Bill Mitaritonna is driving northbound on the I-95 corridor after spending the weekend in Washington D.C., attending his daughters’ volleyball tournament. It was the Capitol Hill Classic, one of the largest youth volleyball events in the country. He’s due into Long Island, where he has lived and worked as a high school social studies teacher for the last 22 years, but he’s got detour ahead of him. Mitaritonna, a former Division I walk-on for St. John’s University men’s basketball team, will be dropping into Madison Square Garden to support his alma mater as they take on Jay Wright’s Villanova squad. It’s the second time in less than a week that Mitaritonna is taking in a basketball game at the Garden. Just a few days earlier, Tobias Harris was in town to take on the New York Knicks, and Coach Mitaritonna jumped at the opportunity to see his former pupil in action.
“I talked to Tobias after the Knicks game,” says Mitaritonna. “I asked how he liked the guys on the team. And he goes, ‘Coach, these guys want to win and I can’t wait to help them do that. They’re great guys.’ He just wants to be a part of a winning team. He loves the guys on the team already and it’s only been a couple days.”
Tobias Harris’ path to the Sixers started well before Coach Mitaritonna featured him as option #1 on the Suffolk County Championship-winning Half Hollow Hills High School West varsity basketball team. Harris’ father Torrel put those wheels in motion early on. Torrel Harris is a former college basketball player and sports agent, whose familiarity with the NBA facilitated George Gervin-led training sessions for a young-and-developing Tobias. And it was Torrel, while scouting out local high schools for his sons to eventually attend, who first discovered a flyer for Mitaritonna’s summer basketball camp.
“Torrel was walking around the school checking it out and he saw the flyer for my basketball camp and said, ‘oh, let me give this a try.’ So he sent Tobias and Tyler that summer, I believe it was the summer of 2004. I met Tobias when he was 12-years-old and I couldn’t believe how tall he was for his age. He and his brother Tyler were so lanky and so athletic. That was my first impression. Tobias, of course, was absolutely the nicest, sweetest spoken, most respectful 12-year-old I’ve ever met,” recalls Mitaritonna.
It wasn’t long after that summer camp that Torrel decided Tobias would play basketball at Hills West when the time came. And that time came quicker than expected, as Mitaritonna, very familiar with Tobias’ skill set thanks to a couple of summers of basketball camp, did something a bit unconventional. During Harris’ 8th grade academic year, Coach decided to put Tobias on the Hills West junior varsity squad to begin the season. By Christmas, Harris was promoted to varsity — as an 8th grader.
“Then the improvement from eighth to ninth grade was unbelievable,” says Mitaritonna. “He grew from 6’1” to 6’5”. He went from 7-8 points a game, to 22 points a game. We were all growing together, even myself as a coach. And then his sophomore year was just— he exploded. And on a team that won 23 straight games and the Suffolk County Championship. He was unstoppable. I mean he scored 726 points as a sophomore in high school. There are kids that won’t get that in their whole varsity career. Tobias was surrounded by six seniors who knew he was the meal ticket. It took a little time to figure that out, but when we did, we became an unstoppable force and that championship was so exciting. And Tobias was a big part of it. As far as sophomore year, that was the year we knew he was going to be big time.”
“By his sophomore year, you knew he was going pro?” I asked Bill.
“Oh yeah. The way he improved year-to-year, you knew the sky was the limit with his talent and his work ethic.”
Coach Mitaritonna was sure Tobias was supremely talented and had the mindset for success. Why did it take so long for Harris’ skill and ability to be recognized throughout the greater NBA community? How has he flown under the radar for so much of his career?
Mitaritonna has a simple answer: Tobias’ personality. “He’ll always talk to you about his teammates. He always did that in high school as well. I think that’s because his parents have grounded him so well. His mom has always been there for emotional support and academic support when he was in school. His parents believed in the student-athlete. And his parents have been wonderful role models, they really worked together to create this beautiful, humble person. I think that’s what you’re seeing right now, and you’re seeing him grow still at 26-years-old.”
Harris’ trait of humility has made him a coach’s dream, according to his former mentor.
“If Brett Brown is going to coach him and get on him, Tobias is going to take it the right way. I used to say things to him all the time, to get him going, to get him motivated. His dad used to say things for him to get going. Tobias always came back with a great attitude. So you’re not going to worry about that. He’s not going to pout, he’s not going to complain. You will never hear that. All the kid does is listen to people and do what they ask, and then expand on that.”
The Sixers will soon have to make a decision about whether they’d like to retain Tobias Harris. One of the factors in that decision is Harris’ fit within the culture of the team. How exactly does Tobias fit?
“He’s a leader, but he knows that he’s the new guy. He will defer to people, but at the same time he’s a fiery competitor, so I think these guys are just going to feed off of him. JJ is the elder statesmen and the veteran. Jimmy Butler seems to be a strong guy. Tobias will just be a great compliment to them and he knows he doesn’t have to be the leader on this team. He could just be him, and that’s being a great scorer and a great help defender.”
If the Sixers do decide to extend Harris, are they getting the player we see today or can we expect further development? Coach Mitaritonna says Tobias isn’t done yet.
“Not even close. From age 13 to now, he’s improved each year. He’s never stayed the same, he always gets better. What evidence would show you anything different?”