Bernard Harris: "Many people in the US don't even know where Finland is"
In 1974, when he played for the national basketball team of the United States, a friendly tournament took Bernard Harris first to the Soviet Union and then, in a rebound, to Finland. Today he is one of the veteran foreign athletes who best know this country and its people. “Racism? I haven´t experienced it, maybe my size has something to do with it”, he explains.
Bernard Harris (Roanoke, Virginia, 1950) is a professional basketball player. He played one season in the NBA with the Buffalo Braves, where he shared the dressing rooms with basketball legends like Bob McAdoo and played against giants as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He also played with the national team of the United States, an experience that brought him to Finland, the country where he later developed a major career in NMKY Turku, Tapiolan Honka, Salon Vilpas Vikings and even became a coach for the national team.
With his 208 centimeters of height, Bernard is a big guy, both in size and in humanity. A man who tries to walk away when someone causes problems to him and who has seen during his almost 40 years in Finland how the country has changed in every way. "When I came, at that time there were only four black people in Turku", he explains.
Finland has also changed him: "There is so much violence in America that when I go home I don't feel safe".
Now, he is mainly dedicated to educating young people and instilling in them the good habits and benefits of sport. He also advises other foreigners on how to integrate in Finland.
QUESTION: Is it true that, as a child, you were more interested in baseball than in basketball?
ANSWER: Yes, I did. I started with baseball.
Q: What made you change your mind?
A: I liked it more. The reason I stopped playing baseball is that I was growing, I was getting tall and tall… so everybody said to me: play basketball. But I did not really like basketball in the beginning.
Q: Why not?
A: The reason I didn’t like basketball was I had skinny legs and you have to wear shorts (laughs).
Q: Fortunately, you got over it...
A: You know, I went first to an all black school. It was in the early 60s and there was still segregation in the US, but I think it was in 1964 or 1965 that they started to integrate schools, so then I had to go to a white school. It was during that time when I went to school that they started trying to get me to play basketball. So I started to play, the first year I didn't like it so much, and I don’t know what happened but the second year, all of a sudden, I was a good player. What happened I don't know, but from one year to another I won more confidence and by the time I finished high school I was one of the best players in America.
Q: What would you say was the first milestone in your career?
A: It was when I went to the University. The first step for me towards professional basketball was getting a scholarship to college.
Relaxed, during the interview. Photo: © Foreigner.fi.
NBA and US national team
Q: Did it mean a lot to you to play for the US national team?
A: I was young and at that time it didn’t really mean nothing, it was just another team (smiles). Actually, I didn’t wanna go because I knew we were going to the Soviet Union, but my college coach said it would be good for me to go because of the NBA draft that was coming up. It would be a good experience.
Q: I can't believe you where you also scared of the Soviets.
A: Not really scared, but it didn't excite me. And I had hurt my ankle really bad about three weeks before that. But I ended up joining the team, we had our first camp in North Carolina and then we went to the Soviet Union.
Q: How do you remember that experience?
A: We came to the Soviet Union to play 8 or 9 friendly exhibition games. That was in 1974, before Brezhnev's death, we were in Moscow and in Leningrad (today Saint Petersburg) and the Soviet Union was the Soviet Union.
Q: What does that mean?
A: You know, hotels were cold, food was bad... when we finished there, before going home we came to Finland to play one or two games against the Finnish national team. This was my first experience in Finland, in 1974.
Q: At that time, did you even know that Finland existed?
A: No, never heard of Finland. And after my first visit here I still din't know where it was. I never looked at it on a map or anything like that.
I came to Finland through sports and sports is a different avenue than coming as refugee or somebody who gets married and moves here
Q: What else can you recall of that visit?
A: The only thing was that we came here in June and the weather was really nice. There was a lot of daylight and it was way better than in Soviet Union. I remember once we went to a night-club and when we entered there was still light, and when we came out at 3:00 AM it was light again. So, I had some good memories from Finland.
Q: Did you play with any of the great NBA legends?
A: For example I played in the same team as Bob McAdoo (in Buffalo Braves) and I also played against people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during that time. The money they paid in NBA was OK then, but it was not what it is like now. It is crazy now, you can be like one year in the NBA and you can be set for your life if you use it right.
The arrival in Finland
Q: Could you imagine at that time your would end up here for the rest of your career?
A: Never thought about that. I still sometimes, in the winter time, wake up and look out the window and ask myself: What? How? (smiles).
Q: What made it possible?
