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Harping about Harper
by rick olivares
I first read about Ron Harper in the back pages of an old issue of Sports Illustrated. In the article, the writer quoted jokes cracked at the expense of his college, Miami College of Ohio, that should not be confused with the real (University of) Miami that featured Vinny Testaverde at quarterback in 1986; the year Harper graduated from college.
What the writer raved about though was the 6’6” Harper’s game. He was a certified scorer and he was touted to light up the NBA.
So I kept track of Harper when he was drafted eighth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 1986 NBA Draft.
Remember this was a time when there was no ready access to information so you have to wait and do proper research.
What became obvious in that season (that was won by the Los Angeles Lakers) was how Cleveland, as coached by the great Lenny Wilkens, had shrewdly built themselves a very good basketball team. Their rookies that year – Brad Daugherty (#1 overall), Harper (#8), Mark Price (drafted #25 by Dallas then traded to Cleveland), Johnny Newman (#29), and John ‘Hot Rod’ Williams (who was actually selected #45 overall the previous year but wasn’t able to play because of legal concerns).
That team finished 31-51 that year but they had potential. Daugherty, Harper and Williams were all named to the Rookie First Team.
The following season, Larry Nance joined the team at the power forward position and the team took off.
That 1987-88 season, Harper began to be referred to as ‘a poor man’s Michael Jordan’. He did stand 6’6” and scored and dunked a lot. Plus, he did guard the Chicago Bulls’ main man.
That team made some real news when Magic Johnson pronounced them as the team of the 90s.
Unfortunately, they were sank by Michael Jordan’s double clutch hanging jumper over Craig Ehlo in the playoffs.
When Harper was traded to the LA Clippers in 1989, I felt bad. What had he done to be exiled to what was for the longest time, the NBA’s version of purgatory, Siberia and the Gulag all rolled into one? Harper suffered the curse of being in Clipperland as he injured his knee robbing him of his speed and athleticism.
The Cavs in the meantime would do well in the regular season only to be eliminated in the playoffs by that assassin, Jordan.
When he signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bulls in 1994, it was like being served a banana split without the cream and the cherry at the top for Michael Jordan had retired.
Two years later, Harper reinvented himself as a defensive specialist who provided occasional scoring and quarterbacking. And in time for Jordan’s first full season since his comeback. Jordan and ‘the poor man’s Michael Jordan’ in one team. And there was Scottie Pippen too. Adding Dennis Rodman to the mix and they flat killed everyone en route to a 72-10 season.
When the opportunity arose to interview Harper (I have been mostly in seclusion as I am finishing a book), I leapt at the chance for a break. I lost my book, ‘Bulls’ that 1997 coffeetable book by Mark Vancil that featured portraits on the team, during Typhoon Ondoy. If I had that, I would have asked Harper to sign his page. The only thing I had left were those Fleer Trading Cards from the 1990s. So I fished them out.
In a brief conversation with Harper yesterday at the SM Megamall Activity Center, I asked him two questions – about that Cavs team that was unable to fulfill its promise and the mythical Breakfast Club.
Rick: That Cleveland team of yours was pronounced to be ‘the team of the 90s’ by no less than Magic Johnson. What happened to that team?
Ron: “My Cleveland team? We were a great young basketball team. We had Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Hot Rod Williams, myself, Larry Nance… we did not have enough time to stay together I think. If we had a couple of more years together we would have turned out to be a really good team.
Here are the stats of that Cleveland team that Ron Harper played with:
1986-87 season: 31-51 sixth in the Central Division (1-5 to the Bulls in the regular season)
1987-88 season: 42-40 fifth in the Central Division (3-3 to the Bulls in the regular season then lost the first round of the playoffs to the Bulls 3-2)
1988-89 season: 57-25 second in the Central Division (6-0 to the Bulls in the regular season then lost the first round of the playoffs to the Bulls 3-2)
My take: The Sacramento Kings from 1999-2005 were an entertaining and fun bunch to watch. But somehow they never got past the LA Lakers that had the heir to Michael Jordan in Kobe Bryant with Ron Harper as the starting point guard for two years. That team reminded me of Harper’s Cavs teams as one of unfulfilled promise.
Rick: The Breakfast Club? Myth of reality?
Ron: Reality. All day long. It was the greatest experience. With a guy like MJ, a guy like Scottie. It was the greatest experience. It took us an hour to train and an hour where he had this great chef. It helped us get better as basketball players.
The story: The Breakfast Club, in its nascent form, was Michael Jordan’s response to get past the Detroit Pistons. It was hatched by Jordan and then trainer Tim Grover and was initially a workout session between the two. Over the years, it expanded to include several of Jordan’s teammates.
Essentially, the members worked out for an hour (lifting, agility training, and conditioning) then had a chef prepare a carefully designed breakfast (that would last another hour) for them after which they would head over to the Berto Center, the Chicago Bulls’ facility, for the regular team practice.
The players on the Breakfast Club included Jordan, Ron Harper, Scottie Pippen, Randy Brown, and Charles Oakley (even if he was with the New York Knicks).
If I had time, here’s what I wanted to ask:
Was it hard reinventing yourself as a defensive player coming from a role as a scorer?
If that Bulls team was kept together for the 1998-99 season, do you think you could still defend the championship?
What was it like mentoring a young Kobe Bryant during your two years with the LA Lakers? Any anecdotes.
When Harper was asked his take on this recent MJ-versus-Kobe-LBJ talk, he made no bones about his choice – His Airness. And he wasn’t saying that to pander to Jordan but because of the King Bull’s strength physically and mentally (validating something I wrote last week).