The first high-school basketball player drafted by the NBA was chosen not so much for his skill than because he had no place else to go. Reggie Harding, a 7-foot tall product of Eastern High School in Detroit, had brief careers in the NBA and ABA and even after death at age 30 suffered one final indignity.
Eastern High School
As a youth, Harding was arrested on several petty larcenies and is alleged to have raped Florence Ballard, one of the Supremes, when she was 17 and he was 18. He was chosen by the Detroit Pistons in the fourth round of the 1962 draft and again in the sixth round of the 1963 draft. After high school in Detroit, he attended a prep school in Nashville, then played two seasons in the Midwest Professional Basketball League with the Toledo Tartans and Holland Oilers.
Harding made his NBA debut with the Pistons in the 1963-1964 season, joining the team midway through the season because of a suspension on gun charges. He averaged 10.5 rebounds and 11.0 points per game in 39 games (almost 30 minutes per game). The following season, Harding played in 78 games (34.6 minutes per game) and averaged 11.6 rebounds and 12.0 points per game for the 31-49 Pistons. It was pretty much downhill from there. He was suspended for the entire 1965-1966 (reason unknown) and averaged only 18.5 minutes per game during the next season, recording 6.1 rebounds and 5.5 points per game. His next stop with the Chicago Bulls (traded for a third-round draft pick) in the 1967-1968 season lasted only 14 games, after which he signed with the Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball League (ABA).
Harding (right) and Laker Elgin Baylor
Los Angeles, 1964
Despite playing in only 25 games with the Pacers, Harding’s exploits became legend. Harding wanted $15,000 to finish the season but the Pacers only offered $10,000. Convinced by management the team could play 50 games if it went all the way to the ABA championship, he agreed to $300 per game. That the Pacers only played in three post-season games was immaterial; between fines and suspensions for missing practices and being late for flights, Harding ended up owing the team $4,000.
Harding and Wilt Chamberlain
Boston Garden, 1965
Because of a team policy of rotating roommates to avoid cliques, Harding roomed for a short stretch with my friend Jim Dawson, the Big 10 Player of the Year the previous season at Illinois and a college graduate from an all-white Chicago suburb. Jim fared better than teammate Jimmy Rayl, who awoke one night in a New Orleans hotel room to see Harding pointing a gun at him. “I hear you hate niggers,” he said. Rayl coaxed him into emptying the gun, to which Harding then asked, “You don’t think I only had six shells, did you?” Rayl decided to sleep in the lobby that night and shot 1 for 14 in the next game. Despite averaging 13.4 rebounds and 13.4 points per game, Reggie Harding was finished after that season and out of basketball at age 25.
The futility of his later existence is best exemplified by the most famous Reggie Harding story. With no other marketable skills, Harding returned to petty larceny in his native Detroit. He walked into a neighborhood establishment (reports have it as either a liquor store or gas station) with a nylon mask over his head, brandishing a gun and demanding money. The clerk took one look at the 7-footer and reportedly said, “I know that’s you, Reggie,” to which Harding replied, “It ain’t me, man.”
Reggie Harding burial
Reggie Harding was shot to death after an argument on a Detroit street corner on September 2, 1972, at age 30. Johnny “Red” Kerr, Harding’s coach on the Bulls, and Mike Storen, the Pacers’ general manager who he’d also threatened to shoot during a television interview, were two of the three white people to attend the funeral. According to a former Bulls executive, Kerr said it became apparent that the grave was not long enough to accommodate Harding’s large casket. The solution: Reggie Harding is buried at an angle. Even in death, the man couldn’t catch a break.