Harrison Drake ‘23 recalled the day his coach made his dream come true: “Are you still wanting to be a part of the Mercer basketball team?”
“Hell yeah, Coach.”
Harrison Drake, a senior guard for Mercer’s men’s basketball team, has had a unique path to playing Division I ball. Drake was a walk-on in his third year at Mercer, earning a spot on the squad after working as a manager for the team during his freshman and sophomore years.
While his high school teams did not have great success, he was among the most prolific scorers for the three years he started on the varsity squad at Newnan High School. A newspaper in Drake’s hometown reflected on his “3-point shooting and tenacious style” of play, an asset that would serve him well later in his time at Mercer.
Out of high school, he said that he was ready to move on from playing basketball. He received offers from junior colleges and Division III schools, but none of them piqued his interest since he only wanted to attend two schools: Mercer or the University of Georgia. Drake’s grandfather was one of the reasons why he ultimately decided to attend Mercer, which ended up being a decision that would eventually lead to the opportunity to continue his basketball career.
In the fall of his freshman year, Drake had to choose between joining a fraternity or getting a job, so when he heard about the manager position on the basketball team, he chose the latter. After interviewing with a member of the coaching staff, he was given the job. As manager, he was tasked with helping out the team during workouts, rebounding for players during shootarounds and cleaning up after practice.
“I thought maybe if I liked it, I could try to work my way up to becoming on the team, but I just wanted to get a feel for how college basketball was and how the coaching staff was,” Drake said.
Before and after practice, Drake said he would take advantage of the court he was on and put up a few hundred shots so that he would stay sharp and not let his form fall over time. He was also given a chance to play one-on-one against a former NBA player, Gerald Fitch, who was for a period a graduate assistant for the Bears. Fitch launched his basketball career out of Westside High School, a local Bibb County school, and began his college career at the University of Kentucky in 2000. In his professional career, he played alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Payton with the Miami Heat, along with other Hall of Fame players.
“He used to kill me every day, I mean I would get my ass kicked every day by him and it was just part of it,” Drake said.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the beginning of the basketball season in his second year as manager, but he still worked out with some of the Mercer players who traveled to Macon to begin practicing over the summer. It was at that time that he decided he wanted to play for the school, and he sent a text to Greg Gary, the men’s basketball team’s head coach. He received no response. Since that day, Drake said he has never mentioned it to Gary nor has Gary brought it up with Drake.
Through the rest of his sophomore year, Drake continued to work as the manager for the team and bided his time, waiting to be noticed at the after-practice pickup games by the coaches who stayed to watch. Despite a full schedule, Drake said he never missed a practice or road trip. In the years when he was not an official player, he said there was rarely a professor who would give him a hard time for missing class for all of the scheduling conflicts there were between school and the basketball season.
Then came the summer before his junior year. Drake approached Gary in person, asking if he could be given a roster spot, but Gary gave him no definitive response. Then, around late September, Drake was cleaning up after practice when Gary approached him with the offer he had been waiting to receive for months.
“I was just so excited, it was crazy because my dream came true and I really appreciate Coach Gary for giving me that opportunity,” Drake said. “All I wanted was a chance.”
His first college bucket came when the team played Life University on his birthday, Nov. 16, in his junior year. He had three minutes of playing time and went one-for-one, scoring on a fastbreak with under a minute left. His first successful three-pointer came in a game at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) later on in the season, which was a game that featured many injuries for the Bears, allowing Drake to have more playing time than he had anticipated.
In his senior year, Drake was given a chance that he had only dreamt of to that point - after a strong performance at the end of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro game, he earned his first start in another game against VMI on Feb. 4. He set career highs in scoring with 11 points, three-point shots made with three in the game and played for a career-high 29 minutes, among other categories.
Being included in the starting lineup was something that he never thought was possible. He was given the black practice jersey, the uniform reserved for the first team instead of the gray kit he typically wore.
“Before the games, we come into the locker room and [Coach Gary] writes the starters’ names and who they’re guarding and matchups and stuff like that. I walk into the locker room and I see my name up on the board and my stomach just dropped,” Drake said. “It was a moment that I’m never going to forget.”
Following three more starts after the VMI game, he came off the bench for the Bears, but he said he doesn’t harbor any ill will toward his teammates or coaches for that. Instead, he said he is happy to support his team however he can. One way he has done that is to encourage Brayden Starks ‘26. Starks was given a chance to start later in the season and earned more and more minutes down the stretch because of how he reacted to getting more opportunities on the court.
When asked about his experience with the team, Drake had nothing but positive things to say about the times he spent with them. “It’s been great with the teammates and all the coaches, it’s been a lot of fun,” Drake said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything else.”