Heartbeats: Downtown Eastside athlete finds his path on the courts
As a kid, Demitri Harris pushed past drug dealers on his way to play basketball. Growing up in the Downtown Eastside, he and his mom would shoot hoops at the Carnegie Centre’s open gym, but on their walk over, they’d have to avoid the continuous offers.
Now the 26-year-old, 6’6”, charismatic point guard has achieved his life-long dream: he’s signed to Island Storm—a professional basketball team based on Prince Edward Island. In December, he’ll move to the East Coast to join the team, a reality that he finds surreal.
“I didn’t think I’d make it [onto the team],” he says.
For the past two years, Harris has been playing for the Musqueam Warriors basketball team. Harris is Ojibwe and Anishnaabe Nations, but didn’t find out about his heritage until he was 13. Soon after the discovery, Harris began playing in a First Nations youth league.
“It's a sense [of ] family, you know, guys stick together, are always there for each other ... I made some brothers.”
A new offer
Going into high school, Harris got a different offer—to attend Kitsilano Secondary School, which is known for its basketball teams. But he declined and instead opted to stay with his friends at Britannia, a school known for its comprehensive First Nations curriculum. He studied hard, and played harder. By his senior year, his team became the first eastside high school to win the provincial basketball championships.
“We built a dynasty,” he recalls.
But the team was difficult to manage, and Harris remarks on coach Roger Millette’s ability to have kept the team, a “band of hoodlums,” in check.
After high school, Harris attended Capilano College on a basketball scholarship. After a year with the Capilano Blues, he was accepted at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. When he started he was unaware that his time playing for the Saint Mary’s Gaels would be cut short. During his second year on the team, he flunked out of the school.
Harris says he struggled with concentration, and reading and writing were never his strong suit.
"It was tough, I got away from what I really loved, which was basketball," he says.
The premature end to his varsity basketball career didn’t keep Harris off the court. He moved back in with his mom in Vancouver and played in men’s leagues. Last year, he played on five different teams and in several different leagues, hitting the court for upwards of 100 games.
“People call me [to sub for them] and I go. I go play … the refs must be so sick of me … I’m always there, always trying, always pushing. Really, I don’t get tired” he says.
On the line
When I meet Harris on a grey October morning, he’s just woken up from a nap. His coach, Robert Holler of Nations Warriors team, tells me Harris was up at 5 a.m. to train with a friend, and afterwards he crashed on his couch.
On our way up to the sixth floor conference room in Holler’s building, Harris theatrically sings Work by pop star Rhianna. “Demi,” as his friends and family call him, is wearing shiny blue basketball shorts and a black Musqueam Warriors hoodie.
“I’ve been grinding lately,” he says pointedly, which, he explains, means he’s been training hard.
For Harris, training is more of a mindset than an activity. He looks down at his fingers as he attempts to count the hours he trains per week. He stops and looks up.
“It’s a lifestyle ... training is just a word,” he concludes.
Sleeping is training. Eating is training. Spending time with his mentors is training. Watching basketball is training. He even considers his work, which he speaks fondly of, as training. Harris has been working as a coach for kids aged five through 15 with the Real Basketball League for many years. Some kids latch onto him, and he takes on the extra role as their mentor. Lately, he’s been mentoring a 15 year old who also lives in the Downtown Eastside, and “lives a really hard life.”
“As a community, we have to uplift those kids because they need the most people,” he says.