NSSA: Duke's Harris a fan with a microphone
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Bob Harris, “Voice of the Blue Devils,” is regarded by Duke fans with the same reverence normally reserved for Cameron Indoor Stadium.
On the other hand, Harris, an unabashed homer, is a pebble in the shoe of ACC listeners who aren’t fond of the royal-blue, 3-point bombers from Durham.
During Bobby Hurley’s four years as Duke’s point guard, Harris shouted “Hurley’s raked to the floor, but there’s no call!” so frequently and fervently that it was astonishing that Hurley, who had apparently barely escaped dismemberment, was still in one piece for his postgame interview.
A sportswriter asked Harris once how he could get so worked up over a ballgame and Harris offered a quick answer.
“I’m a fan,” Harris explained unapologetically. “A fan with a microphone.”
Harris is a white-haired country gentleman who can hear the footsteps of his fast-approaching 70th birthday, but his career may be peaking instead of winding down.
He’s been named North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year for the third time. His other two awards came in 1988 — anyone remember Robert Brickey and Alaa Abdelnaby? — and 1991 — everyone remembers Hurley, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner.
It was a call that Harris made in 1992 that made him famous. Kentucky-Duke in the Eastern Regional final may have been the finest college game ever, and Harris’ call — part madness, part amazement, all passion — captured it so vividly that his voice has relieved the original CBS vocals. It’s Harris we hear every March when Laettner’s shining moment is replayed one more time.
“I remember it like yesterday,” said Harris, who had the best seat in the house in Philly. “Sean Woods made a runner for Kentucky — made it over Christian — and Duke gets a timeout with 3 seconds left. We go to commercial and I lean back in my chair.”
Kentucky led 103-102. The possibility of a 3-point shot didn’t enter Harris’ mind. He just kept mentally repeating, “Duke loses 103-102 or Duke wins 104-103.”
“I said those scores to myself at least six times,” Harris said. “Because a year earlier when Duke beat UNLV for the championship, in all my excitement, I fluffed the score.”
When the Devils came out of their huddle with a confident Mike Krzyzewski, Harris watched Hill stroll down to make the inbounds pass and knew what was coming.
“I had a flashback to the game at Wake Forest,” Harris said. “Same situation. Grant tries the long pass to Christian, but he throws a curveball. Christian catches it, but when he turns, his foot is out of bounds.”
This time is different. Hill fires a fastball down the middle, and Laettner curls from the corner toward the center of the court to catch it, almost directly across from Harris.
“They throw it the length of the floor... Laettner catches, comes down, dribbles.. Shoots. Scores! ... Christian Laettner has hit the bucket at the buzzer! The Blue Devils win it 104 to 103. Look out Minneapolis! Here come the Blue Devils!”
Laettner got it right. So did Harris.
“You can still hear the question in my voice when he dribbles,” Harris said with a laugh. As far as my career, that was the greatest moment.”
That moment still links Laettner and Harris.
“When I saw Christian not long ago I told him that shot had tied us together for 20 years,” Harris said. “He told me, ‘Bob, it’s OK with me if it’s OK with you.’ ”
Not all games are iconic, but Harris has handled 406 straight Duke football contests and 1,212 hoops games. His basketball run isn’t consecutive, but he’s missed only a dozen or so since 1976.
“One when my dad died and two with illness,” Harris said. “The others were due to football conflicts.”
Long-suffering Duke football or perpetually successful Duke basketball? Seems like Harris would broadcast hoops when they took place on the same day, but not so.
Coach K is OK with it.
“Mike told me to do the football games,” Harris said. “He said they get me for a lot fewer weeks than basketball.”
Harris grew up in Albemarle when almost everyone was a textile worker. Harris knows what a linthead is. His father worked 55 years in a mill, and he worked in textiles four summers himself.
He was a good high school baseball player who loved listening to Dodger broadcasts on the radio. He knocked in two runs to beat powerhouse Asheboro on the same day he found out he’d been selected for a mill-sponsored scholarship to N.C. State.
“That was a very lucky Friday, the 13th,” Harris said.
Harris learned football, not as a player, but as manager and trainer for Albemarle’s legendary coach Toby Webb.
“One year the Charlotte Observer really built up this game we had with Charlotte Harding,” Harris said. “We were No. 1 in 2A and they were No. 1 in 3A. They brought 13 busloads of fans. We beat them 54-7.”
Harris was working in a shoe store in Albemarle in 1966 when the manager of the local radio station — WZKY — mentioned that there wouldn’t be any West Stanly football broadcasts because the play-by-play man wasn’t available.
Harris, who had never held a microphone outside of his P.A. work at Albemarle basketball games, volunteered.
WZKY was a daytime station, so Harris’ taped play-by-play that first Friday wasn’t aired until the next morning.
Harris listened and was certain he was pretty awful. The station manager disagreed. That was the start.
For eight years, Harris did football, basketball, baseball, slow-pitch softball and Little League games, selling ads for all of them. That led to an offer to sell radio time in Durham, and Harris and his wife, Phyllis, relocated.
A stint as a radio talk-show host led to a shot as guest color man on Duke broadcasts.
Then when Add Penfield, who had worked Duke sports since the 1930s, retired in 1976, Harris became the new voice of the Blue Devils.
Harris has stayed positive every Saturday through a marathon stretch of struggling football seasons, and he’s made the hike into “The Crows’ Nest” above Cameron to broadcast a flurry of wins.
“I’ve worn out three ladders making that climb,” said Harris, who has made “How sweet it is!” his signature call.
With his 50th wedding anniversary not too far down the road, Harris still glows with the enthusiasm of a teen.
And while there may never be another game quite like Kentucky-Duke in 1992, a shot last spring by Austin Rivers again had Harris’ exuberant voice resonating in coast-to-coast highlights.
“Nine seconds left and Rivers comes frontcourt… Rivers works to the right side, he’ll try to step back with one second left…let’s fly…got it! The Blue Devils win it over North Carolina! 85-84! Oh my gosh! I do not believe this!”
“I told Austin I’d ridden Laettner’s back for 20 years,” Harris said. “Now maybe I can ride his for a while.”