Rebecca Harris doesn’t remember why she was awake at 4:16am. She just remembers her phone buzzing, flooded by a 300-word Facebook message from Khalia Collier.
“I wanted to be sure to reach out to you and discuss your interest in playing with the St. Louis Surge this season,” Collier’s Facebook pitch began in early February of 2014.
The St. Louis Surge? Harris knew the team. Actually, back in 2011, for a short month, Harris had played for them.
And she had no interest in returning.
Sitting in her apartment in Poland, Harris flashed back to the disorganized practices in a middle school gym on State Street in East St. Louis. She flashed back to the games in empty gyms, with barely 50 fans. Harris was a professional basketball player, in her then fifth season overseas. That was not a professional team––at least, at the time.
But that was three years ago and a lot had changed. When Harris first played, Collier was one of the Surge players. She had since shifted from player to owner, altering the direction of the franchise. What hadn’t changed was Harris’ ability to hoop. As she rebuilt the franchise, Collier kept the stringy point guard with a mean stepback on her radar. Collier didn’t reach out until she felt she could provide Harris with a legitimate professional experience.
“After completing two successful basketball seasons our foundation has been set,” Collier wrote to Harris. “We completed the 2013 season with approximately 2,500 fans and ranked fourth in the nation. In 2012, we were second.”
Harris was skeptical but intrigued by Collier’s essay-long message. An opportunity to hoop was an opportunity to hoop and Harris always wanted to hoop. She would hear Collier out…just at a later hour.
“Currently I’m playing in Poland and it’s about 4:20 am,” she said. “But I’d like to hear more.”
Three months later, back from Poland, Harris sat down for lunch with Collier at Sweetie Pies in St. Louis. A year later, Harris had not only joined the Surge, but led them to their first National Championship. Six years later, she is still with the Surge and the backbone of the franchise.
A Childhood Overseas
When 12-year-old Rebecca Harris moved to America, she found herself culture shocked. Everything was different. She spoke “too proper.” They made her play 5-on-5 with the girls. There was too much farmland. And as she walked down the hallways singing “Oasis” by Wonderwall, she was drowned out by Britney Spears and Dr. Dre.
Rebecca Harris was born in America and held American citizenship. She felt American but had never lived in America, not for any stretch of time she could remember. Harris grew up a military brat, the daughter of Johnnie Harris, who worked in communications for the Air Force and doubled as a “big time” referee on the bases. She was accustomed to packing up her stuff, moving to a new location, and hearing languages she couldn’t understand. Basketball acted as her language of choice.
“I used basketball as a way in, every time we moved somewhere,” Harris says. “I was completely uncomfortable around new groups of people unless I saw them playing basketball.”
First it was the Philippines. Then it was Japan, her favorite. She found herself enamored by Japanese and Asian culture. Asked to explain which part, she quickly replies, “There isn’t a part I’m not drawn to.” So much so, that more than a decade later, she would relearn the language again at the University of Illinois.
The last stop overseas was Germany, where her basketball skills started to blossom. As a fifth-grader, she played on a team of eighth-grade girls that traveled to Switzerland for a tournament.
Midway through seventh grade, her family moved back to the United States, in part because Harris had a legit chance to play college basketball.
They landed on the Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois, a city of 40,000, 30 minutes outside of St. Louis. At the time, St. Louis was just another city, on a long list of cities Harris had lived near. Locations had changed. People had changed. Cultures had changed. But basketball had not.
From JUCO to Division 1
In 2000, Harris arrived at Mascoutah High School as an undersized, 5-foot-8 guard. She was “raw,” without a refined outside game to complement her small stature. But Harris was gritty and fearless.
“I played everywhere,” remembers Harris. “I would jump for the ball in the beginning. I would play down low because I was one of the stronger guards and loved to rebound. My game was more just me being athletic and getting the job done the best way I could.”
As the years progressed, Harris, polished her game. She developed a three-point shot and started handling the ball more. By the end of her high school career, she had earned All-Conference honors three times en-route to over 1,000 career points.
Harris opted for Junior College instead, hoping it could increase her chances at a top tier Division 1 school. She chose Rend Lake College, just an hour southeast of her Belleville home. In a town of 3,000 residents, Harris found herself locked in by miles of nothingness. During her first semester, she didn’t have a car and her bike was stolen.
“Going there allowed me to focus on nothing but what I needed to do,” Harris remembers. “Eat, sleep, homework, workout, get better at basketball.”
The focus paid off. In her second year at Rend Lake, Harris was a Junior College All-American, averaging 23.6 points, third in the county, and 5.6 assists, ninth in the country. Top Division 1 schools started calling. But Harris, who had traveled her whole life, decided to stay home. She committed to the University of Illinois.
It had been seven years since Harris moved to the States, but Harris felt culture shocked all over again as she arrived at U of I. She was transferring from Rend Lake, a community college of about 2,500 students, to a university of about 45,000. She went from riding in a raggedy old cheese bus on game days to flying in a private jet.
She also went from scoring 24 points per game to 6.
“She had to learn how to be a floor general and see the floor versus just being a scorer,” her Illinois teammate, Audrey Tabon, told The Daily Illini in 2007.
Harris soaked in everything. She was used to change, used to new locations with new expectations. During her senior season, Harris would finish second on the team in scoring, averaging 10 points per game. She received the team’s Most Improved Award and finished her career shooting 37% from three, still fifth-best in Illinois history.
