By Patrick Engel
COMPTON, Calif. – Torrel Harris hopped into a Mercedes van Friday morning, unsure of its exact destination. He knew he and his son, Los Angeles Clippers forward Tobias Harris, were going to a Compton school as part of Friday’s NBA Cares day of service. He had no idea which one.
The van rolled down East 133rd Street, past a sign for Jefferson Elementary School, then pulled into the school’s parking lot. That’s when the surprise became a special one. Torrel immediately told Tobias why: It was his elementary school.
“I was just looking at pictures the other day,” Torrel said. “My elementary school class pictures.”
Torrel left Jefferson Elementary after fifth grade and moved with his family to New York, where Tobias was born. Fifty years later, he returned to his old school for the first time since he was a student there in the 1960s. He and Tobias, a participant in Saturday’s three-point contest, arrived around 12:30 Friday afternoon to help put the final touches on a new playground for the school, a project spearheaded by NBA Cares and KaBOOM!, a non-profit that focuses on giving children active playtime.
Tobias, upon arrival, quickly went to work. He built a Clippers sign for the top of the playground. He helped construct a race car game that would be part of the playground. While he screwed in the final pieces, he was asked to describe his reaction to his dad’s big surprise.
“Small world,” Tobias said. “It’s pretty crazy he actually went here.”
That’s all he would offer, though. Tobias cracked a slight smile when asked what helping children at his dad’s former school meant to him.
“It’s really more for the kids,” he said.
That’s a big reason why Jefferson wanted the new playground, principal Sal Aquino said. The school had one before, but Aquino said it was smaller and wouldn’t meet the needs of the school’s expanding enrollment. Jefferson has about 850 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Most are either black or Hispanic, a demographic change from Torrel’s days at the school. Torrel lived on 104th Place in Watts, a tough neighborhood in far south Los Angeles off of I-105, and took a bus to Compton each day.
“I was one of the only black kids here,” Torrel said. “This whole area was mostly all-white.”
The design of the school, Torrel said, looks a lot like it did when he went there. It still has its unique layout, with about 20 individual classroom and office buildings surrounding the blacktop. Students walk outside from class to class. It’s quite a contrast from a standard multi-story building with hallways full of lockers.
The playground now sits right in the middle of the blacktop, surrounded by the buildings. Torrel stood on the blacktop as he watched and took pictures of his son mounting the Clippers logo. Tobias climbed to the playground’s highest point and screwed the sign into a pole, right above the start of a slide. He yelled over to Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, his former teammate with the Detroit Pistons, who watched below.
“Spencer, how does it look?”
“Horrible,” Dinwiddie said, sarcastically. “Worst team in L.A.”
Below, Torrel soaked in the moment.
“This,” he said, “is mind-boggling.”