Eric Harris always emphasized to players he mentored over the years about the importance of an education. It really hit home, though, when his daughter was graduating from high school last year.

Harris, who was a point guard on the University of Minnesota’s 1997 Final Four team, encouraged her to get a college degree, but there was just one problem.

“I would kind of be a hypocrite if I tell her you have to finish, but I never finished,” he said. “That was the main thing I wanted to portray to my daughter – that it’s important.”

More than 20 years after he played for the Gophers, the New York native returned to his former school to finish what he started. Harris received his degree with an emphasis in African American Studies, communications and small business this winter. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino gave Harris recognition with the program’s current academic achievements on Twitter last week.

“Coach Pitino and the whole staff have been great,” Harris, 42, said. “(Gophers men’s basketball senior academic advisor) Kyle Quagliana has been helping me do it. I had a lot of people invested in me and helping me finish it up. Just all came together through God’s glory.”

After he starred at St. Raymond’s High School in New York, Harris joined the Gophers with dreams of playing in the NBA. Harris and Bobby Jackson were one of the top backcourts in team history helping Clem Haskins when a Big Ten title and reach the Final Four in 1996-97. Harris, though, wasn’t drafted after his senior season in 1997-98.

After his professional basketball career ended five years later, Harris spent time training and working with youth in New York City. His father also coached Gophers point guard Isaiah Washington, who is from Harlem.

“Coming from the inner city, you just think about basketball and playing at the Division I level,” Harris said. “The basketball is going to stop bouncing at some point, but the degree will always be there. That’s what I try to tell young kids I work with.”

That’s what Harris told his daughter, Elyssia, as she started her freshman year at Purchase College in New York last fall. She’s now entering her second semester with a passion to become an actress.

Harris hasn’t talked to her much about his Gophers basketball career. He didn’t return to the U for years, but decided to give it a shot last October. Pitino, fans and former U teammates have embraced him.

Now that he has a degree, Harris’ goal is to get into coaching (contact him here). He wants to remain in Minnesota and establish some roots here again.

“Kind of amazing to see we had that type of impact all these years later,” Harris said. “I was disconnected for awhile from the team and the university. But Coach Pitino and the staff and everybody in the academic building welcomed me back. It’s a great feeling.”

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