KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa - Seated on the bleachers in the Panther Pit, Preston Harris rubbed and massaged his leg muscles. “I’m so sore,” he said just before Tuesday’s practice.
It was two days after Harris, a junior center, made a much-talked-about return to the Kadena boys basketball team lineup after missing half the season.
He hit a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer to extend the game to overtime, then hit the go-ahead basket with 1:25 left in extra time as Kadena beat Oroku 65-64 for the Okinawa-American Friendship Tournament title.
“I play at (Kadena’s Risner Gym) all the time. I was like, this is my home court,” he said of the three-pointer. “I felt confident and when I shot it, it came perfectly off my fingertips. I knew it was going in. It feels really good.”
Far better, despite the leg pain, than the ache he felt in his whole being for months after the events of May 14, after committing a conduct-code violation at Yokota during the Kanto Invitational Track Meet, that led to his being suspended by the school from all athletics for one year.
An appeal hearing on Jan. 15 got him reinstated. But more than seeking a return to high school basketball, it was how the suspension changed him as a person and student. Respecting his teachers, parents and coaches, turning in all his schoolwork and being a better student, person and teammate, he said.
“I’m actually glad I got into trouble like that,” Harris said, adding that it was the best thing that could have happened to him. “If I’d just been suspended from travel, I still would have been the same Preston I was last year. I knew how I acted last year and this year I was planning to be a better student. This accelerated it. It opened my mind up.”
At first, when he learned of the suspension, “I probably never cried as much as I did when they told me that,” he said, adding that he came to terms with it a few weeks later and determined it was time to change.
“I completely let my (basketball teammates) down,” he said. “I let my parents down. I let my track team down. I just felt terrible. None of it was worth it. I realized, why did I do this? It was all my fault. I owned up to it.”
And rather than cry about things, he did things.
“I told myself I was going to stop disrespecting my teachers, my parents and my coaches,” he said. “And to stop being lazy with schoolwork. Respect. Be more of a student-athlete. What would a college want with a kid who’s making a 2.7 grade-point average?”
Now, Harris is carrying a 3.8 GPA. In putting together his appeal package for the Jan. 15 hearing before Kadena principal Terry Gibson, Harris got the endorsement of all seven of his teachers — including one with whom Harris had problems last year, who sent him to the office “every other day,” Harris said.
“I wanted to take the class again and show him how much I had changed, that I could take the class and not have problems with the teacher,” he said. “He wrote in his letter that I had changed remarkably, no back-talking, no acting like a little kid as much as I did last year.”
Gibson declined to be interviewed for this story, referring questions to DODDS-Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff.
While administrators tend to reserve suspensions as a last resort, Hoff said, students must be cognizant that rules exist for a reason.
“We want students to be successful, to make good choices, to learn from their mistakes. And students make mistakes,” Hoff said.
By his teammates’, parents’ and coach’s reckoning, the change has taken hold.
“I love the change that’s happened with him,” said his father, Vernon, crediting Preston’s attending church and bonding with devout Christian teammates such as Derrick Taylor and his family and others who supported him. “People can change. Some people get it right after making a mistake.”
Teammate Jalen Creer-Amos said what happened May 14 “is going to help us win Far East” Feb. 18-21 at Kubasaki. “He (Harris) needed a reality check and he got it.”
“He always was a decent young man,” coach Gerald Johnson said. “The hardship accelerated his maturity and growth. In the end, he learned a valuable lesson and is ready to prove himself on the court.”
It’s not over, though, in terms being visible and his every move watched by those not convinced that Harris has changed. He says he understands his visibility and insists he plans on not letting anything bad happen.
“People may think if Preston goes back to basketball, he’ll act like he used to act,” Harris said. “No. I’m going to keep acting as I have this school year and I don’t plan on changing.”
What would he say to somebody who’s planning their own act of misbehavior?
“What would your parents say if you did something like that?” Harris said. “How would you want people to think of you if they knew what type of stuff you did? Think about what you’re about to do. Actions have consequences.”