A Basketball Court for Everyone
July 02, 2021
NEWPORT NEWS - The inspiration behind the shiny new basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club in a neighborhood near downtown Newport News came from Old Dominion University graduates Nancy Lieberman and Jay Harris.
They met nearly two decades ago, when she was one of the best women's basketball players of all time and he was a budding star on ESPN's SportsCenter.
"We hit it off right away," Lieberman said. "We've been inseparable ever since. We've done so many good things together."
Their latest joint venture: Last month's dedication of a "Dream Court," sponsored by Nancy Lieberman Charities, featuring Harris' name near mid court.
When they spoke at the opening, both mentioned heroes in their lives who inspired them to be philanthropic.
As a young Jewish kid growing up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Queens, New York, Lieberman was raised by a single mom and often went hungry. "I was broken," she said.
But her friends looked out for her as she pursued her dream of becoming a star basketball player. Lieberman succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, winning two national championships and a Wade Trophy at ODU and starring on the professional level both as a coach and player.
One of her strongest role models was the boxer Muhammad Ali, whom she met in New York in 1979 when she was a senior at ODU. "Muhammad Ali taught me about racism, about love, how to be a giver and not a taker, and he taught me about philanthropy," she told about 200 officials and youngsters.
Clearly, Lieberman is a giver. The court on Hampton Avenue is one of nearly 100 built by her charity, which has partnered with Sport Court to put courts in low-income neighborhoods across the country. The Newport News Police Department was also a key partner.
Lieberman wanted the court to be named for Harris, an ESPN anchor, to inspire kids. But he wants the kids to remember another Harris, his father, Al, a longshoreman who spent much of his life in the Park Place neighborhood of Norfolk.
"He's not here anymore," Harris said, "but he impacted so many people in his 82 years on earth."
Al Harris later became a human resources officer for the Port of Virginia and often helped people struggling to figure out what to do with their lives find a job on the Norfolk waterfront.
He was known throughout Park Place as a good Samaritan. Anyone who needed a helping hand, a meal or a few dollars to make it through the end of the week could come to Al Harris and get help.
Among those he helped was Delano Ward, Jay Harris' brother from his Mom's second marriage.
"He treated Delano like he was his son," Jay said of his father.
Delano is now a longshoreman in Norfolk, thanks to some well-timed guidance and help from Al Harris.
Harris recalled staying out till early morning when he was a young man. Barely after he fell asleep, he heard his father yelling: "Rise and shine, son. Remember that yard work we had to do today? Let's get up and do it."
Harris got out of bed, groggy, and worked most of the day in the yard.
"I tell that story because it provided me with an education on what to do and what not to do," said Harris, who also is a member of Old Dominion's Board of Visitors. "I realized staying up all night isn't all it's cracked up to be. My dad taught me that doing the right thing doesn't just help others; it also helps you.
"That's what we all hope this court will do. We hope it will give young people an opportunity to gather in a place that will allow you to learn about one another, to grow, to be empathetic, to understand that we have more in common than we realize."
Lieberman told the 50 or so kids sitting on the court: "I'm going to ask you to follow the words Jay Harris gave you - love, kindness, empathy, caring.
"It doesn't matter if someone doesn't look like you. Just putting your hand out or giving someone a hug can change a life. Let's not judge people. Let's not be prejudiced.
"When I was on the playgrounds in New York, my Black friends protected me. My Black friends loved me, and I loved them.
"Live that life every single day where everybody is welcome here. Protect this court. Don't let anything bad happen here. And make it a welcoming place for everyone."