Two families keep Leather grounded

He holds his mother, girlfriend and 1-year-old daughter dear, and he's also close to his USF coaches.

Published March 9, 2005

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - When he came to South Florida five years ago, Terrence Leather's life was marked by sadness and loss.

As his college career comes to a close, the 6-foot-9 senior finds himself still shaped by tragedy but lifted by the new additions in his life. That balance has helped him grow into a dominating player who has embraced the same maturity off the court.

When the final seconds ticked away in USF's 85-73 upset of No. 18 Charlotte, Leather took the ball and flung it high toward the Sun Dome roof, a gesture of unbridled joy.

In the stands, his mother saw it as a nod to his father, George O'Neal, who was shot and killed when Leather was 2, and his sister Elizabeth, who was stabbed to death outside the family's Tampa apartment in 2000.

"It was such a great moment, the way he wanted to almost touch the ceiling," Martha Leathers said. "I know he thought of them, that he had them in his heart."

For Leather, the way the game ended was as special as the way it began, with family members joining him on the court as he was honored before his final home game. When his girlfriend of five years, Markerely Harris, brought him their 1-year-old daughter, Terren, Leather held her closely and proudly, already beaming before the upset had begun.

"It's changed me a lot," Leather said of fatherhood. "It's made me see a whole new perspective on life. I'm not just looking out for myself now. My decisions, everything I do, it affects them as well."

Leather and Harris, who have been together since their senior year at Tampa Robinson High, are expecting their second child, also a girl, and her due date is a special one for Leather: April 9, Elizabeth's birthday. It's symbolic of his life, which has him leaning both on the family he grew up with and the one he's building himself.

Harris is his closest confidant, his best adviser, someone he loves for sitting up with him talking about a tough loss until 6 a.m., even when she has to leave at 8 to get to her job at an Ybor City day care.

"Through all my ups and downs, my good games, my bad games, she's always there," said Leather, who was named to Conference USA's second team after leading the Bulls (12-15) in scoring and rebounding.

The youngest of nine children, he found basketball as an outlet growing up; an avenue to a better life. When Seth Greenberg offered him a scholarship during a home visit, the former Bulls coach was struck by how much it could help Leather and his family.

"Before I even got to my car, I called my wife, and I told her I felt as good offering this kid a scholarship as I ever had," said Greenberg, now coach at Virginia Tech. "You knew that if it worked out, he could really change things."

Leather's early years at USF were marked by outbursts and disagreements with coaches. He even walked off the bench in one instance, and friends questioned Greenberg's commitment to a promising but challenging player.

"A hundred times, people asked me, "Why are you putting up with it?' but inside, I knew Terrence had a great heart," said Greenberg, who got a call from Leather in August, the day he graduated from USF with a degree in speech communication. "Very few people have walked in his shoes or seen the tragedy he's seen. To see him now, I'm just so proud of him."

Leather is still fiery on the court, reacting to officials' calls with a look of bewildered shock normally associated with sniffing month-old milk. He has been suspended from one game in each of the past two seasons, but said a major part of his maturation, on and off the court, has been the discipline and influence of second-year coach Robert McCullum.

"He is the father I never had," Leather said. "Off the court, he's the best thing that's ever happened to me. We've talked about so many things, about being a father, about how to carry yourself as a young man. I respect him so much for that."

McCullum said his relationship with Leather isn't unique among coaches and athletes, but reminds him of the most important aspects of being a teacher.

"There's never going to be a situation where he agrees with everything I say, and the same is true with your own kids," McCullum said. "And when you grow up without a father, as I did, as Terrence has, that allowed us to relate to each other a little closer. Kids need mentors, and that's a part of my job that I feel there's a strong need for."

Family remains Leather's inspiration, though now in more ways than when he first wore the green and gold. If the Bulls' season and Leather's college career end tonight in the C-USA tournament against Houston, his postgame routine will be the same. He'll call his mother and tell her about the game, then call home for a lift from the two other women in his life.

"To see Terren after a game always brings a smile to his face, but sometimes, just to hear her voice over the telephone, it puts the joy back in his spirit," Harris said. "He's such a great dad, in the love and the attention he gives to her. She's changed a lot in him, too, and there's a tremendous maturity to him now."