Fabyon Harris survives the mean streets of Chicago
to find comfort in College Station
By Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
Leaning back in one of the leather chairs inside the Lohman Lobby at the Cox-McFerrin Center for Aggie Basketball, junior guard Fabyon Harris flashes a broad, playful grin as he ponders some of his favorite amenities at the Callaway Villas, a luxurious student apartment complex near the Texas A&M campus that houses Aggie basketball team members and is far more reminiscent of an exquisite vacation resort than an old-school dorm.
The personable Harris conducts a mental checklist of lavish features—from the scenic sun deck overlooking the swimming pool to the white noise sound suppression system in each room—and finally shrugs his shoulders, acknowledging he loves everything about his current living conditions. And not just the fully furnished townhome. Harris also raves about the Reed Arena locker rooms and the academic facilities across the sprawling campus.
But perhaps Harris’ favorite feature of life in Aggieland is one most of his fellow students typically take for granted. While the Chicago native appreciates the hardwood floors in his apartment and a personal computer in his locker, what he really treasures is the sense of safety in College Station.
Passing trains can be loud, but blaring police sirens are rare. The humidity is often high, but the homicide rate is not. And this is a community known for friendliness, not gang violence.
Inside the Callaway Villas, the street-savvy, hard-nosed Harris often feels like he’s a million miles away from where he grew up amid abandoned houses on some of Chicago’s most crime-ridden, gang-infested streets.
Harris now rests easily at night. He navigates campus sidewalks confidently and assuredly. And, while he works relentlessly on driving to the basket and perfecting his shooting touch in practice, he’s no longer worried about becoming the next family victim of a drive-by shooting or some other ghastly act of violence.
“Where I’m from in Chicago, you have to be on guard every step you take, looking into cars and watching out for yourself,” says Harris, who turns 22 on Jan. 23. “You never know who is looking for you, how many enemies you’ve made or how many haters are out there. I felt like I had to get a ride everywhere in Chicago or I was risking my life. I love my city. It’s part of who I am. But here, I walk with confidence everywhere I go. I’ll have my headphones in and will dance around while walking to class. I feel safe. It’s like a little slice of heaven.”
Harris has certainly been exposed to an up-close view of hell en route to finding the tranquil peace of College Station. Through all the stabbings, shootings and senseless bloodshed he’s observed, however, basketball has become much more than a pastime.
“Being in the gym is his sanctuary,” said Donnie Kirksey, Harris’ high school coach and currently an assistant at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “To go through all he has with no counseling, it’s amazing he’s such a good person. The kid is the ultimate survivor, and through even the darkest times, it’s really good he had basketball. The game offered him an immediate escape and longtime hope. He still carries (emotional) scars, but he’s come so far.”
He also carries plenty of tattoos that cover most of his upper torso. Like basketball, the tattoos are much more meaningful to Harris than most people could imagine at first glance. They are more than skin art; they are tributes to murdered loved ones, telling a horrific tale of tragedy that has pierced Harris’ heart, tested his faith and forever altered the branches of his family tree.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Windy City is now home to the largest gang population in the country, with about 100,000 members who commit 80 percent of the city’s homicides. Harris’ family members have become part of those brutal statistics.
In May 1997, Harris’ mother, Tamiko Gultney, left her home and her four sons to run a couple of errands. If time permitted, she said she’d also look into purchasing a dog for the boys.
She never returned home. Gultney, approximately seven months pregnant at the time, was raped and murdered. Her throat was slit, and she bled to death. Her unborn son did not survive, and her assailant was never found.
“On the night she was killed, she told my big brother (Fabias Shipman) that she was going to see a man about a dog, and we were all excited,” said Fabyon, 6 at the time. “A couple hours passed, and then we heard knocking on the door. It was my grandma and uncle, but we didn’t open it because my mom always told us not to open the door. But my uncle kicked down the door, grabbed us up and told us what happened.
“I was lost. I was angry, and I kept all my anger inside. My brothers wanted to talk to me, but I didn’t talk. Because I didn’t talk, I became more withdrawn, and people assumed I was shy. But I had a lot of anger and was a total hot head. As the years passed, my grandmother said I should get counseling, but I never did.”
