Voice of Blue Devils got his start in Albemarle

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

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!
DURHAM ó The first time Bob Harris’ play-by-play voice went over the airwaves, it wasn’t even live.
Earlier in the summer of 1966, WZKY-AM Station Manager Ralph Gordon had come into the Albemarle shoe store where Harris was working until an insurance job opened up.
As they talked sports, Harris learned WZKY had lost its play-by-play man for West Stanly High football games in the fall. “I’ll do them for you,” Harris said.
He didn’t know why he volunteered. The only time he had ever held a microphone was as a student public-address announcer for basketball games at Albemarle High School.
But Gordon accepted Harris’ offer. They sold sponsorships and when the season’s first Friday night game arrived, Gordon handed him a microphone and a reel-to-reel tape recorder in a Samsonite-type case.
Because the 250-watt WZKY only broadcast during the daytime, Harris had to record his play-by-play.
The tape would not be aired until 11 the next morning.
Harris says he cringed about every other minute, listening to the Saturday playback of his first game. When the broadcast was over, Gordon called him.
“If there’s anything I hate, it’s a liar,” he told Harris.
Gordon jokingly accused Harris of moonlighting as a sportscaster in South Carolina while Harris had been moving among Charleston, Dillon and Florence as a manager for Goodyear Tire and Rubber stores.
Gordon then became serious for a moment.
“You did a great job,” he said.
Neither man could know the Hall of Fame broadcasting career that lay ahead for Harris, or that his call of Christian Laettner’s basket to win the 1992 NCAA East Regional for Duke University would become one of the most recognizable ever in collegiate sports.
Today, as the 33-year voice of Duke basketball and football, Harris has a spring in his step.
The Duke football team, which in recent years has been a symbol of futility in the Atlantic Coast Conference, had won three ACC games in a row before Saturday’s loss to arch rival North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Harris is putting the finishing touches on an autobiography, “How Sweet It Is.” The title borrows the signature phrase he uses when things for Duke teams are going well.
Due out early next year, the book will tell Harris’ life story from the son of a cotton mill worker in Albemarle to the glory of calling Duke basketball games from the crow’s nest in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Harris has called 1,110 Duke basketball games since 1976. His career includes 11 Final Fours and eight NCAA championship games, including three Duke titles. He’s a two-time N.C. Sportscaster of the Year and a 2006 inductee into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
But Harris’ longtime friends say he hasn’t changed much from his days calling high school games in Stanly County.
“His demeanor in the press box and the broadcast part are more professional and polished, but, basically, he’s the same guy,” says Clyde Cupples, who first spotted for him at football games in Albemarle and incredibly has continued that job in Harris’ years at Duke.
Harris seems to inspire loyalty. His color analyst for football games, Duke legend Wes Chesson, also has been his partner for 30 years.
“He’s so professional and well prepared,” Chesson says. “He knows football and is good at relaying what’s happening on the field. He makes it easy for us in working with him.”
Harris, 67, does nothing to hide his love for the Blue Devil sports program, and it shows with the friendships he has forged over the decades with coaches, fans, players and their families.
“It has been more about friendships than it has been about winning,” Harris says. “Don’t get me wrong, I like to win. But I love seeing these kids come in as freshmen and getting to know them ó the attachment to the kids is the main thing.”
It’s not unusual to see Harris receiving handshakes and hugs from former players such as Chris Port, an offensive tackle on Duke’s 1989 football team.
“You can’t buy things like that,” Harris says.
He remembers the NCAA loss ending Duke basketball guard Jim Spanarkel’s career.
When a season or career ends, Harris spends extra time in the locker room, going player to player to thank each one. When he reached Spanarkel, the player and broadcaster hugged.
A jaded sportswriter asked Harris what he was doing ó why was he so emotional?
“You will never have the opportunity to know,” Harris told him.
Retired Salisbury dentist and avid Duke fan Dr. Clyde Young has spent time with Harris and his wife, Phyllis, on many NCAA trips involving the Duke basketball team.
“I can’t think of anything I don’t like about him,” Young says, praising Harris for his off-season charity work on behalf of children and his willingness to make public speaking appearances.
Harris has spoken to Young’s Civitan Club twice. He also has participated in fund-raising golf events across the state for places such as Nazareth’s Children Home near Rockwell.
“He’s solid in every way,” Young says. “He goes out of his way to help people.”
