From McDonald's All-American to McDonald's worker: How David Harrison lost his way after the NBA

From McDonald's All-American to McDonald's worker: How David Harrison lost his way after the NBA

Former Indiana Pacers center David Harrison, a little more than a decade removed from being a first-round pick in the NBA draft, has struggled to make a consistent living since his basketball career ended – to the point he said he took a job working at McDonald's two years ago.

"I was embarrassed because of where I could be in life," Harrison told Yahoo Sports. "Everybody has to work and make a living somehow. I have two children. They don't care where I work. They just need to eat.

"People were showing up trying to take my car. My house was in foreclosure. I didn't have any income. I just had everything going out. I have child support to one son. I have a really big family and I have to take care of them, even through I'm not playing in the NBA. I needed money."

Harrison made $4.4 million before taxes during four seasons with Indiana and also played in China professionally for three seasons. He said almost all of that money is gone. Now 32 and without a college degree, Harrison said he's having a hard time finding a job.

"An NBA career is a fragile thing," said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who coached Harrison with the Pacers. "It tips on the slimmest of margins one way or the other. There are a lot of guys who get a taste of it. David had some pretty good years for us when I was there."

Harrison played four seasons for the Pacers. (Getty Images)
Harrison played four seasons for the Pacers. (Getty Images)

Harrison played in the McDonald's All-America Game in 2001 after being a two-time Mr. Basketball in Tennessee. The 2004 All-Big 12 first-team pick was a starter in three seasons at Colorado and averaged 17 points and 8.8 rebounds as a junior during the 2003-04 season. The Pacers drafted him with the 29th overall selection in the first round of the 2004 NBA draft.

"I never felt more helpless than when I was guarding him," said ex-Colorado forward Chris Copeland, now with the Pacers. "In college he was unbelievable.

"He was a special athlete. He was very misunderstood. A smart guy. A deep thinker. When you're that intelligent and that deep with your thoughts, sometimes people don't understand where you are coming from."

Harrison was just a rookie when he was part of the "Malice at the Palace" brawl on Nov. 19, 2004, in Auburn Hills, Mich. After a fan threw a drink on Pacers forward Ron Artest, Artest and his teammates fought Detroit fans in the stands. A police report said Harrison punched a 67-year-old fan as he attempted to get to the Pacers' locker room. Harrison was also hit by a chair, kicked and punched.

Harrison vividly recalls Artest, now Metta World Peace, asking teammates in the locker room if he thought the fight was a big deal.

"Ron says, 'Hey, my bad guys. I'm sorry. I didn't know I had so many real [expletives] on this team,' " Harrison said. "Then he says out loud, 'Hey, do you think we are going to get fined?' Anthony [Johnson] says, '[Expletive] a fine, Ron. They are going to suspend us.'

"Then Ron was literally like my 6-year-old son and [said], 'Oh man, you think they're going to suspend us? I don't want to be suspended.' And everyone starts laughing."

Harrison also couldn't forget the bus ride leaving Auburn Hills.

"We are on the bus and they told us to lay on the ground because there were reports of people showing up to the stadium armed with guns," Harrison said.

Harrison received one year of probation, 60 hours of community service, a $250 fine and anger management counseling for his role in the fight, but was not suspended by the NBA. He said he paid about $85,000 in lawyer and lawsuit fees.

"We were trying to protect ourselves," Harrison said. "But that's not what the courts ruled."

Harrison and Carlisle bonded during their time with the Pacers.

"I loved coaching David Harrison," Carlisle said. "He's a terrific competitor. He's a complex kid, but he's open to communication and he's extremely intelligent."

After the Pacers fired Carlisle following the 2006-07 season, Harrison spent his last season in the NBA was under coach Jim O'Brien.

"When I got the job I was told not to expect very much from him, that he had a tough past and was not a guy you can depend on when you started your tenure with a team," O'Brien said.

