By Rory Sharrock
Over the past four years, Dennis Harris made a name for himself throughout Georgia by taking on and conquering all contenders from his days as an AAU hoops standout with the Atlanta Celtics and as a dominate scorer for the Mundy's Mill Tigers.
As a result of his talents in the classroom and on the court, he earned a scholarship to attend Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where beginning this season, he'll still be playing for the Tigers -- just with different colored stripes.
While competing at a Division I program is like night and day compared to high school basketball, if his previous works are any indication of his valor, it's only a matter of time before the SEC and the nation learns his name too.
Earlier this month, Harris hit the court for his first official practice as a collegiate student-athlete. This milestone was a humbling experience for a man, who once soared above the rim atop the mountain as one of the kings of the Southern Crescent. Now, he resides in the valley as a true freshman, running with players with equal or better skills than him.
"You have to be self-motivated. When you get in the weight room, you have be self-motivated. Everything is a competition from the court, all the way to the classroom, to how early you go to sleep, to how well you eat -- everything is competitive. It's not a bad thing, it's really a good thing. It just heightens everyone's skill level as far as on and off the court."
The friendly competition between Harris and his teammates, especially with his freshman classmates, will serve him well as he goes through the long-winded season that will hopeful conclude in March at the NCAA Tournament.
Although the adjustment has its bumps along the way, it helps to have a former AAU teammate with him on campus. Former Dunwoody High School star Delwin Graham is one of five freshman on this year's squad at LSU. Both Harris and Graham are the only players from Georgia on the current roster.
"We're all getting along. I have two other freshman in the room with me. Delwin (Graham) and I played on the same AAU team with the (Atlanta) Celtics. We knew each other for three or four years before we got down here, so we get along well. It's not like everyone has their own group, everybody gets along. We hang out after practice making jokes. It's like one big family," said Harris.
For Harris and his extended family members, this upcoming season will be a year-long celebration their school's storied past with anticipation for a glorious future.
The 2008-09 season marks the 100th anniversary of the men's basketball program at LSU. This is a school that has displayed an arsenal of talent throughout the past century, including college legends such as "Pistol" Pete Maravich, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formally Chris Jackson), Shaquille O'Neal and coaching icon Dale Brown.
"It's real special. All the former players came back and showed us love. They were in the gym signing autographs and posters. It was a beautiful thing," said Harris.
However, in addition to the season-long trip down memory lane, the Tigers will be under new leadership with Trent Johnson serving as head coach. Johnson replaced interim coach Butch Pierre, who filled in for John Brady after his firing on Feb. 8.
Brady was the person who recruited Harris from Mundy's Mill to LSU. When he was dismissed last season, the news sent shockwaves throughout college basketball, including for Harris.
But he knew that it was a business decision and although there's a new man on the bench, he's committed to playing to his full potential regardless of the coaching staff.
"They treat us like they recruited us," he said. "Nothing has changed. Coach Johnson is hard-nosed. I feel like he can be a great coach. What I got from him is he really knows what he's doing. I see nothing but positive things from coach (Johnson). He goes out there and tries to protect us. Everything is good with coach Johnson."
Harris is a knowledgeable basketball player, who soaks up information like a sponge and spends countless hours in the gym working to fine-tune his game.
In high school, he hung on to every word from Mundy's Mill head coach Tu Willingham, so he shouldn't have any problems following the directions of an established college coach like Johnson.
"This is a testament of what hard work and belief can do," said Willingham.
"His mom and dad did a phenomenal job of raising him. I tell the story all the time when he came to basketball camp his seventh grade year. He was a skinny kid who couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, but he refused to accept being average. He always had a swagger about him. Slowly but surly he started putting it all together."
LSU tips off the season on Nov. 15 at home versus Jackson State. The Tigers begin the SEC portion of their schedule on Jan. 11 at Alabama.
Mundy's Mill begins its 2008-09 run with a home scrimmage against North Atlanta on Nov. 18.
Its first regular season game takes place on Nov. 26 in the Southeast Thanksgiving Tournament at Southeast Whitfield High School in Dalton.