I had the very fortunate opportunity to have taught Michael Harris in my Philosophy class back in 2007. In my class, I remember Michael as a good, thoughtful student, but not for the typical reasons one excels at philosophy. He consistently approached philosophical problems and dilemmas with great empathy: something often overlooked as an important facet of doing good philosophy. He exhibited empathy in a manner that was subtle, yet clearly a foundation at his core. Because of the subtlety, I thought I had discovered this as if it were some secret quality of this particular student. As it turns out, everyone knew this.
A few weeks back, Michael was killed in a boating accident. Yesterday, our community gathered to celebrate him and reflect on his life: the life of one of the most compassionate, empathetic, fun-loving people one could know.
Sitting in the over-capacity church Saturday morning, amidst repeated mention of Michael’s compassion and love of life, another through-line in Michael’s life became wholly apparent. The through-line of sports. It seems to me, sometimes a deep involvement in sports gets a bad rap: that it’s somehow pedestrian or banal, not worthy of spending countless hours watching, discussing, reading about, etc. But yesterday I was reminded of just the opposite: something I’ve known for years given my involvement in sport on various levels, and it took the passing of a dear student to remind me of it.
The three-hour service was profoundly eloquent, honest, and a true celebration not just of Michael but for the values he embodied. It involved speakers from various segments of his life: an amazingly rich life at that, despite having lived just 26 years. About halfway through, I started to notice each story, in some way or another, centered around sports and the role sports played not just in Michael’s life but in his deepest relationships.
The first group to take the podium were his friends with whom he had grown up. One of these “Four Musketeers,” as they called themselves, recounted their having played in over 400 basketball games together. Another reflected on Michael’s ability to analyze any and every sport statistic and then summarize his findings to the group in a playful, though detailed manner. And a third member of the Musketeers shared how, on almost a daily basis throughout their high school years, they would lament as to the dismay of our Bay Area sports teams. And then, more recently, how that lamenting turned to celebrating the various world championships of the local teams, through daily texts and phone calls.
One friend of his mentioned a text the group had received from Michael one evening announcing the new head coach of the Warriors, Steve Kerr. Michael touted all the virtues of a coach like this—even if he lacked experience—and, almost prophetically, what he would do for the Warriors. “#SoStoked,” the text finished. It was as though sport had become the common language for Michael’s crew, which allowed them to connect, to revel in their relationships, and to delve into all the goodness life had to offer.
It was fitting, then, that of those honored to speak at the service, Michael’s basketball coach would be included. Through the coach’s mention of the exceptionally skilled players on the team during Michael’s tenure and even explicitly noting Michael didn’t put up any stats worth noting, we got the sense that Michael may not have contributed in the way a typical MVP might have. But the congregation who knew and loved him realized there was something much more to Michael—and to sports—than the mere scoring of points. This was clear by virtue of inviting the coach to the podium at all. What was so special about that championship basketball team, as with most championship teams, it turns out, was the group’s dynamic, their core. They trusted each other, exhibited exacting teamwork, and, in short, played with tremendous heart. This, the coach reflected, is where Michael played an integral role. Michael’s passion for the game combined with his unmatched work ethic and compassion for his teammates made him a marquee member on that championship team.
It was at this point in the service when I began to connect the dots: the entire congregation knew, collectively, it was just these sorts of things we cherish in sport, and not the point scoring. Bigger yet, it was this we cherish in humanity. And it was for this reason Michael’s short life inspired so many people, on so many levels.
It was as though sport had become the common language for Michael’s crew, which allowed them to connect, to revel in their relationships, and to delve into all the goodness life had to offer.
The sports-related focus became the lens with which I viewed the remaining speakers. His college roommates shared of countless pick-up basketball games they played together, referencing Michael’s perfectly delivered trash talking and how they’d never seen such a lightening-quick first step followed by his seeming nonchalance as to whether he’d even finish the shot. Sports Center was on constant repeat, they shared, and they knew when Sunday morning rolled around, they could find Michael on the couch, charged and ready for his 49ers to kickoff.
Another friend referenced the final night he’d spent with Michael, which began at their Fantasy Football draft. Michael came into the room with stacks upon stacks of notes and data prepared for the draft, followed by their going out to dinner where Michael made various efforts to make sure his friend had everything he needed before they parted ways for the evening, in his typical true-friend manner.
