At the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Queens in Jamaica, the 24-year-old NBA forward returned to his home borough to hold the first ever Maurice Harkless Skills Academy for middle and high school players.
The soon to be sixth-year NBA standout also had company in the name of New York Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn and Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo, who stopped by on Saturday, along with Morgan State’s Phil Carr and Quinnipiac’s Travis Atson, who helped out on Sunday.
For Harkless, who is set to enter his third season with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Skills Academy had been a long time coming.
For a while, the one-and-done St. John’s alum had the idea and the resources, but this past weekend the timing was perfect.
“I’ve never been able to do something like this,” the 6-foot-9 Harkless said, looking around at the players on the court socializing and sharing some laughs off a lunch break. “I think this is really the first time that I’m able to make an impact. I still go home and stuff like that, but I haven’t able to do it this big. I’m happy about it, and it’s going to become an annual thing.”
Harkless always had a desire to give back to the community that made him, identifying himself as a beneficiary of such philanthropic activity in the past.
“When I was young I met a few NBA players, they talked to me and it was so motivating,” Harkless recalled. “I think it gives the kids something to look up to because they don’t really see an NBA player too often.
“A lot of kids come out from a neighborhood like mine or my neighborhood,” he added. “The fact that it was also free made it easier for the kids to come out and enjoy themselves and not have to worry about anything.”
As noted by Harkless in his message to the young crop of ballers, it’s about more than basketball. It may be a Skills Academy in between the lines, but the former 15th overall NBA draft pick in 2012 aimed to leave the kids with tools to utilize off the court.
Sure, they talked basketball, but Harkless told the kids that it’s the life skills that will take you a long way.
“I’m sure they have a bunch of coaches preaching to them about the game and stuff like that,” he said. “I still try to give them some basketball knowledge, but when I talk to them we talk about things like being disciplined, being on time, having respect for people, especially people who are older than you.”
The tight-knit feel was also by design. The goal was for the kids to be able to easily access and interact with their elders during the two-day camp.
“We limited it to 60 kids, I wanted it to be intimate,” Harkless said. “I know all the kids on a first-name basis. Me walking up to them and calling them by their name, like ‘hey, what’s up Jeremiah’ instead of ‘what’s up man,’ makes a big difference.”
Harkless spent some time in between drills chasing around the kids, locking up defensively for a series of light-hearted, good natured one-on-one battles. Harkless’ competitive edge remained, even playfully accepting a challenge by yelling out “none of y’all can score on me” multiple times.
Overall, he was grateful for their presence, not just the inverse.
Throughout the ball-handling drills, passing stations, pick-and-roll stations, knockout games and a three-on-three tournament, the Queens native hopes that each kid who attended will take something valuable, perhaps even life-changing, away from their experience.
In the meantime, Harkless will soon rejoin the Trail Blazers for the upcoming NBA season, which begins this fall.