His hard-working grandmother, Charlene Gultney, adopted all the boys—from oldest to youngest: Fabias, Fabyon, Fasion and Farrkkhan—and moved them into her home on Marquette Street in South Chicago near the banks of Lake Michigan.
Charlene did what she could to provide stability for her grandsons, and Fabias Shipman, who is three years older than Fabyon, served as role model for his younger brothers. Shipman earned a football scholarship to Jackson State in Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor of business administration degree in management. He recently returned to Chicago to open a tire business, where Farrkkhan works.
As Shipman made a name for himself on the gridiron, the diminutive Fabyon dreamed of following in his brother’s football footsteps until his appendix burst in the summer prior to his seventh grade year. The ensuing surgery kept him out of football, so Harris decided to give basketball a shot.
Harris’ remarkable quickness made him an instant success on the perimeter even though he initially lacked the strength to hit jumpers from three-point range. He eventually developed an awkward-looking, but effective outside shot—one that he still acknowledges is rather ugly—and played the game with toughness that became his trademark. Years later, The Chicago Tribune described him as the fastest and “angriest” guard in the city.
“The first thing you notice is his speed, which is as obvious as a smack in the face,” a Tribune reporter wrote in 2009. “Almost as apparent is the anger with which Harris plays, the scowling mug and proverbial chip on the shoulder that leads you to believe someone just might get smacked in the face.”
Kirksey, hired as Hyde Park Career Academy’s coach prior to Harris’ sophomore year in 2007-08, didn’t mind the raw anger that the young point guard possessed. It was what Harris wasn’t doing away from the court that bothered Kirksey.
“My first impression was that he could play, but he wasn’t disciplined,” Kirksey said. “He didn’t want to do what he needed to do in the classroom. Fabyon just thought about basketball and girls. I let all the guys know that they were going to have to go to class, maintain a good GPA and stay out of trouble in order to play for me. At times, Fabyon challenged me. I put him on varsity as a sophomore, but I put him back down (on the junior varsity) because he still needed to mature. But by the time he was a junior, he was starting on the varsity.
“I took Fabyon under my wing, and his grandmother and I bonded. I had to lay down the law a couple of times before he figured out I was not going to take his (crap). I was not interested in being his buddy. I was determined to make him the best player and person he could be. He’ll tell you I will curse his (butt) out when he needs it. I love him like a son, but I will not sugar-coat anything.”
Under Kirksey’s tough-love tutelage, Harris’ career took flight at Hyde Park, where aviator Amelia Earhart graduated in 1915 in much different socioeconomic times for the school located in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
In addition to making the academic honor role as a senior, the 5-foot-9 Harris averaged 26.5 points, six assists and four steals per game for the Thunderbirds and he was an ESPNChicago.com all-area selection and a first-team selection to Chicago’s All-Public League.
Despite his lack of size, Harris had plenty of collegiate suitors. He originally committed to Northern Colorado and then to SMU. But the Mustangs’ coaches, fearful that Harris would not pass his entrance requirement exams, offered a scholarship to another guard.
Harris, who’d scored a composite 14 on his first ACT attempt (the minimum at the time was 17), scored a qualifying 19 shortly after withdrawing his oral commitment to SMU.
It all seemed to be working out for the best, as Chicago-based DePaul University offered the homegrown star a scholarship toward the end of his spectacular senior season. But just as everything seemed to be coming together, Harris’ world was again rocked by violence.
In the spring of 2010, as Harris was preparing to play in an all-star game, his younger brother, Fasion Robinson, was playing a high-stakes dice game on the same block where his mother had been murdered 13 years earlier. Robinson, regularly in the stands when Fabyon was on the court, had struggled in school and fallen behind in his academic work.
In an attempt to catch up, Robinson’s grandmother paid for him to attend night school. Hoping to repay his grandmother for her financial investment, the 17-year-old Robinson joined a craps game, where he won $500 from a 28-year-old man.
“The guy he won the money from got mad,” Harris said. “The guy was like, ‘Let me win some money back. How about if you let me win at least $100 back?’ My brother wanted no part of that. He wanted to pay our grandma all that money. Well, the guy felt like my little brother disrespected him, and they started fighting. The guy had given a gun to his friend before the fight. My little brother beat him up. He’d just been whipped by a 17-year-old dude in front of like 15 guys. He was embarrassed, and he got the gun back and started shooting when my brother was walking away.”