“Rebecca’s intensity looks different, it sounds different, and it is different”
Duez Henderson’s first game as Surge head coach ended in a loss. All things considered, he wasn’t too upset. The team had just entered a new league, the Global Women’s Basketball Association (GWBA), and they were without the three players who would become their top scorers for the 2019 season. One of those players was Rebecca Harris.
Harris had just arrived in the States from a grueling season overseas –– nine months of running and banging and traveling and nonstop basketball. She needed a vacation.
Harris had already ordered her vacation tickets when, much to her dismay, she learned that she would miss the Surge season opener.
It ate at Harris to watch the game from her laptop in Hawaii. She tried her best to help the team, texting her teammates before the game to offer encouragement. But she still expected a win. And when the game ended in a loss, Harris “blindsided” Henderson with a phone call.
“It wasn’t X’s and O’s talk or anything like that,” Henderson remembers. “She was just astounded by a perceived lack of effort by some of the team.”
For Harris, her high expectation for effort starts with herself. She is revered by teammates and coaches for her relentless Michael Jordan-like work ethic. She has access to four or five gyms in the St. Louis area and you can expect to find her in one every day. She used to play so much pick-up that she now sets a three hour time limit for herself whenever she enters a gym. She primarily plays with men, a core group of men who respect her so much that they often attend Surge games.
During the virus, Harris has resorted to tightening up her ball handling in parking lots. “Rebecca would be one of those people that right now,” Henderson says, “during the stay-at-home pandemic, I would not be surprised if I got a call from her saying ‘I just got kicked out of the park by the police.’”
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Been checking in with my handles to make sure I can still do a little somethin somethin!!⠀ ⠀ It’s more than just a little “weird” to not be able to touch a court right now, but let’s continue to get it in as much as possible and any way we can!⠀ ⠀ My focus has been more about cardio and workouts without any heavy weights lately but of course we have to include a ball as well! I promise as soon as we can get back in a gym I’ll be in there all day everyday anyways 🏀🏀⠀ ⠀ Continue to do what you can when you can and stay safe and healthy! 🙏🏾🙌🏾⠀ ⠀ #Basketball #SocialDistancing #Practice #Handles #ShameGod #Grind #Motivation #Encouragement #Positivity #ShouldThisHaveBeenATikTok #Crossover #HomeCourt #PracticeMakesPerfect #StaySafe #Cardio #Playmaker #Guard #Skills #Healthy #ProHooper #Bestevercreated #BelieveInYourself #GirlsBasketball #Overseaslife
If practice starts at 6pm, Collier adds, Harris expects everyone stretched, warmed up, and ready to go full speed exactly at 6pm. “She’s one of those players who wants to be deadass, dogass tired by the end of practice. And anything shy of that is completely inefficient,” Collier says.
It can be a playoff game or a shooting competition in practice. The setting doesn’t matter. “Rebecca’s intensity looks different, it sounds different, and it is different from a lot of people,” says Henderson. “…It is an all-day, everyday thing.”
She expects her teammates to do the same. Someone doesn’t dive for a loose ball or fight for a rebound? She lets them hear it.
Sometimes it results in phone calls, just like the one after Henderson’s first game. Sometimes her confrontational manner can come off harsh (“I can very well be the person on everyone’s ass,” she says). Sometimes Henderson has to pull Harris aside and tell her to calm it down. But for Henderson, who just finished his first season as Surge head coach, Harris represents the kind of atmosphere he’s trying to build. “It’s much easier to pull someone back than speed someone up,” he says. “…The more people in a gym that expect the best from everyone, the better your team is gonna be.”
When Henderson interviewed for the job, it was clear just how serious Harris treated her basketball training and the Surge. In their first-ever conversation, Henderson remembers Harris peppering him with questions. Why was he interested in the job? What was his coaching philosophy? What was his temperament? “I wanted to make sure he was as competitive as I was,” Harris clarifies.
The Surge season takes place during Harris’ offseason, the three months she gets away from overseas basketball, where she often plays in the world’s top leagues, including the EuroLeague. For other overseas professionals, the summer is a chance to rest their bodies and work on individual skills for the upcoming season. But for Harris, it’s Surge season.
When Collier decided to make a coaching change prior to the 2019 season, Harris requested a coach who would challenge her even more––not rest her. Harris felt like she was coasting. After joining the Surge full-time in 2014, the team reached the National Championship five years in a row, totaling two National Championships along the way. In 2019, despite joining a new league and getting a new coach, Harris’ crafty play would earn her league MVP honors with averages of 18 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds.
— St. Louis Surge (@stlsurge) June 30, 2019
Despite the accolade, at 34, Harris knows playing basketball may only last a few more years. Good thing Harris’ brain moves much like her basketball mentality –– always working, always thinking, always churning. Take one look at her Instagram (@rebeccah30) or Twitter (@BecBec8630) and you’ll see a constant stream of sports commentary, book recommendations, motivation from her journey, food talk, and random musings.
In 2018, she started a brand, Best Ever Created, a play on her nickname, Bec. She’s even writing a book to help young athletes navigate the college recruitment process. Harris is eager to help, often answering Instagram direct messages or hosting Zoom workout sessions. Like many others, her route to professional basketball was windy.
Harris is still winding, traveling from the Czech Republic to Turkey as a professional player. It seems as if she hasn’t stopped moving her whole life.
Twice Harris took breaks from overseas basketball, opting to coach in the States instead. Now, she’s back overseas, having finished the 2020 season playing in Germany. Just like during her childhood, the locations have continued to change. The years have changed. Even the professions have changed. But basketball has not––and will not.
“I always see myself around the game of basketball in some way, shape, or form,” says Harris.