Passion Drives Marie Ferdinand-Harris

Marie Ferdinand-Harris is a nine-year veteran in the WNBA.
Juan Ocampo/NBAE/Getty Images

Marie Ferdinand-Harris of the Los Angeles Sparks exudes an overabundance of joy and excitement whenever given the opportunity to talk about basketball. Simply mention the word and she�ll tell you exactly what the sport means to her, what it�s done for her and what she hopes it can do for others.

It is that same passion that led her to open her own breeding grounds for success, aptly titled �The Marie Ferdinand Basketball School of Excellence,� an organization geared toward improving the lives of students and teenagers by applying on-court skills to the classroom.

And yet, if not for a little friendly and encouraging peer pressure, this vision may not have even been a consideration.

The Miami native was just 13 years old when she was convinced by a friend to consider taking up basketball. Although she was pretty content with not playing at the time, she says she finally gave in.

�I said, �OK, I�ll play,�� said Ferdinand-Harris of her shoulder-shrug approach to the game. �I went out there and played, but like any other kid I didn�t know what I was doing. I was just out there breaking all the rules but at the end of the day I was having fun.�

If anything, fun was the start of something big. As long as it was fun, Ferdinand-Harris kept playing. It�s a good thing too. Had she stopped having fun she may never have caught the eye of her high school coaches John Burke, a man who believed in preaching the fundamentals and developing players, Denise Novak, who played the role of mother figure for Marie, and shooting coach Marvin Harvey who, to this day, remains a force in her career.

�We never had an offseason,� Ferdinand-Harris said, reminiscing on her high school days. �We worked and worked during the offseason. When we couldn�t have gym time he took us to nearby playgrounds, we played with the boys, we did a lot.�

As time wore on and the constant routine of basketball became an everyday occurrence, Ferdinand-Harris began to develop as a player and gain recognition as Player of the Year (where? locally, statewide, nationwide?), Player of the Decade (where? locally, statewide, nationwide?) and various other awards for her game. All along she knew she wanted to go to college and advance her education and career, but she knew that despite the efforts of her mother, who was two jobs as a single parent and looking after six other kids, options were limited. Yet Ferdinand-Harris was inspired by her mom�s work ethic and only needed a source of inspiration to turn to.

Marie Ferdinand-Harris works with a student
Basketball would be the way to do it.

�I worked very, very hard on the basketball court,� she said. �I worked hard in the classroom. I was fortunate to have very good teachers who sacrificed their time to stay with me after school, worked on helping me pass my classes and get my GPA up.�

She played. She learned.

She improved.

And then, the scholarships started to roll in.

�I was being looked at by Georgia, Florida, Miami and all these schools. It was crazy because where I�m from, you just don�t leave that area,� Ferdinand-Harris said. �So to get a scholarship to LSU, that was just way over the top.�

Ferdinand-Harris took that over-the-top offer and landed in Louisiana for her college career. At the time, LSU was known predominantly for its long-standing football program, which started up as early as 1893 and claimed 15 bowl wins, 10 conference championships and one national championship. By the end of Ferdinand-Harris�s college basketball career, LSU�s women�s basketball program was forever changed.

Between 1997 and 2001, the LSU Lady Tigers made it to the Women�s National Invitational Tournament Final Four (1998), finished second in the SEC (1999), advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 (1999), cracked the Elite Eight (2000) and advanced to the second round of the Mideast Regional (2001).

While playing for the Lady Tigers, Ferdinand-Harris racked up 120 games, shot 49 percent from the field, notched 524 boards and dished 384 assists. And yet, through it all, the one person who inspired her the most was rarely in the crowd.

�I remember always asking my mom to come up and see me on campus, but she never actually came,� said Ferdinand-Harris. �She never made it. The only time my mom set foot on Baton Rouge, Louisiana was when I was graduating. When I was walking across that stage, she made that trip to Baton Rouge.�

Make no mistake about it: Ferdinand-Harris�s mother is proud of her daughter�s accomplishments both on and off the court, but it was the accomplishments in the classroom that meant the most.

�When she did that she just made me realize what really is important to her,� said Ferdinand-Harris. �She appreciated what basketball did for me, but at the end of the day academics is first and the priority.�

It�s that same philosophy that applies to the Marie Ferdinand Basketball School of Excellence.

�I�ve always said that the day I have an opportunity to help these kids understand to use sports, to use basketball, as a vehicle to get scholarships, I�m going to do it,� said Ferdinand-Harris.

The purpose of the school is to help develop skills throughout the early years of a player�s career so that by the time they get to high school they will have the fundamentals down to the point where schools will look to make scholarship offers.

It�s a blueprint to success based on Ferdinand-Harris's own success, as she admitted that all of her life-management skills like responsibility, accountability, confidence and leadership came from playing basketball.

The program is currently based in Ferdinand-Harris� current-home of San Antonio, Texas, with hopes to expand the program into school districts throughout San Antonio and later into Baton Rouge and Ferdinand-Harris� hometown of Miami.

�Basketball helped in so many ways and opened so many doors for me, in a sense where I was able to get people to really step in and help me,� she said. �My mom didn�t have to really worry too much about me because basketball kind of helped me in the midst of all those storms that we were going through.�

Now, in an effort to help create opportunities for others, she wants the future of the sport and the working world to discover those same elements and apply them to everyday life.

�Parents don�t understand how big of a role sports play in a kid�s life and how much they gain from it,� she said. �I look at my situation and even if I didn�t make it to the WNBA, I still won because I ended up getting a four-year scholarship and I got my degree.