One of those shots entered Robinson’s back and pierced his heart. Fifteen minutes after an ambulance arrived, Robinson was pronounced dead at Chicago’s South Shore Hospital.
Harris was devastated and considered not playing in the all-star game, which was scheduled for the same day as Robinson’s funeral. But at the urging of Kirksey and family members, Harris paid tribute to his brother by playing the game. Two hours after burying his brother, Harris courageously scored 23 points and dished out seven assists.
Basketball was again an outlet for his anger and pain. Unfortunately, his best friend, Izael Jackson, didn’t have hoops. Jackson was practically a brother, Harris says, and he was particularly shaken by Fasion’s murder. Jackson also had pressing legal issues and a growing criminal record as a minor, and two weeks after Robinson had been shot and killed, Jackson led police on a high-speed chase that ended in a lethal shootout.
Jackson was shot and later pronounced dead at Chicago’s Stroger Hospital. And just two days later, more bloody agony entered Harris’ world, as his cousin was shot twice in the head.
“When those three guys were killed, I was thinking I was done with basketball,” Harris recalled. “I was torn up. I couldn’t walk, eat or function at all. But Coach Kirksey was like, ‘You have a chance to go to college and change your life, so you need to come back to the gym.’ He took me back to the gym. I was so out of it for two weeks, but basketball pretty much saved my life.”
Harris decided at that point that he needed to leave Chicago and all its bloodshed behind. He politely declined the offer from DePaul and chose to sign with James Dickey at the University of Houston in May 2010. But after attending summer school in Houston, the NCAA notified Dickey and the UH staff that Harris’ second ACT score had been flagged because he made such dramatic improvement.
It was a similar situation to what happened to Texas A&M’s Ray Turner in his freshman season. Turner was unable to participate in basketball practice in the fall semester of 2009, paying his own way through financial aid as the A&M Compliance Department worked diligently to clear his academic standing through the NCAA Clearinghouse.
Houston wanted Harris to do the same thing, but it simply wasn’t an option. Beyond the family’s financial limitations, Harris desperately needed the game to deal with all the tragedies. Instead of waiting on the NCAA, Harris signed with Howard Junior College in Big Spring, Texas. But after one day of practice, Harris’ naivety landed him in jail.
“Philip Jackson, who also played for me, was with Fabyon and another kid (Jonathan Landry),” Kirksey said. “After the first practice, they went to WalMart to get some toiletries and food. Fabyon was in the back of the self checkout line behind them. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but the other two looked at each other and said, ‘Damn, there ain’t nobody here checking on us.’ So, they pushed the cart out the door. They didn’t pay. Fabyon followed right along, and when they got outside they said, ‘That was easy.’ So they went right back in there to steal more stuff. They didn’t know the whole thing was being filmed. They ended up going back to the dorm, where the police arrested them. Howard College booted all three of them out of school.”
A misguided trip to California followed for Harris before Kirksey convinced him to come back to Chicago and to make a phone call to College of Southern Idaho head coach Steve Gosar, who’d been interested in Harris before he committed to Northern Colorado and SMU. Gosar, who’d already assembled a tremendously talented roster for the 2010-11 season, offered Harris a chance to play at CSI…on one condition.
“When he called, I can’t tell you exactly what I said to him because you couldn’t print it,” Gosar said with a laugh. “But in a nutshell, I said if he was serious about getting his life in order and playing basketball, I’d love to have him. But if he wasn’t serious, he could keep his butt elsewhere. There is a spot for everyone, and Twin Falls, Idaho was the spot for Fabyon.
“When he first got here, after all the tragedy he’d endured, his head was on a constant swivel. He was waiting to hear gun shots or for somebody to attack him. He was waiting for the bottom to fall out. I told him to relax. He didn’t have to fear for his safety here. At first, it seemed too good to be true for a kid who’d been hurt so many times.”