A: It was about seven years later. I had been playing in the Philippines, the season was over, I was at home and I got a call from my agent. He said: 'How would you like to go somewhere where there is a lot of pretty girls and make some money?'. I asked where and he said 'Finland'. Then I said yes, because I had some good memories.
Q: Did your experience meet your agent's description about Finland?
A: There is beautiful girls all over the world (laughs).
Q: What was your first impression in the country?
A: Before I got here, my friends told me: 'You have to take a lot of heavy clothes because it is going to be cold'. But I said nooooooo man, I have been already there and there is a lot of daylight and warm… So I came here and I still remember, it was September the 18th, I had clothes like this (shows his summer clothes), I was here for 3 and a half weeks and then snowed like half a meter. I remember being walking outside and a snowflake hit me in the face and I actually thought someone hand thrown something at me. I looked around but it was just a big snowflake. At that time I said: I will never ever come back to this country. I ended the season and then went home.
Q: But you did come back. What changed after that?
A: I had made some friends in Turku and they came to visit me during the summer in the states. Then I got called again and they wanted to sign another contract, so I decided to come back and try another year.
During a basketball campus with students in the framework of his project getinthegame.info. Photo: © Bernard Harris.
Q: Was Finland at that time in the world basketball map?
A: Not really. But it was better than what it is now if you think that we had more fans coming to the games, there was more enthusiasm, more excitement. We played for the national championship in Turku and 6,000 fans came to see us. It is hard nowadays to get 6,000 people at any game, except for the national team games. However, nowadays I see a lot more young players trying to go to America to the universities to play basketball.
Q: What about the basketball that Finns played? Was the difference compared to the USA big?
A: Compared to the USA? There was no comparison. You still cannot compare Finland to America (laughs loud). I mean, you might compare Finland to some countries in Europe, but America is best in the world in basketball. You can compare Finland to America in ice hockey, but you cant do it in Basketball. It is not even close.
Q: Has the way Finns play basketball changed a lot since that?
A: It has. Like everywhere else in the world, the players are more athletic nowadays and I think they are a lot stronger. The system of playing and the style is more on international level. So yes, it has improved.
Integration and family
Q: So, I guess you soon became an important guy in Turku.
A: Yes, I was the big dog (smiles). I came through sports and sports is a different avenue. When you come through sports right away you have friends and a routine, that is different than coming as a refugee or somebody who gets married and moves here. This is why it was a lot easier to come and integrate into the system here. Everybody in Turku knew me when I go out and all that stuff, man…
Q: Was it complicated to adapt to the Finnish culture?
A: I probably still haven’t adapted completely. It is tough because Finns are so introverted. Even though, as I said it is always easier when people know you and you get that instant recognition. It is always a lot easier for athletes when they go to a different country.
I was ten years married to a Finn, which is not the easiest thing in the world
Q: When did you start to feel comfortable?
A: I had a lot of fun here. Probably the nightlife I think was one of the best things. I used to like to go out and have fun and stuff like that. But also being known made a lot easier for me to do the things I wanted to do.
For example I wrote a book about basketball, I had several TV shows on nutrition, doping and anti-doping in sports... I work a lot with schools and young kids who want to become basketball players. Even the president of Finland, Sauli Niinisto, who used to live like me in Salo and used to be an avid rollerblader, wrote something for me about rollerblading and exercising.
Q: Did you start a family here also?
A: I have a daughter and I was married here for ten years.
Q: To a Finn?
A: Yes, which is not the easiest thing in the world.
Q: I know...
(A second of silence, and then big laugh).
Q: How tall was your wife?
A: I don't remember, if I have to say I would say 1.75.
Q: Was the height difference ever an obstacle?
A: How? (laughs) Not that I can think of, never a problem.
The Finnish language
Q: Do you speak Finnish?
A: I speak a little, not fluently.
Q: Can you manage with that?
A: Do I look like I am not managing? In Helsinki and in this area most people speak English, and I think that's a thing that spoiled me. Also because I worked a lot with young kids, and when I go to the schools the teachers like that I speak English with them because it is like an extra English class. The language hasn't been a major problem.
In a Finnish school, during a meeting with students. Photo: © Bernard Harris.
Q: Did you ever experience racism here?
A: It depends on what kind of racism. There’s open racism, for example when somebody may call you names or something like that.. or there is like a behind the scenes type of racism, where it might influence somebody to not give you a job or whatever. I would say it hasn't been that bad, no, no direct racism... maybe my size has something to do with it probably. I think that you kind of cautious as to who you say things to. So, most people are not gonna be as big as me.
