It’s been nearly 25 years since Fred Horton coached Antonio Harris as a basketball player at Booker T. Washington High School. And it’s been 12 years since Harris first became an assistant coach under Horton, and just seven years since Harris succeeded Horton as head basketball coach at BTW.
But Horton, who just turned 71 on Nov. 22, is now in his first year as head coach at Whitehaven High School. And Tuesday marked the first time that Horton coached not just against his old school, he’s also coaching against his former player.
“Imma do my job,” Horton said Tuesday afternoon before the game. “Tony pretty much knows my system, but he don’t know everything about my system. I don’t show too many coaches nothing – until we play.”
“Were just competing against each other. It’s like father and son,” Harris said before the game. “I want to showcase my growth and he probably wants to be like ‘You’re still the student.’ But I don’t care how many times we compete against each other, we both want to win. The Karate Kid wanted to beat Mr. Miyagi, too.”
Whitehaven beat BTW (86-70) in the 49th Annual MLK Invitational Tournament on Tuesday night. Afterwards, players and coaches shook hands as a sign of respect and admiration – which reflects Horton and Harris’ relationship over more than two decades.
“He’s always ‘Pops,’” Harris said Tuesday afternoon. “I hope I’m carrying the torch at BTW with the utmost respect and dignity.”
“Tony’s like a son of mine,” Horton said before the game. “I respect him wholeheartedly. I’m tickled to death he’s the coach at Booker T. Washington.”
Tough coach, tough kids
Alongside another hoops legend by the name of Larry Finch, Horton averaged just under 11 points and six rebounds during his three seasons with the then-Memphis State Tigers from 1969-72. But he became a Memphis hoops icon over a 40-year career as head coach at Booker T. Washington. He took no mess.
“He was a very tough, demanding coach. But for the most part, he had tough kids who he had to get to conform,” said Harris, who played for Horton from 1991-95. “We pretty much played our tails off for him. He was a real giant in the community as far as the respect he had amongst the community. It was great to play for him. He taught me a lot.”
Horton admired Harris as well.
“Tony was a great kid. Good athlete,” Horton said. “He had a mind of his own. He wasn’t a follower; he was more of a leader.”
While Horton’s fundamental love for the game never diminished, he also saw it as a way to instill critical lessons into his players, many of whom did not have strong male figures in their homes.
“I was naturally tough and that’s what they needed,” Horton said. “I was a no-nonsense type coach. They knew how far to take me and how not to cross that line.
“I used basketball as a vehicle to teach young black men about the rites of passage,” Horton added. “I tried to steer them in the right direction. Sometimes you have to allow them to bump their heads because that’s how they learn. You have to give them second and third chances because they don’t have some of the things in life (to get ahead).”
Harris credits Horton for helping him develop mental toughness. By the time he got to the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship in 1995, he was unfazed by then-UT coach Kevin O’Neill’s abrasive style.
“(O’Neill) was crazy, but he couldn’t fluster me,” Harris said. “Coach Horton is like 6’ 7’, a very intimidating guy. When I got to UT, Coach O’Neill would be going off and I was like, ‘I’m not intimidated by you.’”
Passing the torch
Harris played two seasons for the Vols before returning to Memphis, where he says he’s been working with young people for more than 20 years. He started working with the Boys and Girls Club not far from his alma mater.
“Some kids in my after-school program were being coached by Coach Horton. So I asked if I could come over to help,” Harris said. “I wasn’t planning on getting into coaching.”
But coach he did, as an assistant on Horton’s staff at BTW. And Horton needed him – his demanding style of coaching simply wasn’t connecting to younger players.
“A lot of the stuff I grew up under – Coach yelling at us, fussing – we responded in a different way than teens do now,” Harris said. “What I brought to the table was to help him understand the kids of today. He didn’t really understand the kids of today.
“These kids, they have different challenges, different backgrounds, different distractions,” Harris explained. “We didn’t have cell phones and social media when he or I was coming up. These kids do. It’s just different. It’s not worse; it’s just different. And I had a rapport with these kids.”
Horton said Harris was invaluable that way.
“You have to come up with some more strategies to try to get (players) to buy into what you’re trying to do,” Horton said. “The changes I tried to use with Tony back in the day . . . it just didn’t work. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted him, because he was closer to that generation. Those kids gravitate to him.
“He helped me in the long run – just by him being there,” he continued. “They looked up to Tony. I just stood back on the sidelines and watched how he communicated with them.”
So when Horton prepared for retirement in 2014, his replacement was a no-brainer. He nominated Harris, his assistant for five years, now in his sixth season at his alma mater. Horton enjoyed retirement until Whitehaven came calling, looking to replace Phillips.
“It’s a weird feeling,” Horton said about coaching at a different school. “I thank God for the chance to coach these kids at Whitehaven. BTW is my soul, but Whitehaven is my home now.
And then, he picked up the phone to schedule some games.
“My first thought, I immediately called Tony,” Horton said. “It would be something special to him and me.”
Like “father,” like “son”
Tuesday’s game at the MLK invitational was the first of three games between the two schools. They play again at Whitehaven on Dec. 14 and again in what will be an emotional homecoming at Booker T. Washington on Jan. 11 – Horton’s first game back in the gym he ruled for 40 years.
And while the faces and coaching styles have changed, Harris freely admits he’s building on the legacy Horton gave to him and his peers 25 years ago.
“Basketball is the bridge that brought us together,” Harris said. “I’m really teaching my players about life and how to be men in the world. I’m just trying to pay it back, give these kids the same opportunity I had.”
Just as he did at BTW, Horton said he tries to adapt to what his student-players need.
“I was pleased to be there and show them the right way, if possible,” Horton said. “What ‘hat’ am I wearing today? Police? Parent? Father? Nurse? Therapist? It’s about doing the things you have to do to support these kids.”
Harris tries to fulfill a similar role, just as Horton did for him.
“He was firm on us; I’m firm on my players now. He educated us; I educate my players,” he said. “I instill in my players they have a duty to come back and contribute. This was a choice. I want to be here. I want to make a difference in the lives of these young men who need firm figures in their lives.”
But he figures he’s got at least 20 more years of service to come close to filling Horton’s shoes.
“What that man meant to this community, I got a long ways to go,” Harris said. “I’ll never be able to replace that man. I’m just leasing the position. I just want to make him proud. I view him as a father figure and mentor.
“He’ll always be my ‘Pops,’” Harris said. “I’ll always be respectful of him.”