Once he settled into the quiet town of 44,000 residents, Harris found a role on the floor. He served as the primary backup to current Baylor star Pierre Jackson, the NJCAA Player of the Year in 2010-11. Harris averaged 8.7 points as a freshman as the Golden Eagles went 33-4 and won the school’s third NJCAA national championship.
After Jackson moved on to Baylor last year, Harris was the Region 18 Player of the Year, averaging 17.1 points per game and hitting 41 percent of his three-point attempts with his unorthodox shot. He also became a fan favorite in Twin Falls.
“He’s one of my favorite kids I’ve ever coached,” Gosar said. “He has the heart of a champion. He’s also one of the most generous guys. He has so little, but he was always taking teammates out to eat with his financial aid money. He gave his national championship jersey, which meant so much to him, to the kids of his booster family. And he works so hard.
“A lot of people credit us or the Baylor coaches for Pierre’s development, but the guy who should really be credited is Fabyon. He came at Pierre every day. Those two guys battled unlike I’ve ever seen two guys battle before or since. It came to blows at times, but they both pushed each other so hard and made each other better. Watching those two kids compete in practice was one of the things that was most memorable during our national championship year.”
Harris often dominated junior college foes, creating his own open shots with his lightning-quick footwork. But it hasn’t been so easy at A&M, where he averaged 9.7 points per game in non-conference play.
After waiting to sign his scholarship offer with the Aggies on April 12, 2012—the same day his brother had been killed two years earlier—Harris fulfilled his dream of playing Division I college basketball, as he opened this new season in the starting lineup, scoring 14 points in 29 minutes against Louisiana Tech on Nov. 9.
In subsequent nonconference games against more elite competition, however, Harris sometimes struggled against taller, quicker defenders at the Division I level. He had numerous shots blocked early in the season, and he sometimes appeared to be playing too fast, forcing things on the offensive end.
“He’s learning how we need to play and understanding shot selection,” A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said. “He’s always had the green light wherever he’s been. We still want him to score, but we want him to pick his moments. Pace is also something he’s learning, understanding when to push it and when to slow it down and reset the offense. He’s gotten better in that regard. And everyone here respects his toughness. To go through what he has and to get where he is now is just unbelievable. While some people consider themselves a survivor, he is a true survivor.”
Harris wants to do more than merely survive at A&M. He wants to thrive, and he has taken big steps in that direction recently.
The game seems to be slowing down for Harris, and he has played a huge role in A&M’s fast start in SEC play. In a 69-51 win over Arkansas on Jan. 9 at Reed Arena, Harris was the game’s leading scorer with 17 points, including a 10-for-10 performance at the free-throw line. And in last Saturday’s win at defending national champion Kentucky, Harris was brilliant in the second half.
With the game tied at 63 with 4:04 to play, Harris nailed a jumper that kick-started the Aggies on a run of 11 unanswered points to close out the game. Harris scored nine points in that stretch—including a dagger trey just in front of the A&M bench near the two-minute mark. He finished the contest with 14 points.
But Harris believes the best is still yet to come, and he relishes pressure-packed moments like tonight’s showdown against Florida at Reed Arena.
Harris talks regularly with Jackson, his buddy at Baylor, who struggled at times early last year but ultimately earned All-America honors. The 5-foot-10 Jackson encourages Harris to keep asserting himself, as does his former coach, Kirksey, and his big brother back in Chicago.
Harris says he is ever so thankful for those positive influences, as well as so many others who have helped him overcome tragedies and experience triumphs. Most of all, Harris says he’s thankful for the simple things in life…and life itself.
“When I signed with A&M, it was very meaningful,” said Harris, who hopes to eventually become a basketball coach. “I thought to myself, ‘I really made it to Division I. After all the obstacles, I’ve made it.’ Then when I got here, I was walking around the campus in amazement at how friendly everyone was. I think the guys here respect me for what I have been through. And I feel good about these guys. I am beginning to open up to them now. It’s feeling more like home.
“I thank God every day for this opportunity. I was never mad at God. My grandmother used to tell me that God has a plan for me. It’s the reason I am still here and not dead. That’s why I look up to the sky and say, ‘Thanks.’ Going through all of this has made me tougher. As little as I am, I gotta be tough to make it.”
Considering all he’s endured, Fabyon Harris may be the personification of tough.