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Wright Thompson on the Last Days of Tony Harris

1/9/2008

Wright Thompson is a remarkable sports journalist, who, for my money, spends too little time writing about basketball.

Recently, however, he went down to Brazil to tackle one of the toughest basketball stories of recent memory: the mysterious death of former Washington State basketball star Tony Harris. (Earlier TrueHoop report on Harris.)

The resulting piece, an ESPN.com E-Ticket, is truly a must-read, and I have to insist that you go and read the entire thing right now before proceeding any further.

Really. Go do it.

I'm serious. 

I spent some time talking to Thompson about his article:

So, first of all, I would like to congratulate you on superb work. It's such strong writing and reporting of such a chilling tale that I really had a hard time sleeping. You managed to take stress from Tony Harris, I feel, and stick a little piece of it into me.
Well, thank you for the kind words. I felt the stress, too. I was relieved to finish writing; it was like I, too, was running. I don't know for sure what happened to him out there, but the fear was palpable.

One thing that really struck me is that I think a certain part of the appeal of sports is how clean it is. Those brightly colored uniforms. Everyone showered, shiny, and ready for the spotlight. Clear rules. It's such a departure from the shades of grey -- including things like mental disease -- that we cope with elsewhere in our lives. But this story, this took a clean NCAA basketball player and showed us how he can end up out there as dirty as can be, begging in remote Brazil in the final days before his untimely end.
Some of that imagery you alluded to was a big part of what drew me to Tony Harris' story. You may believe he was murdered. You may believe he went nuts. But it is undeniable that in those final few days, he was sinking deeper and deeper into a darkness, each step further from the bright lights of the arenas where he first earned his fame. In the piece, I talk about parallels to "Heart of Darkness." That book was incredibly helpful when starting this story. I read it before I got down there, just to refresh myself.

What was the process like of reporting this story? It seems you have an unbelievable amount of detail about the things that happened in his final days.
Before I went, I talked to as many of his friends and family as possible. His wife, Lori, who is just an amazingly strong person, was helpful. My biggest regret is that I couldn't bring her better news.

Mostly, it was good ole fashioned pavement pounding. In Brazil, I talked to almost every person he spoke to. I rented his hotel room. I rode in the same cab. I had the Brazilian army take me to the tree. The plan was to literally recreate his journey.

You describe being in that room. "Dial 8-2 for a wakeup call. Dial 2 for room service, like he did yesterday, to have a little piece of home sent up: a steak and a Coca-Cola. Dial O for an outside line. Zero takes him home." I think that's where I started to think I might have trouble sleeping. How'd you sleep in that room?
Funny. I didn't. I had a room in a different hotel. I felt the same way. I was a few blocks away. Thank God.

When you left the city, and get to the woods outside of Sabor Gaucho, I imagine the conditions were much rougher. And it sounds like you had to do some hiking around to get the picture of the place out in the woods where Tony spent his final days. How long were you there and what was that like?
We weren't there too long, but the location did reinforce the remoteness. We drove from the police station to this gate, where a camo jeep met us. The cops rocked; it was like something out of Tombstone. They had on normal clothes, like blue jeans and t-shirts or cheap polos, which these freaking cannons in their waistline.

We bounced down this muddy, winding road until, suddenly, we stopped. Everyone got out and we walked, maybe a mile, until we saw the tree and the police tape. It was overwhelmingly sad to see, and to feel the vibe.

You alluded earlier to Harris' undeniable descent into some kind of darkness, and then later talking to his family about what you found. As covered in the Seattle press, it had seemed like a case of a bungled local investigation of a murder. From your view in Brazil, however, it seems like suicide must have been a very real possibility, if not a likelihood. Later, you told Lori what you found, correct? I imagine that was a difficult conversation.
It was. She knew Tony better than anyone, and it's impossible to tell her that all of that knowledge shouldn't influence her reading of the facts. At the same time, it seems unlikely that he was murdered. There were some details lost in translation that I'm sure make family and friends thing it was a bungled investigation or that there was a cover up. The reader can look at all the facts and decide for themselves.

Did you go to Brazil with a notion of whether this was a murder or a suicide?
I was leaning toward murder when I got on the airplane. I was actually kind of freaked out, because I didn't want to get too close to a killer and have them, you know, kill me.
But that was without being on the ground, so that opinion didn't have a lot of weight to it.

Am I wrong to interpret from the article that you came home feeling suicide was more likely?
First, what I think isn't important. I tried to document a journey and put the readers there, inside this descent. But I will say the evidence does point to suicide. But as Lori Harris will tell you, we will never know for sure what happened out there in the wilderness. That doubt is part of what makes this unnerving.

You have written a lot of great stuff. But have you ever worked on a story quite like this one?
Once or twice, maybe. I did a story about a former Missouri football player named Ernest Blackwell who just snapped one day and went on a rampage. It had some of the same mystery. But these stories don't come along very often. And the fact that it was in Brazil meant there was going to be new information. If this would have happened in in the States, the local media would have printed the entire story, fighting for details, one 15-inch news story at a time, and those details wouldn't have had the time to come together into a cohesive story. So I was lucky there.

I find myself tempted to re-tell the whole thing in my questions, so I guess I should stop and encourage people to read it themselves. What did I not ask you about? Anything else you'd like to add?
Well, just that it's all so overpoweringly sad. I know I keep using that word, but it fits. I never met Tony Harris. I know more about his death than his life, but the people who did know him, man, they loved him so much. And to be down there and see all of this is to feel the size of the hole in their hearts.

I have a DVD on my desk of him playing basketball in college. When I started writing, I thought about including a scene at the top, describing him at his prime, but decided not to. So I have this DVD here and I cannot bring myself to watch it, to see him when he was young and strong and had his entire future in front of him.