His path to superstardom derailed by injury, Ron Harper reinvented his game and won five rings. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
SLAM: When you guys practiced, what was that like going up against Jordan?
RH: Me and him? When he started throwin’ that fadeaway shot at us, I said these guys are gonna have a hard time with him. Because I knew I was one of the top two or three defensive guards, if I couldn’t stop it, wasn’t nobody else could. I tell everybody, y’all saw the game days. That was the easy part. We’d play five-on-five, three-on-three, two-on-two. And we would compete as a basketball team like it was a real basketball game. Because MJ would talk so much shit. You can’t lose to him! I had to come in there and compete against him, because I knew he would embarrass me. When he came back, the first thing he told me is, “Come to my house.” I asked why. He said, “We gonna work out every day at 7 [a.m.].” I was at his house at 6:45. And the man, he was training harder than anybody that I ever saw. And that’s what made him better than all these guys.
SLAM: Were you disappointed with the way things ended there?
RH: We felt we had a good enough team to keep winning—I don’t think that the San Antonio Spurs would have gotten that Championship, no way. Because they wouldn’t have had to play against the New York Knicks, they would have had to play against that Chicago team. If we—the Bulls—had the same team, we woulda whooped San Antonio ass. I’ll tell it like it is. We woulda whooped their ass in five. Maybe four, but I’ll say five.
SLAM: Did it get harder after that first Championship, then the second? Was the third the hardest of all?
RH: No. No, I’ll tell you why. We had guys who loved to be a part of a good basketball team, that came in and worked hard every day. And when we played any team, when we walked on the floor we were 10 points up. Because they knew we had the best basketball player of all time, we had the second best in Scottie, and we had Rodman, and he got in everybody’s head. Every time we played them home games, and other teams heard our theme song, they were scared. They already knew they was beat.
SLAM: You wound up following Phil Jackson to L.A. with the Lakers. So what was it like going from playing with Michael and Scottie to Kobe and Shaq?
RH: The first day that I got there, I saw Shaq take a defensive rebound, go behind his back, between his legs and slam on about four guys. Shaq’s a great basketball player, but he understands how the game is supposed to be played. He’s a great teammate, I loved being on his team. And then you have a young Kobe, who’s similar to a Michael Jordan. He may not be as strong as him, but he has the will and the deep fire. He comes into training camp and demonstrates that he’s ready to go right then.
SLAM: Did the guys on the Lakers approach practice the same way that the Bulls did?
RH: Mmmmm, no. No. No. No. We had some guys that would compete. We had some guys that really enjoyed being in Hollywood, enjoying the nightlife. When we was in Chicago, we always said when you leave your house and you look up and see those gray skies, it’s time to hoop. When you in the sunshine in Los Angeles and you ridin’ down the street and you’ve got palm trees and all the hot cars and all the hot girls, Whaaaaat, basketball? I don’t know!
But I had a great basketball team with the Lakers, and I had a great head coach who knew how to get me to be a part of that team. Me and Phil always had a thing. He said, “I’m not gonna call every damn play. You are the point guard, you know everything. You know the team, you know what guys’ strengths are, you make the call.” I told Shaquille, I said, I’m gonna come at you in the first quarter, I’m gonna come at you in the second quarter, I’m gonna come at you in the third. But I said, In the fourth, I’m gonna go over here, because this young kid could close out games. And he could make free throws. You could be mad at me, but I’m keepin’ it real. Phil is here to win Championships. This is why we’re here. We’re not here to be friends. We want to win Championships now.
SLAM: I guess being a Laker from ’99-on was a long ways from being a Clipper in ’89.
RH: That’s for sure. It’s definitely a long way, but I tell folks any time, if I’m goin’ into the Hall of Fame, I’m goin’ in as a Los Angeles Clipper.
SLAM: Really? I thought associating L.A. with where you got hurt…
RH: That’s OK. That’s part of the game. But they gave me a chance to prove to people that I could carry a whole team. I carried a team that wasn’t shit. [Laughs] A team that had Charles Smith, Ken Norman, Benoit Benjamin, Gary Grant and half a year with Danny Manning, and we could do work with any team in the League. I’m not tradin’ my red, white and blue for nobody. I love the Chicago Bulls, I love Phil, but my Los Angeles days? I love the Clippers.
SLAM: And who knows what happens if you don’t get hurt?
RH: Who cares about that? I don’t go back, like, If this didn’t happen… Listen: You make whatever you can. I had a great run.
SLAM: Did you have a favorite title?
RH: No. The ones I do love more are with the Chicago team because we played as a team, we loved being a team. Now that Laker team won Championships, but if you go back and ask them guys to speak truthfully, ask ’em if they had fun. And I’m gonna leave it at that.