Height of the Matter
For future Kentucky Wildcat, Linnae Harper, toughness is her greatest strength.
by Kristen Harper / @CSNKrisHarper
It’s an early Tuesday morning in mid-summer, so the walk to the Colorado Springs, CO, training facility is scorching. Small beads of sweat began to form on Linnae Harper’s forehead. But these are not to be confused as signs of anxiety as she has made this walk before. For the second year in a row, the Chicago native joins Team USA to represent her country as they travel to Spain and Lithuania this summer. And although the McDonald’s All-American has racked up more than a few honors in her 18 years of life, there is one criticism she can’t seem to get away from.
As Harper walks through the doors of the air-conditioned arena, she immediately flashes back to an AAU game where she once again was judged. Walking through the halls with teammates of her Lady Fire squad, she catches the eyes of bystanders and moments later hear the quiet whispers critiquing her below-average stature. Putting on her headphones, she loses herself in the music. Zoning out to get focused for the game.
“I’ve been 5-6 all my life—well, since I was in third grade—but back then I was the tallest player and I was playing post. Then I started playing for the Lady Fire and I was a guard. So Mac [Irvin] always used me in different positions,” Harper said. “Then I started playing up when I was younger so I never really wanted to stick to one position because I feel like if you do then the team you are playing, when they scout you they will know, ‘Well Linnae, she does this or she does that but if you play multiple positions it will be hard for the opponent to guard you.’”
While Harper sits in a small space behind the opposing team’s bench—strapping up her ankle braces and lacing up her sneakers—she watches, absorbing the styles of her opponent. And as her eyes shift over to the stands, she notices her mother talking to a fan seated nearby. By the look on her mother’s face, Harper is certain as to what the conversation is about—the reoccurring theme of her athletic resume.
“It’s funny sometimes because when they see her they’ll say, ‘Oh she’s a little guard and y’know we will be happy to see her play in a guard position.’ But then when she steps on the court and she out-rebounds everyone, they are like, ‘Wow, really?’ And they always ask me, ‘How does she do that, how does she play like that, where did she get her jumping skills from,’ and of course I say me, but y’know it just has to be God-given,” said her mother Ericka Harper. “She is very strong and she is just determined so she puts all the critics to quietness when she gets on the court.”
And while her accomplishments have been phenomenal—2013 McDonald’s All-American selection, WBCA All-American, 2012 and 2013 USA Junior Olympic team member, 2013 Illinois Ms. Basketball nomination, a host of city championships, and a 4A state title—averaging 24.5 points, 3 steals, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, she still senses the need to further expand her skills.
As a youngster, Harper spent many-a-days on the inner-city blacktop playgrounds of Avalon Park surrounding her home. She and fellow All-American, Duke-bound guard Jabari Parker—top ranked prospect in the 2013 class—began playing the game just for kicks but upon reaching a stage as immense as this year’s McDonald’s All-American game in their hometown, made a tremendous impression on just how far they both had come.
“Well when I was younger I never would have thought me and him would make it this far. Because when we were younger the talent was different but we always used to joke around in practice and it really wasn’t that serious. But when we hit high school—he is at Simeon winning State and I’m at Whitney Young—it didn’t hit me until I was down there and we both had an interview together and it just hit me like wow we really did make it,” Harper said.
“I was really excited for it to just be in Chicago. We didn’t have to; I mean I didn’t have to go anywhere. And the day we had to be down there, we had to be down there at a certain time and I’m from Chicago and I was the last one to get there. I know it’s crazy but y’know just meeting everybody from different states, they got their different slang and different dances so I had fun with the guys and the girls.”
In just a few short months, Harper will be competing in one of the top conferences in the country. The SEC is full of women’s basketball powerhouses—Tennessee, LSU and Florida to name a few—but she is not shying away from this opportunity. Instead she continues to break down her game, finding weaknesses and the motivation to further develop her repertoire.
“People always ask me, ‘Well, your game is settled or you don’t need to do this or you don’t need to do that.’ But just for me, I always feel like I need to work on something and to get better at the next level. Right now I am working on my three pointer, three-point jump shot so then I can be a good shooter and expand my game,” Harper noted.
