Antwan “Luv” Harris didn’t play basketball growing up, but now he’s one of the most successful youth coaches in Minnesota at age 40.
From future NBA talents to players just trying to earn a college scholarship, the University of Minnesota alumnus has influenced a variety of young men since the 1990s, including several who have later worn Gophers jerseys.
In 1995, Harris started coaching Howard Pulley, a Minneapolis-based team in the Amateur Athletic Union. The AAU is a competitive organization that attracts the nation’s top high school players.
He led Howard Pulley’s 17-and-under team to ESPN’s AAU national championship in Orlando in July — the team’s first ever title in the event.
His success with Howard Pulley has earned him the honor of coaching for USA Basketball six times.
Harris’ exuberant demeanor on the court has been a major influence on his players and a contributor to his on-court success.
“He’s really a powerful guy in terms of coaching just because he can really get the most out of a team,” said top local recruit Tyus Jones. “He’s a character.”
It’s just another week in the Howard Pulley Pro City League — a summer league that helps players sharpen their skills — for Harris and his Howard Pulley Academy squad.
This team, made up mostly of players from Harris’ AAU team, is participating as it usually does.
Most players in the city league, which includes current and former Gophers players, are older than Harris’ group of high schoolers.
And on this July night, HPA is playing without its two top players, Jones and fellow 2014 recruit Reid Travis, as both are away at a camp.
Harris’ team doesn’t win many games in this league even when it’s at full strength, but Harris always keeps his players ready to compete.
This afternoon, his guys keep the game within 15 points.
Harris is coaching just as he does in any big tournament. He is bickering at the referees, yelling at his players, chatting with the opposing team — all while making jokes and smiling.
With his squad trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter, Harris picks up a technical foul. It’s the first he said he’s received in a Pro City game.
To him, it’s clear the referee mistook his light-hearted complaining.
To everyone else, despite his team’s loss, two things become clear about Harris: He wants to win, and he’s going to have fun trying to do it.
“I can enjoy myself,” Harris said, “but at the end of the day, the kids have to work hard.”
Harris said he got the nickname “Luv” from an old Howard Pulley coach who “loved [Harris’] passion for the game.”
Harris said nearly everyone calls him “Luv” now, including his players. He said a lot of people don’t know his actual first name.
Harris’ players recognize and appreciate his passion.
“He gets us all hyped and excited,” Travis said. “He just brings so much fun to the game of basketball.”
Harris wanted to be a football coach growing up.
He played football for Percy L. Julian High School, a powerhouse on the gridiron in Chicago. Harris won two state championships in high school and said the sport was his passion.
But in 1995, when he was looking to finish his coaching license and couldn’t find any open football positions, he was forced to try his hand at basketball.
“It wasn’t even on the radar,” he said.
That year, he was introduced to Rene Pulley, the program director for Howard Pulley.
Pulley said he created a third 16-and-under team for Harris to coach. He’s been with program ever since.
Harris said as a newcomer to basketball, he was often told to “shut up and listen” by Pulley and the other coaches.
“I took that as motivation to learn the game and to be able to coach,” Harris said. “I took that with pride and got after it.”
Harris experienced early coaching success on the court, and Pulley took notice.
Pulley said occasionally coaches on his higher-level teams had to miss tournaments, and Harris would step in and win.
“I realized that, ‘Wait a minute, he might have something,’” Pulley said. Pulley named Harris the coach of the top 17-and-under team 10 years ago. He said he’s seen Harris improve as a coach every year.
Harris has continued the team’s tradition of making the finals of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, the Peach Jam.
He was an assistant coach for various medal-winning youth teams for USA Basketball in 2007 and 2009-12. He was promoted to head coach for the Nike Global Challenge in 2013, when he led his team to a bronze medal.
“It’s a huge honor,” Harris said of his coaching designations. “I’m humbled by it. I love it. But I feel I’ve earned it, too.”
He’s coached many talented players at Howard Pulley, including Jones, Travis, former Gophers player Rodney Williams and NBA player Royce White.
His former players said Harris’ coaching philosophy favors offense.
“He loves to score the ball,” Williams said. “The only way you’re going to see the bench is if you’re not scoring the ball.”
Although Harris is a devoted coach, his time with Howard Pulley is still just volunteer work.
Harris received his undergraduate degree in kinesiology and earned his master’s degree in applied kinesiology at the University of Minnesota.
He decided to teach physical education for one of the same reasons he coaches: he loves helping kids.
He worked in the Osseo and then Robbinsdale school districts for about 10 years before taking an administrative role in the Burnsville district. He’s now an administrator at Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley, Minn.
With many AAU tournaments taking place on weekends in the spring, Harris said he has to take a lot of personal days from work. He said it’s difficult to balance his coaching and his professional life, but he enjoys both.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “It’s a lot of focus. But again, as far as helping kids, it works out pretty good.”
Building a family
Harris’ coaching job involves traveling with his players across the country to tournaments and building relationships with them.
“He means a lot to me,” said Jones, who’s known Harris since grade school. “He’s always looking out for me, no matter what it is.”
Harris said it’s his job to get his players in front of college coaches so they can showcase their skills.
He accumulated a lot of debt while in college, so he preaches the value of scholarships to his players.
Both Williams and White said they have stayed in regular contact with Harris since leaving Howard Pulley, and the conversations are often about more than hoops.
“We mostly just talk about life,” White said.
Rene Pulley said the program is a basketball family — a family Harris greatly values being a part of.
“We get a chance to help students, help kids follow their dreams,” Harris said. “We get a chance to create a bond with a group of young men every year that lasts forever, so it’s priceless.”