Although the wild, expansive afro from college is long gone, Bernard Harris doesn’t appear far removed from the 6-foot-9 string bean from Roanoke who helped guide the VCU Basketball program through its formative years.
Now 62, Harris could pass for a man 10-12 years his junior. His lean frame is intact, but with some added muscle.
“I guess my conditioning is partly good genes, and the fact that I enjoy playing and working out,” Harris said recently, via email. “It’s not easy!”
He’s aged well, but not just physically. Harris’ career has also remained vibrant over the years. Nearly a decade removed from his days as a player and coach in Finland’s top pro league, where he became a star and earned national celebrity, Harris seems to have transitioned smoothly.
VCU fans may still know him as “Supernard”, but these days, Harris is more commonly referred to as Benkku, an oft-mononymous Finnish basketball institution who came ashore more than 30 years ago.
Benkku is how most of the kids of the Get In The Game program, Harris’ 10-year-old youth sports initiative sponsored by Finland’s Ministry of Education, know the former VCU star. That, and the and children’s book on basketball he wrote in the late 80s and the spin-off cable TV program that ran for two seasons in the 90s.
Get In The Game, for which Harris serves as president, aims to use athletics to promote fitness and healthy living, while steering kids clear of drugs and alcohol. Harris conducts tennis and basketball summer camps and also speaks at high schools about the dangers of substance abuse. According to the organization’s website, Get In The Game has made visits to more than 250 schools in the last 10 years. The program has produced a number of TV programs with Finnish sports stars to the same end, including “Benkku’s All-Star Bowling“. Get In The Game has also held a number of youth tennis camps in Finland with VCU Tennis Coach Paul Kostin.
For a guy whose basketball career looked at one point as if it would continue in perpetuity, he seems to have comfortably eased into this stage of his career, one which blends teaching, wellness and health activism.
“I won’t coach anymore top-level teams,” Harris said. “I’m happy working with junior players. I started Get In The Game in 2003. I was fed up with coaching and wanted to do something to help young people.
“The experience has been very rewarding because I get to help young people. But it has also given me a chance to meet so many different people here. I have worked with world champions, actors, sports ministers, teachers, Finland’s best doctors, and world champion coaches. I would actually like to do something with VCU and Get In The Game.”
Gerald Lee Jr. can attest to Harris’ ability to positively impact kids’ lives through basketball. The former Old Dominion basketball star knew and watched Benkku play growing up in Finland.
“I remember him as a real skinny, but tough big man who could do a lot of things on the court,” Lee said.
Lee’s father, Gerald Sr., was an American import like Harris who carved out a niche in Finland’s professional leagues and made the country his home. Gerald Sr. and Harris, like many of the American players in Finland, became friends and leaned on each other over the years.
Later, Harris became the first non-Fin to coach a national team when he led Finland’s U16 squad, a team which included Gerald Jr., then a promising young guard (he would eventually grow to 6-foot-10).
“As a coach, he demanded a lot from his players,” said Lee. “He was very hard on everyone on the court. He got our team to play very well together, though.”
Gerald Lee Jr. would eventually score more than 1,600 points at Old Dominion from 2006-2010.
In addition to Get In The Game, Harris runs a program called Heads Up with the Finnish Basketball Federation that helps American players make the same transition to life in Finland that he made more than 30 years ago. Harris holds seminars where he educates players on the Finland’s laws and customs, precautions to take during the Nordic country’s bitter winters and everything in between.
“The aim is to make the player’s stay here safe and enjoyable,” he said.
Longtime supporters of the Rams see Harris as something of a trailblazer. A product of Roanoke’s Northside High School, Harris was part of a 1970 recruiting class that some consider the best in school history. It was a class recruited by Benny Dees, but held together by Chuck Noe following Dees’ departure during the 1970 offseason. That group included Harris, Jesse Dark, who was to become VCU’s first NBA player (beating Harris by a week), forward Greg McDougald (who finished his career at Oral Roberts and was an eventual third round NBA draft pick), Reggie Cain, Dave Edwards and Howie Robertson; a collection of talented that defied the Rams’ NAIA independent status.
A back-up as a freshman, Harris blossomed into a star as a sophomore and eventually scored 1,379 points and grabbed 839 rebounds in a VCU uniform from 1970-74. He is one of just two Rams to average better than 19 points per game in three seasons. Harris was named All-America Honorable Mention 1971-72, when he averaged 19.7 points and 11.5 rebounds and shot .603.
In 1974, Harris was picked in the fourth round (63rd overall) by the NBA’s Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers).
“Like any young player getting drafted, I was excited,” Harris recalled. “The experience was great, being around the best players in the world, being on the same team as Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo.”
Harris made his NBA debut on Oct. 24, 1974 coincidentally, against the Dark and the New York Knicks, in a game played in Toronto, Ontario. Although he did not score a point, Harris hasn’t forgotten the experience.
“The feeling of my first NBA game was one of excitement and to prove I belonged,” he said.
Harris would appear in 10 more games for the Braves, but was released on Jan. 20, 1975.
“Getting waived was hard, but I felt that if I had enough talent to make it that far, then I would find my place in the game somewhere,” he said.
Harris’ ability to stay in shape has served him well over the years. It allowed him to eventually play basketball professionally for more than 20 years. Following his release from the NBA, Harris spent five years of bouncing around the CBA and with pro leagues in Switzerland, Germany, Israel and the Philippines. In 1980, weary of travel, Harris planted roots in Finland. In 1990, he married and moved to the country for good.
In the meantime, his basketball career flourished. Harris won a Finnish Championship in 1982 with Turku NMKy and became one of the country’s most-recognizable basketball stars. He continued to play in Finland’s top division until 1997 – when Harris was 47 years old. Five years later, while coaching Finnish first division club Forssa Koripojat, the team was slumping and beset by injuries, so Harris laced up his sneakers and appeared in six games as a 52-year-old player/coach.
“It was something I am still proud of,” Harris said of his longevity. “I was competing against guys half my age.”
Harris says he was able to extend his career because he was able to avoid serious injury and because his style of play – that of a shooter – cut down on the amount of contact he endured over the years.
In all, Harris spent 15 years as a player and seven as a coach in Finland’s top professional division. He ranks seventh all-time in scoring and second in rebounding in the first division of Finland’s Korisliiga. Not bad for a kid from Roanoke, Va.
Today, Harris resides near the Finnish capital city of Helsinki and has a 20-year-old daughter, Mercedes.
“Finland is a beautiful country in the summer, with almost 23 hours of sunlight. There are 60,000 lakes. The winters are dark, cold and a lot of snow. The cost of living is high, but the quality of life is good. Finland has one of the best education systems in the world. The crime rate is low, and you can feel safe walking the streets at night,” Harris explains.
Although Finland is home now, Harris, who was inducted into the VCU Hall of Fame in 2001, usually returns to the United States once a year. When he does, he says he makes sure to stop by the VCU Basketball office. While the school has changed dramatically since Harris’ days at Franklin Street Gym, his enthusiasm for the program hasn’t waned.
“I think what they’ve done in recent years is great,” he said of his alma mater. “I’m proud to be a Ram and have a VCU sticker on my car. Who would’ve known?”
Like Harris, the VCU Basketball program has aged well.