They say Reggie Harding did the worst thing a man can do: He offered the pretty girl with the voice that could shatter glass a ride home from the sock hop.
On nights when Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John headlined, 3 or 4,000 people might show up to the Graystone, ‘Detroit’s million-dollar ballroom.’ Back in ‘58 the city almost pulled the club’s license for admitting 12-year old’s. It was an easy place for a teenager to get lost in the crowd, and that’s exactly what happened.
She got separated from her brother.
Harding was a familiar face. They both were popular, members of the in-crowd: her the blossoming singer Florence Ballard, in the early days of the Supremes, he, the 7’ anchor of the back-to-back City League, champion Eastern High basketball team.
The car plotted down Woodward Avenue going in the opposite direction of her home. They say he ignored her when she asked where they were going. In the early hours of the morning, they say Harding pulled the car into an empty lot; they say he showed her the knife before forcing her into the backseat.
If it was Harding or somebody else or nobody at all, they say after that night she holed up in her room away from people for weeks. That when her bandmates finally found her, her skin was pale and her eyes sunken in. That when she spoke, it was as if she wasn’t there.
After all the drugs, the alcohol, the poverty, the fame, it was a blood clot that took her in ‘76.
Reggie went late in the summer of ‘72.
“If you shoot me, shoot me in the head, I don’t want to feel no pain” Harding said with the pistol pointed at him.1
Maybe Harding knocked over one too many heroin houses – you can only stick a gun in the face of so many drug dealers before it gets pointed back. Maybe the H had already taken him; maybe he had never really been alive.
“Sure, I had been on the needle,” Harding said a year prior. “People identify with drugs. But, hell, there’s nothing to identify with – you take drugs and you don’t ever know your own identity.”2
Harding got his wish with the second bullet – it was fired into his head as he lay on the corner of Parkview and Kercheval on the east side of Detroit.
Did she enter his thoughts at all in those last moments? Did he think about the time he outplayed Bill Russell – carrying a 16 win Detroit team to victory over a 47 win Celtics squad? Did he feel any remorse for the wasted potential and all the decisions that led him away from the NBA, back to the same Detroit streets he came up on?
Maybe rapists don’t deserve pity. Maybe wicked men aren’t born into this world, rather molded by it. Maybe all the stories about Harding are just tall tales and yarn.
With Reggie Harding, there will always be more questions than answers.
What is beyond debate, however, is that Harding, a 7’ athletic marvel – in the time of Chamberlain – managed a mere 205 games in the NBA. He could have, and should have, been so much more.
“Tweetie bird, I hear you hate niggers,” Harding supposedly said to teammate Jimmy Rayl with a gun pointed at his head. Harding was on the last leg of his professional basketball career. He had already washed out with the Pistons, the Bulls, and the Trenton Colonials of the Continental Basketball Association.
Now, with the Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Association, Reggie was up to his old tricks.
Legend has it, Rayl – who earned the nickname ‘Tweetie Bird’ for his spastic high-energy style of play – talked Harding out of murdering him in the team hotel, the night before a game, having Harding empty the bullets from the chamber of the revolver. Minutes later, the gun was once again pointed in Rayl’s face, with Harding asking the question “you didn’t think I only had six bullets, did you?” Rayl slept in the hotel lobby – shooting 1-14 the next night in a Pacers loss.3
The Pacers brought Harding in with 30 games left in the 67-68 season because their starting center contracted the mumps. They knew his reputation, that he was “7-feet of trouble.” But, they took a gamble – it didn’t really pay off.
In 25 games, Harding was good for 13.4 points and 13.4 rebounds – decent numbers, but hardly worth the headache he brought: on team flights, he refused to wear a suit and tie; he showed up late, didn’t practice; disappeared once for his “daughters funeral” despite not having a daughter. The front office feared him. The end came when he threatened to shoot the teams’ general manager during a televised interview.
Despite scoring a combined 53 points in his final two professional appearances, Harding was suspended for the playoffs – and then, in the basketball world, he was never heard from again.
The raw talent was always evident – Fran Smith, the Pistons General Manager, in 1963 said of Harding: “we think he is a better center than any of the big men who were available [in the draft]” — a draft class that included Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond.
It’s what made Harding the first player in NBA history to play in the league without having played in college. It’s what made the Pistons bring Harding back in 66’ after the league suspended him for the entire season the year previous. It’s what made the Bulls take a chance on Harding after the Pistons finally said enough – despite the repeated arrests for loitering and assault.
After the Pacers, Harding did a stint in the Jackson State Penitentiary – the cycle was usually heroin followed by the threat of violence against someone. For a time, Jackson had been the largest walled prison in the world. Fifteen-years earlier, a riot resulted in $2.5 million in damage. Some years after Harding was released, another riot saw two guards seriously injured as inmates overran two cell blocks.
This couldn’t have been the place Harding imagined himself ending up at years earlier when he first put on the blue and white with Detroit emblazoned across his chest. Or, maybe, it’s exactly where he imagined he’d end up as a kid roaming the streets of Detroit’s far east side.
There are conflicting reports about Harding after he got out. Some say he was clean, religiously taking methadone and thinking about one-more shot on the court. Others say he was the same old Reggie, drinking on the corner from a brown paper bag.
Either way, on the morning of Sept. 2, 1972, the sub-headline of page 110 of the Detroit Free Press read “The dope dealers killed Reggie. He hung around with them after he was suspended from the Pistons. They gave him free heroin. Once his habit got too expensive, they dropped him.”
Did she think about him?
Did it provide her any peace?
If he was indeed the monster – death delivered one final blow: Reggie Harding’s casket exceeded the length of the burial plot. The wood box holding Harding’s 7’0 long body had to be forced into the ground on an angle.
Whatever remained of the evening that Harding is alleged to have raped Florence Ballard was scrubbed away by the city in July of 1980, when the Graystone – now neglected and crumbling – was demolished.