” Matt Furjanic, Robert Morris' coach for the 1982 and '83 NCAA teams, said. “I started recruiting him as a junior on that state championship team. I said he was one of the guards we wanted to target, locally.”
Harris averaged 16.6 points with the Colonials and had 450 career steals, leading the nation in that category in 1983 and '84.
It might be hard to believe that a player who led the nation in steals twice was benched during his high school days for “lack of defensive intensity.”
But Harris sat early in the 1978-79 season and redoubled efforts toward playing defense.
“I would go to the film room and study what I was doing,” Harris said in a 2014 Valley News Dispatch interview. “I became my biggest critic. But it taught me what playing an acceptable game was.”
Added McNabb: “A lot of times, he would ask me to stay after practice. I was more than happy to stay with him and work on getting back into the starting lineup. He and I competed against each other.”
Valley, after losing to Burrell in the 1979 quarterfinals, won a mini-tournament between WPIAL quarterfinals losers and entered the PIAA tournament as the No. 5 team. The Vikings went through Altoona, Pittsburgh South Hills, defending state champion Schenley and reigning WPIAL champion Beaver Falls, then capped their improbable run with a win over Allentown's William Allen to win the state title.
“We came together at the right time,” McNabb said. “All of us hit our stride.”
After Robert Morris went 3-17 in Harris' freshman season, the Colonials were floundering at 3-10 the next year when Furjanic made the bold move and went with younger players like Harris and guard Forrest Grant and “the rest was history,” Furjanic said.
Robert Morris went 17-5 the rest of the way and made the NCAA Tournament.
“He was one of the most outstanding defensive players I ever coached,” Furjanic said. “It wasn't like he was gambling for all those steals. It was his anticipation within our defensive framework.”
Harris' girlfriend and long-time companion Kim Thrower died earlier this year, adding to his difficulties.
“He had lost so much weight when I saw him a couple of weeks ago,” McNabb said. “It just broke your heart.”
Added Furjanic: “He was a special person. He always said, ‘Love you, coach,' when he saw me. I started telling all my players the same thing.”
Funeral arrangements for Harris, 55, were incomplete as of late Sunday afternoon.
George Guido is a freelance writer.