Harrison received one year of probation for his role in the 2004 brawl in Detroit. (AP)
Harrison received one year of probation for his role in the 2004 brawl in Detroit. (AP)

Harrison says he was troubled by O'Brien's sharp – and frequent – criticism of him.

"The worst time of my life was when Jim O'Brien was running the team," Harrison said. "I asked to be traded or sent to the D-League, but it never happened. I can't point the finger directly at him, but he did not want me to succeed.

"It wasn't in his game plan for me to succeed. Being around him was probably the worst time I've had in my life."

Harrison said he smoked marijuana in the offseason during his first three seasons, but not during the season. Frustrated with his role under O'Brien and his lack of playing time, Harrison said he smoked weed daily – including before and after practices – during the 2007-08 season. He was suspended five games that season for violating the league's anti-drug policy because of his marijuana use.

"It wasn't healthy," Harrison said. "I literally had to smoke pot every day so I would not hurt him. I would avoid him. I'd come in early and stay late. It wasn't like he hit me; he verbally abused me. But what coach doesn't?"

O'Brien strongly disagreed with Harrison's characterization that he was abusive.

"Let's just say he had a lot bottled up inside of him before we ever crossed paths," O'Brien said. "He was as good of an athlete as you were going to find at center, but he just could not get the job done. There was no way of beating around the bush.

"I sat with him a lot. [Pacers president] Larry Bird sat with him a lot to see if there was anything to get him to utilize his talents. He just was not a very functional NBA player."

Harrison became a free agent following the 2007-08 season and never played in the NBA again. He averaged 5.0 points and 2.9 rebounds over four seasons with Indiana. He played professionally in China the next three seasons and played eight games for the D-League Reno Bighorns during the 2011-12 season. He last played for the Dallas Mavericks' summer league team in 2012. Harrison hasn't received any calls from NBA teams over the past three seasons. Nor have there been any overseas offers.

"I want to play, but I don't believe there is a door open for me to go through or even open," Harrison said.

Looking back, Harrison believes a lack of maturity – and too much pride – eventually ruined his NBA career.

"Pride, that's where I messed up the most, Harrison said. "I had too much self pride in my ability. I was just stubborn. The whole weed thing was a war. It was something that occupied my mind. It was me versus the drug program. It was something I could compete in again. At the end of the day, I was 24 years old when it all happened.

"Looking back as a 32-year-old, I wouldn't have done some of the things I did at 24. At the same time, I did it. I'm not apologetic, but I'm sorry."

Harrison is still living in the Indianapolis area with his girlfriend and their infant son. He is still fighting to keep his home and says he makes some income trading stocks. He's also hoping to find an investor for his mobile game application company, Kage Media Group LLC.

Harrison said he is 16 credit hours from a college degree at Colorado, but can't afford to go back to school to finish. He has had a preliminary conversation with Colorado's men's basketball program about a graduate assistant opportunity, but nothing is brewing.

When asked how he's making ends meet now, Harrison said: "I trade stocks. I invested in a few smaller companies that I've been able to liquidate out of. I've literally burned through about 95 percent of my savings. I applied for a job at Edward Jones. That didn't work out."

Harrison was at an Indianapolis-area McDonald's in August 2013 when his credit card was declined while trying to buy his then 4-year-old son, Dylan, a Happy Meal. The manager recognized him, gave him the meal for free and offered to help him get a job at McDonald's. Harrison said he took him up on the offer and was hired for the night shift at another McDonald's.

Harrison said he had a hard time working because customers would often want to talk after they recognized him – or they were just fascinated by his height. He left after two weeks.

"I wanted to be around people and not be a hermit in the house," Harrison said. "I took the midnight shift on purpose. I did two weeks of training. They told me I would be a distraction because I was. Every time someone would order, it would take them 40 minutes to order because they were asking me too many questions."

Harrison has given up on basketball improving his financial situation, but believes he will eventually figure out the right way to improve his life.

"I am confident in my intelligence," Harrison said. "I am confident in myself and I have the ability to succeed. I don't have much hope to play basketball again. But to support my family and myself, I have a lot of hope in that."

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