The ‘Go-Getter’: Journey from a Detroit hospital to Rupp Arena

AJ Harris listens to his professor, Buck Ryan in his Journalism 101 class on Dec. 4, 2017 in Kincaid Auditorium on the University of Kentucky campus. As a freshman journalism major, JOU 101 is a prerequisite for most of the classes Harris will take during his time at UK.

Rick Childress

The little-known extra member of Coach John Calipari’s 2017 recruiting class sat staring down the first baseline in the Detroit Tigers stadium last summer, in his bat boy uniform.

“He’s going to college on Monday,” one of the TV announcers for the game said as the broadcast cameras zoomed in on the bat boy. “He’s going to Kentucky.”

AJ Harris, the 78-pound, 4-foot, 10-inch, soon-to-be member of the basketball team was not coming to be the new starting point guard. He was personally recruited from Detroit by Coach Calipari to be one of their freshman basketball managers and a journalism major at UK.

According to AJ, journalism is “the plan B.”

He hopes to be a coach, and he already has a good resume. He was his high school’s basketball manager, a Detroit Tigers bat boy for two years, referees in his intramural league and is getting good experience watching Calipari several times a week.

But he almost didn’t come. AJ’s long medical history, his dietary restrictions and his weaker immune system worried his mother who was apprehensive about letting him move five and half hours away to a place they’d never been before.

AJ has no single disease, his mother Andrea Harris said when trying to describe his symptoms. He has sometimes-debilitating asthma, an immune system that doesn’t remember past viruses, many allergies and has often had to miss 40-plus school days every year.

“There’s been several times where he’s had life-threatening situations. He’s been intubated on a breathing machine, a ventilator five or six times now,” Andrea said. “He’s had some very crazy things happen, but obviously God has continued to keep him, because he’s still here.”

His small stature, perhaps his most-visible symptom, has brought him great opportunities and some unfortunate interactions.

“They still think I’m this 13-year-old genius that’s going to UK,” AJ said of some of the people who see him around campus.

Haley Huesken, a freshman who said AJ is like a “brother.” Huesken said she met AJ when he ate with her and a mutual friend. AJ invited her to a basketball game, which she joked was a bit weird for someone she just met. She went anyways.

Huesken said it can be hard for him because many “assume that he’s younger or he shouldn’t be where he’s at.”

As he’s gotten older and gone to college, AJ said that more people have seen him as younger than he really is.

“I’ll say something and it will strike them and then they’ll ask, ‘How old are you?’” AJ said. “Then they’ll laugh it off, like ‘You know you’re joking.’ But I’m not. I’m really 18.”

Despite that, people close to AJ speak highly of him. His mother called him a “champ,” others have described him as a dedicated hard-worker but for Huesken he’s a great friend.

“He likes to tell people the truth,” Huesken said. “He likes to tell people about themselves.”

She described him as an observant person who’s not afraid to tell friends hard things. Huesken also said he’s dedicated to his dream.

“He talks about wanting to be just like Coach Cal, wanting to go into college basketball,” she said.

AJ first met Calipari when the coach was visiting his hospital in Detroit.

“You should tell him that you want to be a coach,” AJ said his nurse told him. The two got to talking and Calipari offered him a manager position. After months of preparations, like finding the right doctors and living arrangements, AJ was Kentucky-bound.

AJ said his relationship with the players is “funny—because I’m two feet shorter than all of them.”

“They joke with me about my height a lot,” AJ said. “It gets annoying at times, but I have to remind myself that they’re only playing. It’s more funny than anything. That’s my enjoyment for the day.”

AJ said that he tries to maintain a professional relationship with the players since they work together.

“Then again, it’s hard not to because I kind of like people when they’re not being mean and uptight. I like people,” AJ said. “So it’s easy for me to get close to people and I have to remember to keep my distance.”

Kyle Burns, another freshman basketball manager and a close friend of AJ’s, said the players “all respect him.” Burns and AJ spend most of their time working some practices and doing the team’s laundry. They’ll get to work at games and on the road as they get older, he said.

In early February, AJ got the flu and had to stay in the hospital for a few days. He went to class and practice hoping that his symptoms would subside so he could avoid a hospital visit. But, eventually he checked himself into the hospital.

His mother, Andrea, came down from Michigan to look after him.

Back home, Andrea said they come into the emergency room “loaded.” They pack bags of clothes, AJ’s video games and computer because they know the hospital stay will be long. They’ve done it several times.

“This is his life,” she said while looking over her sleeping son in his hospital bed and the PlayStation and computer that his roommate brought him. She said his professors were understanding about the work he would have to make up.

“His life has been very different,” Andrea said in an October interview. “He’s always handled it with a lot of class. Never been a cry baby—always been a champ.”

In the same interview, AJ called himself a “go-getter,” and recently adopted a new motto: “There’s nothing in this world I can’t have. I just might have to work a bit harder than someone else might.”