Original publish date: March 19 2017
Detroit 7’0″ high school phenom Reggie Harding had a brief, but hauntingly promising, stint with our Pacers fifty years ago during the team’s first season in the upstart ABA. He had recently been cut loose by the Chicago Bulls after just 14 games into that milestone season of 1967-68. Harding had been the first player in the history of pro basketball to sign a contract as a high school player. He was selected by the Detroit Pistons and played parts of four seasons in the NBA. He lasted only 25 games with the Pacers; his career was over by the age of 26. He became legendary for his “world’s dumbest criminals” style antics off the court that began well before he left high school.
Here was a man who drew guns on teammates, became addicted to heroin and repeatedly robbed stores in his own neighborhood thinking no-one would ever finger him for the crimes despite being the only 7-foot tall black man in the area. He paid for his crimes with a bullet in the head fired by a man he believed was his friend and he died at the age of 30 on a trash strewn street in the Motor City on September 2, 1972. Although Reggie’s exploits are viewed somewhat comically after all these years, mainly because no one got hurt, there was at least one incident pinned on Reggie Harding that is sad and damaging in the worst way.
In 1960 Reggie Harding was a prep star for Eastern High School. The were in the second of four consecutive Detroit Public School League men’s basketball season titles from 1959-62. Reggie averaged 31 points and 20 rebounds per game while shooting an astounding 60 percent from the field for the Indians. He would earn first team high school All-American status by Parade Magaine that year. However, those sparkling hoops credentials weren’t enough to hide the tarnished image Reggie carried around with him.
While a Sophomore, Reggie had been arrested in upstate Michigan in the summer of 1959 for stealing a truck and was sentenced to probation. Reggie’s size (He was 6′ 11″ as a Freshman) taught him that he could intimidate adults on the streets, let alone kids in hall. If Reggie wanted your lunch money, or your car keys, Reggie got ’em. He didn’t even need a weapon. His most oft used tactic was to simply grab his prey by the shoulders and lift them several inches off the ground.
In 1960, when Reggie was eighteen, he was arrested for the charge of having “carnal knowledge” of a minor in Detroit. According to court records, the victim was a 15-year-old named Jean. During his trial for statutory rape, Harding admitted to the encounter but claimed in was a consensual act. At the time, Reggie Harding was ranked as the best prep player in the state and he was acquitted. That same year, Reggie allegedly raped a 17-year-old Detroit girl named Florence Glenda Chapman, better known as Flo Ballard of the Motown super-group The Supremes.
In 1958, Florence Ballard was a junior high school student living in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit. There she met future singing partner Mary Wilson during a middle-school talent show and they became friends. Named “Blondie” and “Flo” by family and friends, Ballard attended Northeastern High School. Wilson soon enlisted another neighbor, Diana Ross, then going by “Diane” for their group named “The Primettes”. The group performed at talent showcases and at school parties before auditioning for Motown Records in 1960. Berry Gordy, head of Motown, felt the girls were too young and inexperienced and encouraged them to return after they graduated from high school. Flo dropped out of high school while her group-mates graduated.
In the summer of 1960, just weeks after meeting Berry Gordy, Flo went to a sock hop at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom. She had attended with her brother Billy, but they accidentally lost track of each other in the crowded dance hall. She began to walk home in the dark but accepted a ride home from a young man whom she thought she recognized from the newspapers, a local high-school basketball player. According to her friends and family, that man was Reggie Harding. Instead of being driven home, Ballard was taken north of Detroit to an empty parking lot off Woodward Ave and Cantfield Blvd where Reggie raped her at knife point.
For the next several weeks, Ballard secluded herself in her room, away from friends and family. She even hid from her bewildered band mates when they came to call. Eventually, Ballard told Wilson and Ross what happened to her. Although the girls were sympathetic, they were puzzled by Ballard’s subsequent behavior; she had always been strong and resilient, but now her personality had changed. Wilson described her friend Flo as a “generally happy if somewhat mischievous and sassy teenager.” Now she was sullen and withdrawn, prone to sudden rages and arguments with no explanation. One thing didn’t change for Flo though, she never mentioned the rape again.
The girls continued working after the assault with Florence as the group’s original lead vocalist and Diana and Mary singing lead on alternating songs. Despite Berry Gordy’s reluctance to work with underage girls and admonition to come back after their high school graduation, the group persisted on getting signed to Motown by sitting on the steps of Motown’s Hitsville USA building and flirting with Motown’s male artists & staffers as they came and went. When a staff producer would come outside looking for people to provide background vocals or hand-claps, the girls were the first to volunteer. In January 1961, Gordy agreed to sign The Primettes on the condition they change their name. Flo Ballard chose the name “The Supremes”. Gordy agreed to sign them under that new name on January 15, 1961.
The group struggled in their early years with the label, releasing eight singles that failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100, giving them the nickname the “no-hit Supremes”. During this period, they provided background vocals for established Motown acts such as Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. In the spring of 1964, the group released “Where Did Our Love Go”, which became their first number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100, paving the way for ten number-one hits recorded by Ross, Ballard and Wilson between 1964 and 1967.
According to Mary, Florence’s vocals were so loud that she was made to stand seventeen feet away from her microphone during recording sessions. Florence’s voice (which went up three octaves) was often described as “soulful, big, rich and commanding,” ranging from deep contralto to operatic soprano. Flo was known for her trademark onstage candor (which included telling jokes), she became popular with audiences & most of the jokes were in response to Diana Ross’ comments. As Flo’s jokes became more frequent, Miss Ross was not amused. Florence acknowledged the widening gap between the trio when she told an interviewer that she, Diana & Mary now had their own hotel rooms unlike in the past when they all shared one room. To combat these issues and silence those demons from her past, Florence turned to alcohol which resulted in constant arguments with Mary and Diana. Flo’s shot clock was winding down.
Eerily, Reggie Harding’s rise in pro basketball paralleled Flo Ballard’s rise in the music industry. Reggie was signing with the hometown Pistons at the same time Flo was signing with the hometown Motown records. By 1967-68 while Reggie was struggling with the Bulls, Flo was struggling with The Supremes. As Reggie missed practices and plane rides, Flo missed rehearsals and performances. By March of 1968, Reggie was out of pro basketball and Flo had left The Supremes. Both became addicts; Harding to heroin, Ballard to alcohol. By 1972 Harding was dead and Ballard was on a slow march towards an early grave.
Mary Wilson would later attribute Ballard’s self-destructive behavior to the rape by Reggie Harding when she was a teenager. Ballard’s adult personality had turned to cynicism, pessimism and fear or mistrust of others. After Harding’s murder vacated the headlines, newspapers revealed that former Supreme Flo Ballard, with three children and no career, had now applied for public welfare relief. As a member of The Supremes, Flo sang on sixteen top-40 singles (including ten number-one hit songs). In January of 1969, Florence performed at one of President Richard Nixon’s inaugural galas. Two years later, Flo’s home was foreclosed and she was an alcoholic. Florence Ballard died at 10:05 a.m. on February 22, 1976; her official cause of death, following years of alcoholism and mental stress, was coronary thrombosis aka: a heart attack. She was only 32 years old. Florence is buried in Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery located in Warren, Michigan. Florence Ballard’s grave is just a short walk from Reggie Harding’s, who is buried nearby.