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Walking down memory lane: Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Harris set for victory lap in 41st year at Duke

<p>During his 40 years as a play-by-play announcer at Duke, Bob Harris has formed strong bonds with Blue Devil coaches and players.</p>

During his 40 years as a play-by-play announcer at Duke, Bob Harris has formed strong bonds with Blue Devil coaches and players.

On July 6, Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk was worried. 

It wasn't because of his recovery from a torn Achilles tendon or an issue with any of his teammates. It was because he was uncertain whether Blue Devil play-by-play announcer Bob Harris would be around for the 2016 season.

After Harris discussed his retirement at a press conference, he exited Cameron Indoor Stadium with his family and saw the Blue Devil signal caller heading in his direction. 

"He comes almost in a trot, he says, 'Mr. Harris, Mr. Harris.' He comes over to me and he says, 'Please tell me you're going to be here for my senior year,'" Harris said Monday. "I said, 'Yes, Thomas, I'm going to be here for your senior year.' He just grabbed me and hugged me."

Luckily for Sirk and those involved with the Duke men's basketball and football programs, the University is letting Harris take a victory lap. The hall of fame broadcaster announced the day before the July 5 press conference that the 2016-17 season—his 41st at Duke—will be his last.

When Harris retires next spring, the University and collegiate sports world will lose an icon. The Albemarle, N.C., native will retire as the longest-tenured play-by-play announcer in ACC history after 50 total years in broadcasting. 

'Like a fairytale'

He has called more than 450 football games and 1,350 men's basketball games during his time in Durham, but Harris said he will miss the relationships he has built with Duke's coaches and players the most. The 74-year old got his broadcasting start working for local radio stations in Albemarle and Durham following a five-year stint with the tire company Goodyear and has since become close with some of the most notable figures in sports—including head coaches Mike Krzyzewski and David Cutcliffe.

Harris arrived at Duke five years before the all-time winningest head coach in Division I men's basketball and has had a front-row seat for the Blue Devils' dominance in the past 35 years, including five national championships. But he was also there when Krzyzewski's teams struggled during his first three years, compiling a 38-47 record.

One night in January 1983 after a home loss, a conversation between the two men became what Harris called the defining moment in their relationship, adding that Krzyzewski has since agreed. It came at a time when there was talk that Krzyzewski might be on the hot seat and that his teams would have won more if they played more zone defense. 

"He said, 'Yeah, we might have won one or two more games. I'm not coaching to have a winning record for a season or two. I'm building a program,'" Harris said. "Then he stopped and said, 'If they would just give me the time.' I looked at him and his eyes were misty [and] his chin was quivering."

More than eight years later, the Blue Devils won their first national championship. Harris coined his signature phrase "How sweet it is!" and after the game found himself alone with Krzyzewski again inside the coaches' locker room. 

"He leaned back against the wall [and] shut his eyes. I looked at him and I said, 'Coach, I'm so glad they gave you the time,'" Harris said. "His eyes opened and he said, 'You remembered that?' I said, 'Coach, I'll never forget that.'"

READ: Coach K's statement following Harris' announcement that he will retire

Right place at the right time

A year later, Duke repeated as national champions. On the Blue Devils' way to the title, Christian Laettner hit his famous buzzer-beater against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Harris' call of "The shot heard round the world" has since been played repeatedly by CBS and connected to one of his most memorable interviews as a broadcaster.

He has interviewed Muhammad Ali and entertainer Red Skelton during his career, but in February 1989, Harris called perhaps his most high-profile broadcast.

Three years before his iconic shot against Kentucky, Laettner—then a freshman—missed the front end of a one-and-one during a high-profile regular season game against Arizona at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.

After the game, while Harris was waiting to go into the team's locker room, President Richard Nixona Duke Law School alumnus—asked if he could go in and talk to Laettner. Harris said Krzyzewski was still addressing the team, but asked if he could interview Nixon while they waited, and Nixon obliged.

Although Harris stayed outside when Nixon later entered the locker room, he said Laettner later explained what happened when Harris interviewed Laettner for his autobiography, "How Sweet It Is."

"[Nixon] patted him on the knee and said, 'Son, I've missed a few in my lifetime as well. Just shake it off. I'm going to make a prediction. You're going to make shots before you leave our university that will win some big ball games," Harris said.

The following year, back in the Meadowlands, Laettner hit a buzzer-beater against Connecticut to send Duke to the Final Four. Two years later, he made the shot against Kentucky. 

The player who made the pass to set up Laettner's famous bucket, Grant Hill, said earlier this week that Harris has been a friend since the forward stepped on campus as a 17-year old in 1990.

"Forget about the calls. It's the friendship, it's the warmth, it's the enthusiasm, the love of Duke, the love of people at Duke and the love of life," Hill said Monday at a charity event for Els for Autism. "He's been a great ambassador for this school. I put him up there with Coach K and some of the other iconic figures at this school."

Deja vu

Harris has worked with nine head football coaches compared to only two men's basketball head coaches, yet he has created a strong bond with Cutcliffe, the man behind the recent transformation in Duke's football program.

In 2010, Cutcliffe's third year with the Blue Devils, Harris had a conversation with the former Mississippi head coach that gave the commentator confidence that Duke football was on the right track. 

"I said, 'How's the building process coming, Coach?' He said, 'Well, we've got a ways to go, but we're building. We've got to do it our way. We can't do it like some other schools. It's got to be our way because we've got a unique school,'" Harris said. "I said, 'You're exactly right. Several years back, I had another coach tell me something similar to that. It worked out pretty good for him.' He said, 'Who was it?' I said, 'The guy over there on the other side of Cameron on that top floor.'"

After Harris announced his retirement, Cutcliffe complimented his legendary broadcasting career but added that, "I am most proud to call him my friend," a sentiment echoed by others who have worked with Harris.  

'Nobody loves Duke more'

As he approaches the age of 75, Harris is ready to take a step back from the weekly commitment of being Duke's play-by-play man. However, given his passion for the University, he'll certainly still be engaging with the Blue Devils for years to come.

Harris has also been mentoring younger broadcasters for several years, including when he helped former Blue Devil and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas get his start in broadcasting. 

"They don't make them better than Bob Harris," Bilas said at the Ernie Els Foundation event Monday. "Nobody loves Duke more than Bob does, and nobody has loved their job more."

Starting next weekend when the Blue Devils open the season against N.C. Central Sept. 3, Duke fans can enjoy one more year with Harris calling the team's games.

And if he gets a little animated, it's probably because, after 50 years in the business, he's still just as excited as he was on day one.

"Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure that it has been real," Harris said. "All I can say is, 'How sweet it is!'"

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