With the high school bands playing, the spotlight focused on center court for the finale of San Francisco’s basketball “Cinderella” story, as the Mission High School Bears (35-1) faced off against the Villa Park Spartans (27-7) for the state championship in Sacramento.
Niamey Harris, the heart and soul of the Bears, savored the moment with his teammates as they stood inside the Golden 1 Center, the home of the Sacramento Kings. He was unsure of how things would unfold over the next two hours of his life.
After four quarters of intense basketball—and a nail-biting overtime (12 ties and nine lead changes—the Bears made history by becoming the first San Francisco public school ever to win a state basketball championship, claiming the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division III title.
“The outpour [of support] from the city and from other high school coaches has been amazing,” said Bears head coach Arnold Zelaya. “From all parts of the city, but mostly from the Mission community. These guys have really embraced us and really just believed.”
Moments after the historic 82-75 victory, Mayor Ed Lee tweeted: “Congrats Mission High School on an amazing game & for bringing the state title home to #SF. Go Bears!” The Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr also congratulated the team, inviting them to the April 2 game against the Washington Wizards.
Harris, a senior and one of three captains on the team, was emotional after the game. The 6-foot-2 guard had a game-high 31 points, but perhaps the most memorable were the final two he scored as the clock was winding down.
With nine seconds remaining in the game, Harris drove to the hoop and dunked the ball with his left hand, capping an illustrious high school career, one of the best in San Francisco history. Mission High fans hugged one another in the stands, students high-fived and the players met at center court, celebrating the biggest sporting accomplishment of their young careers.
“This means a lot, just coming from a public high school in San Francisco,” Harris said. “Knowing that a lot of teams don’t come this far, so making history is just really amazing and playing for the community is something special. We went through a lot.”
The significance of Mission High’s win is even greater given that the city is steadily becoming less black and less Latino due to gentrification. The team that represented San Francisco in the state final was comprised entirely of black players. The 15 kids (Jamion Wright, Adrian Otis II, Tyrese Johnson, Jayden Foston, Marcel Mcrae, Willie Chase, Jamir Melton-Dreher, Ben Knight, Niamey Harris, Mahki Williams, Ijah Pratt, Robert Lee III, U’jah Pratt, Anthony Mcbride and Faraji Abram) who play for Mission High are from Potrero Hill, Bayview-Hunters Point and Fillmore.
Harris is a native of Bayview-Hunters Point, one of San Francisco’s most impoverished neighborhoods. He lives just a few blocks from where Mario Woods was fatally shot by police in late 2015.
“These guys, I love them,” said coach Zelaya, who is Latino. “African-American males, they have it rough. I can’t pretend to be them, but I love them like they’re Salvadoran, like me. It doesn’t matter. These guys know, they love pupusas.”
Last year, Harris used his athletic platform to voice his activism. Harris, who is also the starting quarterback for Mission High’s football team, followed in the footsteps of the 49ers then quarterback Colin Kaepernick. After the shooting of Woods, Harris knelt on one knee during the playing of national anthem before football games, in protest of police brutality.
“It’s amazing to see the type of man that he’s grown into,” said Caprisha Moody, Harris’ sister. “My goodness, he’s had a lot of support and that brought him this far and we’ve all worked together to help him and let him know that it’s okay to be the best that he can be.”
Despite a few negative comments on social media and much received local and national media attention, Harris’ teammates—some who also play on the basketball team—followed suit.
As for the self-proclaimed “Grimy Bears” (a reference to their hustle, scrappiness and toughness on the court), they have become darlings of the city and one of the best sports stories in the Bay Area.
Despite only losing once during the regular season, the Bears were considered underdogs going into postseason play. On their way to the state title, they defeated the No. 1 Northern California seed St. Ignatius (64-54) and No. 3 Northern California seed Vanden High, both times on the road. When they met Southern California’s No. 2 Villa Park, the Bears were smaller at every position, but it mattered not.
“It means a lot. It means for public school that we’re here, we’re significant,” said coach Zelaya. “A lot of times we’re left for dead when it comes to athletics, but winning a state championship ups the bar.”
As for Niamey Harris, the Bears team captain plans to continue on to play college basketball after graduation.
“He’s [Harris] been with me for four years,” said coach Zelaya. “He drives me crazy but I love him to death and he really epitomizes what the [basketball] program is about. He doesn’t stop playing.”