OAKLAND, Calif. — If Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris ever needs inspiration, he never has to look outside his own family.
His 90-year-old grandfather, Lt. Col. John Mulzac, is a role model.
In 1942, when the armed forces were segregated, Mulzac joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He became one of America’s first black military pilots, a group known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
“He always told us as kids that we could do anything in this world if we put our mind to it,” Harris said, a smile on his face. “He’s been definitely an inspiration to me, and I love him to death.”
Mulzac lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife of 67 years.
“The most important things that I do have is my wife, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren and all my family,” Mulzac told the British Broadcasting Corporation several years ago.
Mulzac doesn’t do many interviews anymore, but through one of his daughters — Tobias’ mom, Lisa Harris — he said he’s “proud” of his two grandsons in the NBA.
Harris and Phoenix Suns forward Channing Frye are just as proud of him.
Early in World War II, Mulzac and several other black servicemen were traveling from the north to Tuskegee, Ala., when they sat in the back of a crowded train car for a meal. When their food arrived, a conductor pulled a curtain that separated them from the white passengers.
Mulzac, who grew up in Brooklyn, wondered what was happening.
One of his friends told him they were being segregated from white people because they were south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“I put my head down on the table and I cried,” Mulzac said when he spoke to the BBC.
But he still fought for his country.
He flew combat missions in Italy and North Africa during World War II. Later, he flew as a reservist in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
He also worked in New York City’s fire department and as a sky marshal.
“He was just a hard-working man who wanted to see his children do better than he did,” Lisa Harris said.
Lisa is one of John’s and Beatrice’s eight children.
She is close with her sister Karen, who is Channing Frye’s mom.
Channing said his mom and his aunt — Tobias’ mother — have similar personalities.
“They come from a big family,” Channing said. “They’re tight-knit, and they are competitors, and I think it’s really been passed down to all of us.”
Tobias knew from an early age that he wanted to play professional basketball.
Channing, who is nine years older, set an example.
“As a kid, I used to watch all his college games at Arizona,” Tobias said. “I used to know all his stats. So I followed him. . . . It made me want to get in the NBA even more. He’s somebody I looked up to. I just always wanted to get to the NBA and be at that same level.”
“He’s very proud of me. He’s watched me ever since I was a kid. We always used to play in the city, so he got a chance to come to a lot of my games. He’s seen me grow from a little, fat, chubby kid to where I’m at now.”