In the Pipeline: A moment of grace hidden by tragedy

Wednesday of last week was such a strange day.

The mercury pushed up near 100 degrees throughout the region, the sort of strange, unseasonably arid kind of day that will prompt at least a few to start wondering about "earthquake weather." It was a summer day that didn't happen all summer, and the odd, almost-eerie stillness that comes with such an afternoon was obliterated about 1:30 when a gunman in Seal Beach opened fire, killing eight innocent people (and injuring a ninth).

The sickening, hollow feeling we get on the heels of such news is profound. Little did I know that that same evening (with temperatures still a balmy 90), I'd witness something so beautiful that it, at least for several moments, would actually eclipse the brutal events in Seal Beach and cast a glow (literally) at the end of the day.

Ocean View High School basketball coach Jim Harris, 67, is a local legend. I know his name, accomplishments and reputation cast a longer shadow than just Huntington Beach, but for the Seahawks, he is revered.

He has coached at Ocean View for 35 years, since the school opened. Teams he has led have won 19 basketball league championships on the boys' side, and several years ago, he even had a five-season stint coaching the girls' team, which won four league titles during that time.

Talk to alumni, though, and it's not the numbers that his legend is built around—it's the man. Harris' leadership skills, combined with his compassion and concern for students, have resulted in a remarkable bond between players, students, parents — and coach.

Recently, my friend Lana Briggs Miller, a member of the first-ever Ocean View graduating class (and as sparklingly enthusiastic an alumni as can be found) made me aware that Harris had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was having a very rough time. Almost immediately, Facebook groups popped up so former and current students and families could begin posting messages of support for Coach Harris.

Pages and pages of heartfelt missives appeared each day — not knowing Harris personally, I began to get a sense of a great man who has touched countless lives for the better. The image of a vital father figure emerged from men, women and children alike.

Lana also told me that last Wednesday, a candlelight vigil, organized by Tracy King-Wenschlag, would take place outside the Harris residence in Fountain Valley.

King, whose five children either graduated from Ocean View or attend there now, had been inspired by Harris years earlier after her husband had died and the coach stepped in to help make sure her sons had a positive role model.

At the vigil, attendees were made aware before that the coach would probably be unable to come outside, but he would be home, and fully aware, that many from his past would be outside, united in prayer, faith and love.

I arrived at the cul-de-sac where the coach lives just before 7 p.m., amid dozens of others who were approaching the house. The mood as people approached was wistful and reflective — not unlike a high school reunion. One woman remembered babysitting on the street where the Harris family lives. Another recalled a 1980s party that took place nearby.

Small children, teenagers and adults moved en masse toward the end of the street, the crowd swelling to more than 150 people.

But as they reached the house, the mood settled. Candles were lit, thoughts were gathered, and people shared shouts of encouragement to the coach and his family, who were visible just inside a front window.

The orange-yellow candle flames glowed and danced in what felt like a tropical breeze.

They didn't expect to see the coach; that wasn't the point. As King told me, her vision for the event was simply to let the coach see them — to let him know how much they cared.

But then, unexpectedly, the door opened.

And out came the coach, assisted by Kim and Shane Morris, his daughter and son-in-law.

People started to cheer at first, a natural reaction — but they caught themselves as not to overwhelm Harris (or the moment).

In a strong voice, he thanked everyone. He hugged Lana. Then he added, "Well, you saved me once before."

Harris was referring to an incident in 1985. As the Los Angeles Times reported March 29 of that year, "Nearly one-quarter of the students at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach walked out of classes Thursday morning and staged a 30-minute sit-in outside Principal John Myers' office to protest his decision to relieve basketball coach Jim Harris of his duties."

Harris had been the target of a three-month investigation into athlete-recruitment practices.

Students created petitions and protested even louder. Then this was the story in the Times on May 15 of 1985: "Jim Harris, the Ocean View High School basketball coach who was relieved of his coaching duties less than two months ago, was reinstated to his position as head coach Tuesday. Several of Harris' players and other students circulated petitions at the school and in surrounding businesses Thursday calling for his reinstatement."

The kids helped save him then, and several who had protested back in '85 were there holding candles last Wednesday.

Annamarie Briones, class of 1987 (whose son Mark is class of 2013), told me, "We all walked out of class at the same time and sat down in the commons. We were all protesting. It was the only way people would listen to us about how much he meant to us. Not only is he a coach, he is a mentor, a teacher, and all-around wonderful person who makes you want to be a better person."

After Harris turned and was helped back into his house, King led the crowd in "Amazing Grace." Lana led them in the school fight song. And then candles were silently hoisted once more, a glowing beacon of strength for the coach to see.

Afterward, I asked Tracy why it was so important for her to organize this event. "When my son Anthony's father died of cancer, it was very tough," she said. "Coach became a real role model — a positive influence. Today my son's name is on the wall of fame in the gym—that's because of how coach worked with him to get there as a varsity basketball player. All of my kids have been positively affected by him. Just like everyone else here tonight."

As the crowd started to disperse, the candles were extinguished — but the prayers and good thoughts no doubt will continue to burn brightly for Coach Harris. Quietly, the students and former students walked away, after having created a sublime moment of respect, honor and love on a day when many of us, especially the coach, needed it most.

Wednesday of last week was such a strange day.

But what I'll remember most will be the candles.

Our prayers are with you, Coach Harris.

And yes, clearly, your kids are ready to help save you again.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at chris@chrisepting.com.

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