Q: What do you say to the new players that come here about these issues?
A: I say it's a question of how do you do with things when they come up. Are you going to let something like that affect your career? Because that’s a walkaway situation. You may call me a name, so what? As long as you don’t put your hands on me, then I'm good. If you call me a name, you probably are not gonna call me a name that I haven’t heard before. So, when you are out at night and you are partying... you can always punch the guy, whatever, but in the end you are gonna get in trouble. So, I tell the young players: is it worth getting in trouble and being sent home just because somebody said a word to you?
Q: That is acting wise.
A: I always ask the new players to think about it before it happens. If you go out and somebody says something to you, if you can walk away then walk away.
Q: What else do you advice them?
A: We also talk about relationships. I say to them, 'you are gonna meet a lot of women but you don’t wanna leave babies here'. I ask them treat women here as they would like their sisters to be treated. You are in a civilized society, so act civilized. I also advice them not to spend all their money here because things are expensive. In general I say: you are here, try to get advantage of the situation, be the best player you can be, enjoy your time in Finland and then go home.
The positive (and not so positive) of Finland
Q: Which are the advantages of living in Finland?
A: First of all, the high level of education. There are a lot of foreign students coming here to study, so I think that’s a big advantage for foreigners. There is also medical care and safety and you don’t have to worry much about crime. You can raise your family here safely and kids can get a good education.
Q: And the disadvantages?
A: We all know, the weather, no sun light, people are a little bit shy, a little introverted. Things are expensive here, the cost of living is high but I guess the salaries are comparable. Those type of things are disadvantages.
Q: Do you miss anything from home?
A: Probably just being around with friends I grew up with, family and somewhere to buy a good hot dog (laughs).
Q: Although hot dogs are worse, would you still repeat living your life in Finland?
A: That’s a good question because it is always easier to look behind and think how would it be. You never know where life is going to take you. Wherever it takes you, I think you have to try to make the best out of it, whether its at home or here.
Who knows what my life would had been in the States in the same period of time. Obviously I didn’t choose this path, life chose this path for me. I am not always happy of course, nobody is. I just expect to make the best that I can and hopefully to make it a little bit better for my daughter.
Q: Are you a Finnish citizen?
A: Yes I am, since 1990. And I was one of the first American former players to ever coach a Finnish national team. I coached the boys that were 16 years old in 2001-2002.
Q: When you go home and tell your friends you live in Finland, what do they know about the country?
A: I don’t think many people there know where Finland is. Most people just now that is probably cold. I remember going to a bar 10 years ago in Richmond, Virginia, and talking to this lady, she was a lawyer and highly educated and I asked her if she knew where Finland is. She was thinking and then said: “Oh yes, Finland, Finland… isn’t Finland close to Greenland? I said 'not really'. Everybody knows Sweden through actors or sports, there is a lot big named people coming from Sweden as Ingrid Bergman, Björn Borg or the music group ABBA. But about Finland, a lot of people I have known had no idea.
There is so much violence in America that when I go home I don’t feel safe
Q: Richmond, Virginia, is that the place where your live in America?
A: That is where I went to school and when I go there I continue to live in Richmond. Usually when I go back now I go to Richmond first and then I go to Roanoke, where I was born. But I don't stay in Roanoke long because my parents are death and I am their only child. So, I might stay there one night or two and then back in Richmond.
Q: After so many years, does your home country still feel like home?
A: No, I am kind of floating around there. Home is home in a way, but in another way after being here so long you kind of lose contact and touch with what is going on. So, because there is so much violence in America when I go home I don’t feel safe. It wasn't like that when I was growing up, because when you grow up in a certain situation you adapt to it and look for certain signs.
Q: So, what changes when you travel to the US?
A: When you are here you don’t have to really look behind you when you walk down the streets and stuff like that. So I think that if you live here for a long time you kind of lose that feel and when I go home now I don’t feel really safe, I am looking around and locking the doors and stuff like that, so I think that’s a difference.
Finland has changed a lot though since when I came first: more foreigners, more crime... it used to be you could leave your doors open and everything was OK, but you don’t want to leave your doors open now. It's changed.
Q: Any final advice for the foreigners in Finland?
A: Try to enjoy your time here and realize you are not at home, so don’t expect things to be like they are at home. It’s a different culture, so make the best out of it.