REST IN PEACE

Ken Hoffman celebrates the life of one of pro wrestling's iconic figures

Photo via: Wiki Commons.

I met James Arthur Harris a pretty long time ago, it had to be before 2001, because I was at the gate waiting for his flight from New Orleans to land. I was supposed to pick him up, drive him to the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza on Loop 610, wait for him to change into his work clothes, and get him to the George R. Brown before 3 p.m.

I had never met him, but it would be easy to pick him out in the line of passengers filing off the plane. He'd be the big guy, 6 ft. 7 and weighing more than 400 pounds. Because our schedule was tight, I was hoping he wasn't already in his work clothes. You'll understand why.

When Harris worked, he wore a leopard loin cloth, bare feet, bright painted stars and moons on his huge pot belly, and white face paint under his scary witch doctor mask. He also carried a spear and shield.

James Harris, who died this week at age 70 from COVID-19 complications, performed in wrestling rings around the world as Kamala the Ugandan Giant. Or Kamala the Ugandan Head Hunter. This day, he came to Houston to sign autographs at TriStar Sports memorabilia shows.

"Kamala was a huge draw to our shows in the '90s. His character was mysterious and intriguing. Fans lined up to get his autograph and pose for photos with him. He was one of our biggest draws," said Tristar senior vice president Bobby Mintz.

I checked Harris into the Crowne Plaza and waited in the lobby while he went upstairs to take off his shoes and socks, paint stars and moons on his belly … and become Kamala the uncivilized cannibal from the jungles of deepest Africa.

You couldn't get away with this stereotyped character today. But this was then, and Kamala was one of the hottest performers in the wrestling world.

You should have seen the looks on people's faces when the elevator door opened, and out came Kamala, in full ring regalia. We got into my car and made it to the George R. Brown in time for his autograph session. The line already was 100 wrestling fans deep. I sat next to Kamala for three hours, muttering grunts and nonsense sounds because, of course, Kamala did not speak English.

James Harris was born and died in Mississippi. He broke into pro wrestling in 1978 under the name Sugar Bear Harris. He also wrestled as Ugly Bear Harris, The Mississippi Mauler and Bad News Harris.

It was Jerry Lawler, owner of Memphis independent wrestling scene in the early '80s, who gave Harris his new gimmick and name Kamala. He would be billed as Kamala the Ugandan Giant, former bodyguard to the brutal dictator Idi Amin. Lawler picked the name Kamala after the capital of Uganda. Actually, the capital of Uganda is Kampala. It doesn't matter.

Kamala was money, as they say, he put butts in seats. He used a devastating karate chop to opponents' heads and pinned them, 1-2-3. Soon he was hired by Mid-South Wrestling, where the circuit included the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston. In 1986, he became a main event wrestler for the WWE and headlined shows against Hulk Hogan coast-to-coast.

As we sat at the autograph show, one of my jobs was to assure young fans that Kamala was really a nice person, so don't be scared.

That night, I threw my one and only dinner party. I invited about 20 people to meet Kamala. I prepared a casual buffet, the main course was lasagna. I had two large trays, one with vegetable lasagna, one with sausage and ground beef.

The guests showed up, and Kamala posed for photos and signed autographs. He let my friends wear his witch doctor mask. He hoisted some of the guests and pretended he was body slamming them for their photos. He was the most gracious and gentle giant you could imagine. Until …

I was taking the lasagna trays out of the oven. I brought Kamala into the kitchen so he could eat first, and return to mingle with the guests. I asked him, which would you like, vegetable or meat lasagna? He said meat, and picked up the entire tray, sat at the kitchen table and ate the whole thing. I told the other guests, eat lots of garlic bread.

Kamala retired from wrestling full-time around 2000. He bought a truck and hauled gravel, asphalt and dirt from Mississippi across the southern U.S. If he knew a town had an independent wrestling show, he'd re-route his route so he could pick up extra money dusting off his Kamala persona for one night. That's how he made an appearance at the Texas All-Star Wrestling show in Humble in 2003.

Kamala fell into bad health with diabetes and high blood pressure. He had both legs amputated. Despite headlining wrestling shows around the world, Kamala never earned much money. In his later years, he made wood chairs near his home in Oxford, Mississippi. He also recorded an album, Kamala's Greatest Hits: Vol. 1, and wrote his autobiography, Kamala Speaks.

After the dinner party, which did not make Maxine Mesinger's society column in the Chronicle, something I'm still bitter about, I drove Kamala back to the Crowne Plaza. I told him, be in the lobby at 9 a.m., we'll get breakfast on our way to the airport. I asked him, what would you like for breakfast. Pancakes? Bacon and eggs? Fruit?

He said, and I'll never forget this, "When it comes to food, I isn't choicy."

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
Let him cook! Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets are in the midst of a rebuild. Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr are studs. KPJ just signed a four-year extension with the team. Other guys like Jabari Smith Jr, Kenyon Martin Jr, Alperen Sengun, Josh Christopher, Tari Eason, and Jae'Sean Tate are really good pieces to surround Green and KPJ with. The only issue with this group: they're REALLY young! Tate is the elder statesman at 27 of the young nucleus. Most are barely old enough to buy a drink. Some still aren't old enough! They're a bunch of green bananas waiting to turn yellow to slightly brown and be ripe enough for consumption.

We need to give it time. Just like bananas, they take time to ripen. Coach Stephen Silas is known for developing young players. His most prized student is the star player for that team in South Oklahoma up 45. Number 77 for that team credited Silas with helping him realize his All-Pro potential while Silas was a part of the coaching staff there. To a man, all his former players credit him with being a positive influence on their careers. So why are fans in a rush to get rid of him?

When you look at the Rockets' record over the last few years, it's gross. Sure, they've been a lottery team the last couple of seasons, but that was by design. As part of the Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook trades, they gave away pick swap rights. Had they not been that bad, they wouldn't have been able to draft Green or Smith Jr. Those two guys are building blocks for the future, along with KPJ. Giving those picks away would've put this team further down the totem pole of developing themselves into a contender. Losing pays off when you can hit on high lottery picks.

If you give a chef dirt, bread, ham, molded cheese, and spoiled mayo, can you expect anything else but a nasty ham sandwich? How about if the chef was given a steak that is almost rotten, potatoes with root growth, and spoiled butter? Could you expect a better meal than the sandwich? Yes! However, that meal may still cause a stomachache. Now, give said chef a full complement of gourmet groceries and guess what you'll get?

This is why I say let Silas cook. He's the perfect coach for this group of kids. He can teach them all the fundamentals of the game at this level and help them grow into their full potential. If there's a change to be made on the sidelines, move Silas into a front office role, but DO NOT get rid of him! Guys like him are too valuable. Why do you think Mark Cuban hated losing him, but knew he couldn't retain him because he had a head coach already? Cuban knew what he had in Silas and what Silas did for Luka Doncic. He can do something similar for the Rockets if given the time to work his magic.

Should Tilman Fertita find the need to move on, I'd look for a more experienced coach who can guide them from bottom of the playoff ladder into top four in the West and real contenders. For now, Silas is the head chef. Continue giving him the groceries he needs, and he'll continue giving these kids the lessons they need to develop. Changing the coach now could stunt their growth. Let him cook!

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome