The lunchtime crowd at Gadawski's Fighting Irish restaurant hushed as Niagara Falls basketball legend Paul Harris came through the front door, and Eddie Gadawski himself came out from behind the bar to shake hands and have his picture taken with the soft-spoken young man.
The picture, Eddie said, would be framed and hung near those of Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne, Arnold Palmer and many more.
But Harris hadn't come to talk about his recent triumph in the Philippines, where he led his Tropang Texters squad to a national PBA championship over the Barangay Ginebra Kings. He wasn't there to talk about basketball at all.
He came to discuss his bittersweet homecoming, the series of events that has him questioning why he even came back to Niagara Falls at all.
For the 25-year-old prodigy, 2005 seems like a long time ago. That was when he and teammate Jonny Flynn led the Niagara Falls High School Wolverines to the state AA championship. Harris averaged 19.7 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists a game, and was named the tournament MVP, despite being hampered by a broken thumb on his shooting hand.
He could have played for any college in the country, but chose Syracuse, where he was selected for the Big East All Rookie Team in 2006-2007. In 2009, he was named an All-American.
Tryouts with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Utah Jazz followed, but an ankle injury that led to surgery cut his playing time short. Earlier this year, he received a lucrative offer to play in the Philippines, and with a young son to support, packed his bags.
After winning the championship, he returned home in May with plans to celebrate with a party at the Rapids Theatre on Main Street. He put down a $2,000 deposit, bought advertising, had flyers, banners and signs made up, and even had special tickets printed to look like those handed out at NBA games.
That's when he got a call from Rapids owner John Hutchins, telling him the event could not be held after all.
According to Hutchins, an unexpected problem with the theater's sound system arose and the party had to be canceled. Rapids Manager Ken Pawlukovich later said that discussions with the police about possible gang violence led to the cancellation.
Hutchins later admitted that he had indeed talked to the police about the affair, and the fact that one of the disc jockeys scheduled to work the event, known by the street name of "Slop," is believed to be a member of the 9th & Wild street gang was a cause for concern.
Harris contends that few who grew up in his North End neighborhood are not at least acquainted with street gang members and associates.
"Where I made a mistake was in putting his name on the flyers," he told the Niagara Falls Reporter. "I really believe that if I hadn't done that, there wouldn't have been a problem."
Police Chief John Chella confirmed he had spoken with Hutchins concerning Harris' party, but said he didn't tell him not to stage the event.
Bill Bradberry, head of the Niagara Falls chapter of the NAACP, said he was taking up Harris' cause.
"Here you have a young man who is representing Niagara Falls in a positive way all around the world," Bradberry said. "And he comes home to this? We've got a problem here in Niagara Falls, and it's not being addressed by people with the power to do so."
As for Harris, he's out the $7,000 he spent on promotional materials for the event, which was scheduled for June 18, and is considering legal action.
When he and Bradberry left Gadawski's following lunch Friday, it was to schedule a meeting with prominent local attorney John Bartolomei.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||June 28, 2011|