In the Pipeline: The shadow of a giant

The week before last, Ocean View High School Coach Jim Harris addressed a candlelight vigil outside his home with grace, calm and characteristic fight.

The aggressive cancer he had been diagnosed with in August had clearly taken its toll, but in the warm night air, his spirit still soared. On the wings of the faithful students that had gathered, he seemed uplifted.

But then, just like that, he is gone.

Harris, who coached basketball for 33 years at Ocean View, who won 19 league championships and three Southern Section titles, passed away Sunday night at the age of 67.

The beloved coach's legacy was secure long before he became ill, yet as the specter of the sickness became more insidious over the last few weeks, living, breathing shrines were born on Facebook. Students from days gone by poured their hearts out, eloquently capturing their vivid love and respect for Coach Harris.

They were hoping and praying for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Monday night, the doors of the Ocean View gym were open as usual. Like primal music, the sound of basketballs being dribbled punched a precise, rapid-fire melody in the night.

That's the pulse of the Harris legacy, that beautiful sound of ball-on-court, punctuated by whistles, coach's commands and the squeak of fresh sneakers on hardwood. This is Hoosiers-by-the-sea for many who have gone here: a big, noisy gym built up from nothing but hard work, commitment and discipline.

And a coach.

Outside, a small shrine of candles and photos had been arranged by the front door. Lana Briggs-Miller, Class of '80, who helped organize the candlelight vigil, was dutifully arranging things in preparation for a last-minute, informal memorial gathering in the gym — still an effervescent cheerleader for her school, her coach and the memory that must now be served.

Dozens of people began to arrive, many eyes moist with tears. Long, silent hugs were exchanged. Then, as they'd all done so many times before, they filed into the gym. Not for a game, but to form a circle around center court, where a lone basketball sat.

Bob Briggs, Lana's brother, took out his trumpet and powerfully pierced the silence with the spiritual hymn "Goin' Home," followed by the school alma mater.

Cody Whitewolf, Class of '80, guided the group with a series of prayerful offerings. Then, holding hands, the group of several dozen went around the circle sharing stories, laughs and tears, united in their love of a fallen leader.

Outside, some younger students stood silently near the vigil, paying tribute. One of them, Elvi Delgado, Class of '09, was particularly upset. She wrote a long message on a tall glass candle with a black Sharpie pen, carefully choosing her words as her lip quivered.

When she was done composing her message to the coach, she talked about him, revealing what I think may be the most impressive quality in a man who had many.

Delgado spoke not so much about Harris the coach, but Harris the teacher. And father figure. She told me how she currently works two jobs. She sends money home to Mexico to help support her recently deported father. And more. She is a very young woman dealing with very adult responsibilities, and her ability to do so came in large part from Harris.

"He always told me that hard work will make a positive difference in my life, that I can do anything I want to, if I try hard enough and believe in myself," Delgado said. "He took time to make me feel like I belonged, and he looked out for me and gave me guidance. He helped me grow up and understand the importance of taking responsibility. He was just the most wonderful teacher."

The cardinal and gold banners will wave long and proud for Coach Harris. Things will be named for him in his honor because of what he accomplished with his players. As they should be.

But as big an impact as he made on the court and in the locker rooms, let it not be forgotten that he also played a vital role in many other students' lives. He was a teacher first, after all, who extended himself not just to towering centers and playmaking point guards, but to everyone who needed him.

Delgado left quietly, and soon the gym emptied as well. People said their goodbyes and headed off into the parking lot, leaving behind the soft glow of candlelight and the sound of those basketballs still echoing in the night.

Every community has a giant or two, those who tower over the rest of us, cast longer shadows and command respect thanks to their sheer gravity. They leaver bigger footprints, and the echoes of their voices seem to linger longer than others.

That was Coach Jim Harris, as evidenced by the love that's being expressed now and certainly for generations to come. To the Harris family, we send our deepest condolences and prayers as they deal with their loss.

But collectively, I know a community also says thank you to the family for sharing someone who understood how important it was to make a positive difference.

Someone who cared.

A winner. A teacher.

A giant.

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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