By Andrew Wroblewski
Not a day goes by, Tobias Harris said, where the former Colt doesn’t think of his basketball career at Half Hollow Hills High School West.
Now a professional playing for the Orlando Magic, Harris returned to his old stomping grounds on Jan. 22 for what he thought was a ceremony honoring the 2007-2008 Hills West varsity basketball team, which won a Suffolk County championship – a team he was a part of.
What he didn’t know, however, was that Head Coach Bill Mitaritonna had a small surprise in store. That same day, Harris became the first basketball player in Colts history to have his number (12) retired by Hills West.
“It’s such an honor and a blessing to have my number [retired],” Harris said in front of a crowd that pooled for the ceremony following a victory by the current Colts team over Riverhead, 84-48. “I’ve dreamed of this day ever since I was a little kid.”
Two banners hung covered above bleachers in the Hills West gym and were unveiled during the ceremony. The first celebrated that championship-winning Hills West team, led by Mitaritonna and his assistant coaches, Bryan Dugan and Kyle Madden. That year, Hills West sported a record of 23-2 – including a winning streak of 23 consecutive games – and Harris was one of the team’s leaders. Along with Harris, fellow Hills West alumni John Conneely, David DiMaria, Will Hennep, Cory Knox, John Matzelle, Chris Pabisch and Steven Rollino made it out for the ceremony; four other members were unable to attend.
“I remember this team since they were in eighth grade… they were just a special group,” Mitaritonna, head basketball coach at Hills West for the last 15 years, said. “We were able to put together a team that really won together… The first championship that we won was just about as sheer joy in [my] life, other than having three children and getting married.”
The first banner was revealed and Harris, 22, assumed the ceremony had come to an end, but another banner stood unwrapped.
“He didn’t know when we set this up that we were doing something for him… but we’re going to do something that we’ve never done before for a basketball player,” Mitaritonna said. “We’re going to retire his number.”
The second banner’s wrapping was pulled off by the current Colts squad and Harris looked up with a smile before embracing his former coach with a hug. As he spoke, tears filled his eyes and he embraced his parents in what he called a truly “special” moment.
“I’m so happy we surprised him, that’s what I wanted to get: a surprise,” Mitaritonna said. “He’s a role model to all these young kids – our players and even my kids… he’s a kid whose got respect and pride and loyalty and does the right thing on and off the court.”
Drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2011 out of the University of Tennessee, Harris was later traded to the Milwaukee Bucks and remained there up until 2013. Traded once again to the Magic that year, Harris has now worked his way to becoming the team’s second leading scorer at 17.6 points per game.
“I can’t believe how good he’s gotten in such a short amount of time,” Mitaritonna said. “When you see him play… he belongs and, not only belongs, he excels.”