Monday, July 2nd, 2012 at 2:14 pm  |  41 responses

No Regrets

His path to superstardom derailed by injury, Ron Harper reinvented his game and won five rings. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Originally published in SLAM 159

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.

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  • http://thahiphopcorner.com Kevin

    Wow. Great interview

  • Kadavour

    Too f*ckin real. this was GREAT Slam. just great.

  • http://slamonline.com 19821982

    Always liked Ron, thanks for the interview.

  • permaculture james

    Glad to see this article. Always wondered about him. Liked his game. Didn’t know about the blown out knee. Second kadavour.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7C0vd-L5lg Munky

    This is great stuff.

  • Wixurrs

    i remember thinking that the Bulls had a great substitution SG in Harper but that he would only get 5 minutes a game. I didn’t think he could run the point but he surprised everyone. The triangle worked well for him.

  • http://www.slamonline.com house

    DOPE interview, THANKS for this one, was a GREAT READ, have always been a big Harp fan!

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    So happy with this one. Shout out to WWW for the Ron connect and RB for killing it.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Redd

    Real nice interview, that was blatant and entertaining.

  • DS44

    The realness .

  • http://www.rich-imaging.com Dutch Rich

    Love Harp, great interview.

  • DJ ILLusive

    Hands down, my fave player from the 80s/90s. Not only was he a classy guy, but even despite the career changing knee injury, he swallowed his pride as the flashy, slashing scorer to become the savvy vet and defensive stopper on some very good championship teams. Props to my idol, Ronnie Harp.

  • http://slamonline.com The Philosopher

    SLAM is still… g.o.a.t.

  • MattB

    Harp was always one of my favorite players, and I got lucky enough to get his autograph once. People don’t remember that he had a speech impediment and Jordan used to tease him during interviews. I think my favorite Harper moment was when Patrick Ewing was dribbling and Harp just dove at him and took the ball out like he was tackling it. I’ve never seen anyone go after a steal like that.

  • http://Somethingsomething. Ugh

    Top notch interview.

  • http://www.nba.com Shadojoker

    Great read! Props to Russ!!

  • http://www.slamonline.com Double J

    You know I’m 23 and my first memories of basketball came from me loving the Chicago Bulls of 97 and 98, and the Lakeshow, but I will always remember hating on Ron Harper. Never liked the dude, but this article was tight.

  • Hobbes

    Too real. Da Bulls woulda sweep that 99 Spurs team!

  • http://slamonline.com Datkid

    DOPE interview. Wait Ron Harper could go into the Hall of fame?

  • K.a.

    I recall from fan comments ron n scottie tended to be jerks with fans. Still, great read, n while its not like ron had a lot of choices after his knee blew out, its still a big deal that he made good with opportunities. I remember kobe giving mad props for rons durability despite playing post injury (so u know hes a pro) n i like his comment abt early 00s not being a fun team. N his unselfishness really comes off as integral to both team success (as opposed to due to avoiding bigger responsibilities).

  • Ali

    Dope read! I remember at one point Ron was the only cat in The Association to slow down MJ. Those Cavs/Bulls match ups where classics! For about a 2 year span he was THE man in Cleveland.

  • jedi420

    Helluva player, great bball IQ and kept it honest in the interview, fantastic stuff!

  • Zabbah

    Keeping is real, Ron. Gotta hand it to ya.

  • http://www.twitter.com/_dfrance dfrance21

    Love how candid he was. “The Spurs? We woulda whooped their azz in 5, probably 4, but I’ll say 5″

  • T. Brown

    As a huge Bulls fan, I got love for Harper. He was a big part of that 2nd 3-peat… great interview. I wish more athletes kept it real like him.

  • Allenp

    Good questions and great responses. People rarely talk to Harper for his perspective and that has been a mistake.

  • http://getwisenyc.com Chris Wise

    This was an excellent read! Great stuff, SLAM

  • NickR

    Great stuff from Harp and great interview from RB

  • Greg

    Interview was tight and informative. Glad he gave props to my fav player of the 90′s: Mark Price.

  • pacmac

    First off much love to Harp, f you for the spurs comment “if ifs were a fifth we’d all have a SIP…” say word SHAQ booming on 4 in a stride had to be a a killer welcome to L.A., dope interview!

  • http://www.slamonline.com spit hot fiyah



    Really dope article. I miss seeing Ron play. I remember those Clipper teams. It was a nice solid squad they had.
    And I love how Ron doesn’t have want to “What if this..What if that?” his career. In the end, he got 5 rings and was a key factor in all of those championship teams. What more can you ask for?
    Way to keep it real Ron!

  • http://www.dimemag.com Showtime

    Ron harp = Tha realist.. great interview..haha he was like check my stats .

  • patrick

    Superstardom? excuse me, Rharper was never a superstar…

  • patrick

    Oh, “path to supertardom was derailed”..ok that’s fair..i have no idea if he would have been a superstar had he not had whatever injury…

  • http://www.twitter.com/gerardhimself Gerard Himself

    loved reading this, thanks

  • luv2ball

    Great article, people don’t remember the level of SG/SF talent in the NBA back then. People also don’t remember that Ron used to give MJ fits! MJ had to deal with Ron, Joe Dumars, Bernard King, Mitch Richmond,Reggie Miller ,Gerald Wilkins, Dominique,etc. SG used to be the deepest position in the league!

  • Jay

    Ron is one of my favorites. I met him in a mall in jersey. He’s approachable and will hold a conversation. Cool dude.

  • http://slamonline.com Mars

    Ron Ron was the truth. Humble as hell. Remember, for every MJ, Kobe, LeBron, KD, there are so many who step aside or remain nameless. Yeah 6’6 athletic guards are not new folks.

  • Ezi Kidd

    Nice Ron Ron !!!

  • ryan

    His last comment about asking the Lakers if they had fun winning championships is very interesting.