Come fall, the University of Kentucky-bound guard will be heading to Lexington to begin a new chapter in her life. But just a few months ago, Harper battled back-and-forth with making a final decision as to what direction her path would take her.
“In the beginning I always joked about the recruiting process. I didn’t think it was that serious. I was like I’m just going to pick a school and go there and it will be whatever. But eventually it got hard. You develop a relationship with the coaches and then when it gets down to calling the coaches and telling them you’re not going there, you get really nervous. I begged my mom to call and tell them but she wouldn’t do it,” Harper said with a slight giggle. “Kentucky was probably the best fit for me and not just because Janee [Thompson] was down there but with their style of play and it just felt right when I was down there.”
And although she had many offers from top Division I programs around the country, her decision on UK seemed to be more like fate, trumping how hard it had been to make the decision.
“It was hard for her to select,” Ericka said. “I’ll tell you a little thing that we did when we got down to the last five. She said, ‘I just don’t know, I just don’t know. So I said, Hey let’s just put all five names in a bag and you pull out a name and then we will shake it up and then I will pull out a name. And so I shook the bag up the first time and she pulled out her paper and it was Kentucky. Then we put Kentucky back in the bag, shook it up again, then I pulled and it was Kentucky again. So it was just amazing to me. I’m just happy for her.”
Harper will also be reunited with former high school teammate and All-American Janee Thompson. Their years at Young were outstanding, tearing up the backcourt and setting the tone for girls’ high school basketball in the city. As Thompson enters her second year at UK, Harper looks forward to the potential impact they will make together. With them knowing each other’s game so well and the ability to play off one another, this next season should be a treat for Wildcat fans.
“I think we will be really great in the backcourt for Kentucky because of the way Kentucky plays those 40 minutes of dread,” Harper exclaimed. “I think me and her can really make an impact next year and hopefully get them over the hump to the Final Four.”
Even with all the honors and achievements Harper has accumulated, there has been one aspect of her life that has fallen by the wayside. Growing up in a single parent household with only the support of her mother, she missed out on the experience of the coveted father-daughter relationship many little girls hold dear to their hearts. But instead of formulating excuses as to why this should deter her future aspirations, she found solace in other male figures that were in her life.
“It really didn’t affect me because I have people in my family that are strong and I have a good background. My coaches Mac Irvin, Harold Green and others have helped me along the way and they have always been there for me and have really been like my other fathers,” she said.
“It has definitely been a challenge,” said Ericka. “Everything that she needed—because I know that this is her passion and this is her life—I didn’t want her to go without having anything. So I sacrificed a lot of me…But it has all been worth it to see the success that she has today.”
And with that undeniable backing from her mother, Harper recognized the sacrifices her mother had to overcome making her a logical and most fitting choice as a role model.
“I would have to say my mom because she’s been there since I was born and she sacrificed a lot to come to my games and she’s always there. So she is my role model,” Harper said smiling proudly, looking toward her mother.
“I just want her to be successful in her passion. I want her to fulfill every dream that she has ever dreamt or desired. If she wants to play professionally, if she wants her own shoe line, that would be great. I know she would like that—her own shoe line,” her mother said, sharing a laugh with her daughter. “Whatever dreams and visions that she has I will support her all the way. I just want her to be happy and successful and fulfill all her dreams.”
The key to success lies in the desire of one’s soul, knowing what you are capable of and pushing past the mental barrier of fear. But an even greater variable is remaining modest, not allowing triumphs to trump future possibilities. This knowledge is something Harper wishes to pass on to those coming after her.
“First probably to stay humble. In this generation in our day and age, it’s not really that good to brag about it. Of course it’s good to let people know what you’re good at but not to always brag about it,” she continued. “Just stay committed to what you want to do and if you love something, just sacrifice and do whatever it is you have to do and you will be successful.”
And in the midst of the preparation to guide her team to success as they battle in Spain and Lithuania, Harper is keen on continuing to prove her doubters wrong, for she knows her legacy is ever growing. Her passion is rooted deep within. Fear has no home here. Height is a handicap she needs not to apply for. Her desire to win is akin to that scorching heat as she walked into the Colorado Springs training facility—a feeling that won’t let up until she opens the doors.
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