Ricky Harris came to then-coach Mark Amatucci's Calvert Hall basketball program as a relatively small kid, utterly unprepared for physical and mental battles to be fought on a high school court - much less a college one. But taking the lessons learned during his high school career, Harris has turned himself into the University of Massachusetts' floor leader and is looking at a possible pro career.
"He was pudgy, not very big, and soft - mentally and physically," Amatucci said. "But he's the kind of player who epitomizes the player who has to be in the gym everyday. He worked constantly on his game. In the two years he was on our varsity, he scored 1,200 points for me. But the big thing was, he grew up."
Today, Harris, now a senior at UMass, is the glue that has the Minutemen (10-19 overall, 4-11 conference) battling for a spot in the Atlantic 10 tournament that begins Tuesday.
Amatucci, who retired from coaching three years ago, was known for his fiery coaching style and his penchant for pushing players he believed had the talent to succeed. He saw that ability in Harris, and the good-natured high schooler responded.
"Coach Amatucci taught me the fundamentals of the game," said the 6-foot-2 Harris, who has been on a hot streak over the past month.
Playing point guard for the first time in his career, he is averaging 22.5 points in his last 11 games that included his four best performances of the season - a 32-point night at Rhode Island, 29 points at Duquesne, 27 against Saint Joseph's and 31 at La Salle.
"Coach Amatucci taught me defensive principles, too," Harris said. "And what has carried over is the need to work hard, be humble, listen to your coach and stay focused on your dreams."
Staying focused on the big picture has been a continual effort for Harris. He chose UMass because then-coach Travis Ford showed interest in him and because Ford's program felt comfortable. But after Harris' sophomore season, coach Derek Kellogg came aboard.
"It was kind of hard at first with a new coach, not knowing what to expect or what he expected," Harris said. "I thought about transferring, but I went to see him and had a talk and found out he understood me and I understood him."
When Harris played at Calvert Hall, he said he had critics, people outside the program who looked at him and didn't think he could make it in a Division I program.
"They said I couldn't do this or that," he said. "It motivated me."
Harris, always smiling, thrives on challenges. Back in high school, he noticed people had said the same thing about his friend Juan Dixon, another Calvert Hall grad, who took his 6-foot-1 frame to the University of Maryland and led the Terps to their first national championship in 2002 and then went on to have a nine-year NBA career.
"Ricky idolized guys like Juan and Jack McClinton [the former University of Miami point guard and 2009 NBA second-round pick]. They were constantly in the gym," Amatucci said. "He saw the work ethic and has become good friends with both of them. Ricky worked 12 months a year to make himself into a player. Summer, spring, fall, nights and mornings. He'd call me at 8 p.m., asking, 'Can you come open the gym for me?' He still does that now when he's home from Massachusetts. I think what has brought him success is his work ethic and the people he has emulated."
Amatucci was pleased when he saw Harris respond this season to a switch from shooting guard to point guard, a position he had never played.
"I was surprised by the move, but not that he could handle it," Amatucci said. "Ricky was always a wonderful perimeter shooter, but now he has gotten bigger and stronger - he's still getting stronger. And he's gotten aggressive in the paint. He can finish. He's a complete player, and I think Coach Kellogg recognizes that."
Kellogg, in fact, told Harris to simply go out, play his game and have fun.
Harris couldn't have asked for better direction.
"The last couple of months, I've been looking at games differently," he said. "I want to go out remembered for something. I had a meeting with my coach and he told me that, and it made me feel more relaxed. It's allowed me to play my game. It was a hard transition to the point because I'd never played it. Basically, I can't explain what I do. I just bring it upcourt and then play my game."
Harris' career at UMass will be remembered: in Baltimore, where he is the first member of his family to get a college scholarship, and at the university, where he is the second-leading active scorer in the Atlantic 10 (1,889 points) and within 17 points of becoming the school's third all-time leading scorer. "And another thing," Amatucci said. "He's going to graduate on time this spring."
Majoring in communications, Harris has a 2.7 grade-point average, and when he's finished with his basketball career, he plans to become a television sports analyst.
"There have been scouts and agents at my games," Harris said. "My dream is to play somewhere professionally next year, whether it's in the NBA or Europe."
Each week, The Baltimore Sun will catch up with a former area high school sports figure. In the spotlight today is former Calvert Hall basketball player Ricky Harris. To suggest former athletes or coaches to be considered for Alumni Report, please e-mail email@example.com
Here's a look at Ricky Harris' achievements at Massachusetts:
•Fourth in career scoring (1,889), passing Marcus Camby (1,387) and Julius Erving (1,370). No. 3 is Lou Roe (1,905).
•Third in career 3-pointers (262).
•Second in 3-point attempts (746).
•Fourth in career field-goal attempts (1,454).
•Fifth in career steals (143).