On Sundays in the Mojave Desert town of Twentynine Palms, home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, 17-year-old Montreal Harris likes to travel to a gym on base to test himself against some former athletes who offer him no sympathy.
"They tell me, 'Good job,' then try to dunk on me," Harris said by phone.
At 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds, Harris can more than hold his own against Marines or anyone else.
"He's the best athlete I've seen at Twentynine Palms," basketball Coach Larry Bowden said.
As a freshman and sophomore, he was selected the De Anza League most valuable player in basketball. This season, he's averaging 22.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 5.8 steals, 3.2 assists and has 40 blocked shots.
In a game against Yucca Valley last month, he scored a career-high 40 points that included a couple of dunks worthy of any highlight video.
As good as he has been in basketball, football could be his best sport. As a receiver, he averaged 19.1 yards a reception and caught 13 touchdown passes. He scored seven touchdowns as a running back and had five interceptions.
"He's one of the best players we've had in the last 20 years," football Coach Ernie Martinez said.
Ask Harris if he considers himself a football or basketball athlete, and he won't have an immediate answer.
"That's a tough question," he said. "I tend to consider myself both."
In basketball, Harris was a forward for his first two seasons, but Bowden promised him he could play guard by his junior season, something he'd have to do to play in college. So this has been a year of learning, developing and improving.
"He's a great shooter off penetration," Bowden said. "He's working on his outside game. He's the kind of kid, other than being a great athlete and great human being, he'll work hard and do everything you ask him to do."
What gets Twentynine Palms fans -- and Marines -- excited is seeing Harris jump.
"I swear he's in the air, the pass is going to go over his head and somehow he gets up and gets it," Bowden said.
Bowden has heard the skeptics say Harris isn't tall enough to make an impact in basketball. He tells them to watch Harris closely.
"I've seen him bring his team back from 17 points down against two 6-9 players because of his rebounding," Bowden said. "He's a competitor that people don't understand. They just don't get it. I'm telling you he's different than most human beings. I think he can play anywhere with anybody."
Harris grew up in nearby Banning, then moved to Twentynine Palms. His name was well-known in local recreation leagues, with Bowden remembering the first time he saw him play as a sixth-grader.
"We looked at each other and went, 'Wow,' " he said.
The Marines treat him like anyone else. That means in pickup games, elbows can go flying. But they also admire Harris' skills and have teased him by saying, "I'll see you on TV someday."
Harris said he is inspired by the Marines. "I show them so much respect because they go and fight for our country," he said.
With the Southern Section playoffs under way, Harris will get to take his show on the road, allowing others outside his desert community to judge his skills.
Twentynine Palms (25-3) is seeded No. 2 in Division IV-A and beat Calabasas Viewpoint, 71-52, in a second-round game on Tuesday. Harris had 27 points and 13 rebounds.
"People don't know who he is," Bowden said. "One day, they will."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times