This all came to a head, not surprisingly, when we heard from Michael’s family. We learned that Michael’s father, Peter, had never missed a single game of Michael’s, skipping meetings or flying home early from business trips to do so. We learned of the family’s annual holiday “Harris Bowl” in which the kids—18 cousins in all—take on the adults in a huge game of football. It turns out, early on in this tradition during “Harris Bowl I,” Michael scored a touchdown at the ripe age of 5. From then on, Michael found a way to make every first-time player, typically age 5, score a touchdown, even if Michael himself had to take care of all the blocking duties.
His brother, Richard, recounted numerous times when Michael would come bounding down the hallway—it seems as if Michael bounded everywhere—commanding, “Richie, come see my new and improved jump shot. I’ve been working on it for the past three hours!” upon which Richard would venture out to the hoop to see Michael’s improved technique, though still resulting in about a 90% miss rate. Michael’s other brother, David, told of their numerous competitive tennis matches which inevitably involved Michael scoring a key point in the match and then turning to “shake his butt at me.”
Of course, Michael was about more than just sports. He had just completed his psychology degree at Santa Clara University, earning the highest marks—a professor of his also spoke at the service, telling us something we all knew but still resonated profoundly with us: that Michael was destined to be one of the most caring, compassionate counselors the university had ever seen. He had already come back to our high school just this year to work as a counselor and, the previous year, coached the freshman basketball team. Not surprisingly, the basketball team adored him.
Michael’s mother, Jan, finished the service. At this point, she spoke to a crowd who had been treated to one of the most uplifting exposés about any human being I’d ever heard. We found ways to laugh deeply about Michael just as he would have wanted us to do, and we all cried as we reflected not just on the loss of Michael but, as many are wont to do at a time like this, on what is so profoundly important in our own lives.
Jan pondered, in her typically graceful manner, as to how a child develops such uncanny compassion. She momentarily entertained the nature-nurture debate. I had my answer. It’s hugely nature as our brains do more on our behalf than we currently know. Though, there’s not doubt, nurture played a huge roll as well.
I coached Michael’s brother, Richard, in water polo. It is here where I can provide some insight into the answer to Jan’s question. Throughout my time as Richard’s coach, both Jan and Peter consistently offered their deepest gratitude for the experience our program provided Richard. They never once mentioned the skills we taught him, nor how much playing time he received or if we won or lost. They instead reflected on the things we all, in that church, knew were important to living a good life. Things like pushing him to be his best, learning at a young age what it means to be a good teammate, and for just creating a safe and joyful space where a child can come to know himself and his teammates. And so this, Jan, is the answer to your question. Parents like you two, who espouse the best values sport has to offer in their own children, are what make sport so ripe for experiencing the deeply profound.
A dear friend of Michael’s recently shared a photo on Facebook under the community hashtag, “#LiveLikeMike.” It shows the following etched into the wood of a favorite local sports restaurant of Michael’s: “Michael J Harris 8/22/89-9/6/15—There you go, my friend! Now you can be at The Goose watching sports with us forever.” And now, we can all be reminded of the real riches sport has to offer us, all the while reflecting on one of the most compassionate, fun-loving people to ever grace our presence.
In Michael’s memory, please visit the Michael Harris Foundation, established in honor of “Michael’s commitment to counseling teens and families to support activities that promote the mental health of adolescents.”
Jack graduated from Stanford with Honors in Human Biology and earned a masters in philosophy with an emphasis in Sport Ethics graduating summa cum laude from California State University, Long Beach. He has published four books, including “If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers” (Random House, 2010), a philosophical novel, “The Dream Weaver” (Penguin, 2008) and a college-level philosophy textbook. His most recent book, Ethics and Leadership in Sport, comes out in July, 2017. While at Stanford Jack was a 2-time water polo All-American and NCAA MVP and was the alternate goalie on the 2006 Olympic Team. He has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 17 years, winning the league championship 15 years and the section championship 5 times. In 2011 he was named by the Positive Coaching Alliance as a National Award Winner and now serves as the chair of the National Coaches Council for PCA. He teaches philosophy at Menlo School and serves as their College Athletics Councilor.