His path to superstardom derailed by injury, Ron Harper reinvented his game and won five rings. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
by Russ Bengtson | @russbengtson
In 1985, before Ron Harper’s senior season at Miami University of Ohio, the Dayton native wrote DEFENSE on one shoe and DUNK on the other because, as he explained to Sports Illustrated, “those are the things I do best.” Apparently so, as he did them both well enough—he averaged 24.4 points, 11.7 boards and over 2 blocks and 3 steals a game that season—to play himself into the ’86 Draft Lottery, where he went eighth overall to his hometown Cavaliers.
At the time, Harper was a 6-6 high-flyer who could create his own breaks by playing the passing lanes. Nike noticed, signing him up straight out of college and making him one of the faces of their new Flight campaign. That first season, he finished runner-up to Chuck Person for Rookie of the Year, and joined teammates Brad Daugherty and John “Hot Rod” Williams on the All-Rookie First-Team.
It didn’t last. Traded to the Clippers in ’89, Harper promptly blew out his knee and wouldn’t be the same player again. But while the DUNK part faded, DEFENSE came to the fore. When his deal with the Clips ran out, Harp signed with the then-Michael-Jordan-less Chicago Bulls, and through will and work, transformed himself into an indispensable player for Phil Jackson. (Phil loved big guards? No, he loved Ron Harper.)
After Chicago, Harp followed Jackson to Los Angeles, where he just kept winning titles. And along the way he influenced a young guard by the name of Kobe to start diversifying his game while he still had it all. “Oh, absolutely,” Bryant responds when asked whether Harper was a role model. “He made the most of what he had.”
SLAM: Growing up in Ohio, your high school numbers were crazy, but you didn’t really get recruited.
Ron Harper: See, the problem was I really didn’t play until my last two years of high school. I was kind of sheltered. But that’s OK, because it turned out good. One day I came home and told my mom, Mom, I really want to go to Arizona State. My momma said, “No. Miami of Ohio’s about 45 miles from the house.” And I said, Fine.
SLAM: And then the Cavs drafted you. Was that a dream come true?
RH: Well, sure. I can recall my third year of college, I call home, I tell my mom, I think I may go hardship. My mom says, “Hardship? Hardship, hell! You’re goin’ to school.” I said, But mom, we’re poor! She said, “No, we’re not. I work extremely hard. You’re not goin’ pro, you’re goin’ back to school.” So I stayed at school, and every team said, “If you come to New York [for the Draft], we’re going to take you.” I said, I’m gonna stay home, be around my mom. So I stayed home with her, and we get picked to the Cleveland Cavaliers around 4 in the afternoon—and I had a summer league game at 7 p.m. We played in front of a full house. They was like, “Man, you got picked in the NBA today!” I was like, Man, I don’t care. I’m gonna play.
SLAM: And when you joined the Cavs, you were joining guys who had the same background as you. You had so many rookies on that team—between you and Brad Daugherty and Mark Price, who you got in a Draft-day trade. Could you tell right away that he could do something?
RH: When I got Mark Price my first year, we had a guy named John Bagley, and John could damn hoop. But Mark was in that gym every day. When he got his chance, he just took over. I can recall a game, we played Detroit up in the Palace, he ate Isiah [Thomas’] ass up. Isiah was maaaaad! He almost tried to fight him. I told him, don’t get mad ’cause he’s lightin’ your ass up—Mark can play.
SLAM: The All-Rookie First-Team that year included you, Brad and Hot Rod Williams—plus Mark was coming on. Were you surprised that team didn’t stick together longer?
RH: Yes, that’s for sure. I always tell folks, we got beat by MJ on one bad shot, and next year they traded me.
SLAM: What do you think happened?
RH: Wayne [Embry, Cleveland’s then-GM] had his ideals, and I had mine. I was a young kid who came to play every night. You could see all my stats—I was in the top five in scoring, I was in the top-five rebounding guards, I was top-three in steals, I played more minutes than any first-year guy. Wayne said, “You need to go home and go to bed more.” I said, Well, if my stats show my being the same basketball player, what’s wrong?
SLAM: I think something people might not remember from those days is that you were in that Jordan mold.
RH: When I played against MJ, he always gave me my respect and I always gave him his. But he had the ultimate green light. I always had guys on my teams who were great, too. I had a Brad Daugherty, a Mark Price. I played with Hot Rod. So it’s not like I could shoot as much as him. I’m not saying if I did shoot as much as him what would have happened. I always told my teammates, MJ gonna score 32-35, and I’ll be within 10 points. So I need one of you guys to outscore his teammates.
SLAM: Things had changed a whole lot by the time you signed with the Bulls in ’94. You weren’t really the same player at all.
RH: The thing was, I was still able to be a smart guy who knew how to be a part of a team. My first year in Chicago, I had a hard time there. After my first year, me and Phil sat down, and he said, “How can you be a part of this basketball team?” I said, Well, I’ve got MJ here, I’ve got Scottie here, I’ve got Kukoc here. I’m not gonna get but five shots. If you trust me, I can play point guard. I can play defense. I can get us in all our plays. And you know what Phil said to me? He said, “If you had come in here and said to me you needed 10-12 shots and you needed to do all of this, I would have traded you.” I said, Naaaaah, I’m not goin’ nowhere. Shit, this team’s gonna be good!
SLAM: But you didn’t know that when you signed there, right? Mike was off playing baseball…
RH: I did know MJ was gonna return—MJ, he was there more than me! MJ, he came in about four days [a week] to hoop. I said, Man, you have to be comin’ back. “Nah, nah, Ron.” I said, Man, stop lyin’, man. And then he said he’s comin’ back. Then I was gettin’ no more time. And then in the Playoffs, we played Orlando, and we had BJ Armstrong and we had Steve Kerr. And Orlando had Penny Hardaway. Phil said to me, “You got Hardaway.” I was like, You can’t just go from not playing to guarding Penny. He’s like, “You got Hardaway, that’s all you need to know.” I said, All right, cool. So that’s how all that formed, me, MJ and Scottie.