In 2001, Phyllis Harris ordered an engraved Waterford Crystal microphone to mark her husband’s 25th year as the voice of the Blue Devils. She wanted the university to present it to Harris at halftime of Duke’s last home basketball game that season.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski blocked the request.
The coach suggested the year-ending basketball banquet instead. He wanted he and his players to be on hand for that presentation ó something they would not be able to do from the halftime locker room.
The banquet also happened to celebrate the 2001 national title.
“That was one of the few times in my life I was speechless,” Harris says.
In Albemarle, Harris’ father walked to work every day at the American-Efird cotton mill, where he retired after 55 years. His mother was a homemaker and seamstress. Harris’ sister, 14 years his senior, married by the time he was 6 or 7.
On certain summer evenings, a young Harris could position his radio just right to bring in the broadcast of a Brooklyn Dodgers game from a Salisbury AM station. To help a neighbor on occasion, he filled in on a Salisbury Post newspaper route.
When he was 15, Harris was one of two curb hops at George’s Grill in Albemarle, making 50 cents an hour. He worked the gravel parking lot between the cars and the grill, taking orders and delivering hot dogs, hamburgers and sandwiches.
For the high school football team, Harris served as trainer and manager. Every Saturday morning during the season meant cleaning up the locker room and washing uniforms and towels.
As a junior in 1959, Harris sang in the mixed chorus and in a double quartet with senior Woody Durham.
It’s one of the more miraculous coincidences in N.C. sports history that the revered play-by-play announcers for college basketball’s fiercest rivalry ó Harris at Duke and Durham at UNC ó are both Albemarle High graduates, and only a year apart.
Harris attended N.C. State University for two years on a textile scholarship made possible by his father’s employment at American Efird. But he left State, intending to work a year at home before enrolling as a day student at nearby Pfeiffer College.
He took jobs at Lowder Hardware and helped to open the new Albemarle Shoe Center.
During his summers while attending State, Harris also worked in the cotton mill. He befriended an older woman in his department and one day asked, “Do you know any good Baptist, Republican girls who would go out with me?”
“I happen to have one at my house,” the woman answered.
By June 1963, after receiving a raise at the shoe store from $50 to $55 a week, Harris had married the woman’s daughter. He and Phyllis, wed now for 46 years, have two daughters, Bobbi and Paula, and two grandchildren.
Harris eventually took a job in Albemarle’s Goodyear store selling things such as toaster ovens, televisions, stereos, toys and tires.
It was his success as credit and store manager that eventually led to his being transferred into South Carolina. He soured on all the moves, and it was back to the Albemarle shoe store before he could start selling insurance.
Western and Southern Life had a policy then that their salesmen could not hold any other jobs. Harris’ bosses allowed him to finish out his first football season, and he realized it was probably his last.
“It broke my heart,” he recalls. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
The insurance company’s district and staff manager took Harris on the proverbial long car ride one day in February 1967 and gave him an ultimatum. He would have to sell insurance and nothing else, they told him.
“I’m getting out,” Harris said quickly.
His timing was perfect. Gordon needed help at his station, and Harris was soon host for a morning air shift, selling advertising and doing whatever sports programming he wanted.
“Somebody needs you, somebody takes a chance on you, and it just all comes together,” Harris says.
As sports director, Harris did live play-by-play for high school and Little League baseball games and kept recording his calls for high school football and boys and girls basketball. He eventually substituted city league slow pitch softball for Little League games.
By 1975, WZKY was originating more sports programming than any other station in the state.
After eight years as WZKY’s sports director, Harris took a job selling ads for WDNC in Durham. Within a month, he also was host for a one-hour, call-in sports show.
His work led to guest roles in 1976 as a color commentator for Duke football and basketball games. When longtime Duke voice Add Penfield faced health issues in January 1976, Harris filled in as the Duke play-by-play man at the Big Four basketball tournament.
A few weeks later, Penfield could not make a road trip to Maryland. Harris substituted again and has been behind the Duke microphone ever since.
The veteran sportscaster, now director of broadcast operations for the Duke ISP Sports Network, has no plans for retirement.
As for that famous Laettner shot, Harris will deal with it at length in his upcoming book.
He has included the observations of himself, Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Thomas Hill, Coach Krzyzewski and the game referees. He also promises that he’ll have the exclusive, inside story from then Duke Athletic Director Tom Butters on how Krzyzewski’s hiring came about.
“I don’t work, I have fun,” Harris says. “Being around college-age kids as much as I am keeps me younger. … I’m where I’m supposed to be.”