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Harper recalls change from scorer to role-playing winner

Five-time NBA champ sees Cavs' Love struggle with new role

POSTED: Feb 25, 2015 10:26 AM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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A scorer early in his NBA career, Ron Harper adjusted his game to fit in with championship winners in Chicago and L.A.

The example on the tip of his tongue is Kevin Love, the three-time All-Star power forward who has been frustrated by his opening season in Cleveland. Love has been winning like never before, and yet it's as if his five-year low of 16.8 points per game has isolated him from the Cavaliers' success -- as if he is feeling left out.

Ron Harper, winner of five NBA championships, is sympathetic.

"I'm sure he's taking a lot of heat from his friends," says Harper, freezing up occasionally in the ongoing struggle to get out his words. "And from his family, probably. A lot of my friends used to tell me, 'Man, you're only getting six shots a game.' But six shots is enough. You can't sit there and pout.

"They can be a great team with Kevin. Kevin Love can make the team go. He can do a variety of things, he's versatile. What he has to do is tune out the outside and figure out what he wants to do. If Kevin Love with the Cavaliers is winning the championship, he would see he's having more fun doing that than just scoring. Scoring points is not the best."

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The story of Harper, 51, who retired in 2001, is especially relevant now that the All-Star weekend and trade deadline have receded. This is his favorite time of year, when the 10 or more teams in contention for the championship are all supposed to be focusing on the most important games to come.

But priorities are hard to change, which is why Love and others like him may find hope in the true fable of Ron Harper. Over the first nine years of his career, Harper averaged 19.3 points with the Cavaliers and Clippers, even as he overcame ACL surgery in 1990 that was primitive by today's standards.

"The first doctor," he recalls, "said I would never play basketball again."

So Harper found himself another doctor. He had been averaging 22.8 points before the surgery, and he was scoring 19.6 points immediately after his midseason comeback. And still he was unhappy.

"You work out every offseason, you're training your butt off to prepare for a great year, and you lose," he says, even as his eyes blink fast and his mouth draws tight; it freezes him like the briefest lapse of electrical power, and then he's back to talking as if all is good. "After a while that just stinks."

Harper, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, decided he was going to stop losing and start winning. In his 30s he averaged 7.6 points over his final seven seasons with the Bulls and Lakers. He won championships in all but two of them.

"In my early days I could score with anybody, I felt," he says, his mouth backfiring momentarily. "But I want to win."

He continues to celebrate all these years later. Even now, Harper speaks of his championships in the present tense, as if they were won a week or two ago. Their meaning doesn't fade.

Every player in contention today is going to be faced with choices, and the importance of those choices will continue to grow as the players reach Harper's age and they look back to see what they made of themselves. To focus on scoring points -- as Harper can see now -- is as shallow as worrying about how you look in the mirror. It's as meaningless as focusing on what strangers may think of you; as senseless as caring about the way you happen to speak.

The alternative is to be happier. Those who focus on the needs of the team are zeroing in on who they are and who they want to be, and never mind the second guessing of anyone else. It yields a kind of freedom and serenity that the stats-minded can never know.

"You're growing up as a young kid, you're watching Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson chase that NBA championship, and that becomes a dream of yours," he says, pushing himself through to the end of the sentence with a smile that overwhelms his stutter. "It was a dream I always had."

Stuttering held Harper back for much of his early life in Ohio.

He was the youngest (along with his twin brother) and neediest of Gloretha Harper's six children. A single mother, she worked the assembly line at a General Motors plant near Dayton. She had played basketball in high school and her support endowed Harper with a sense of independence. He was forced to figure things out for himself while relying on his mother, his best friend, for guidance. "She passed last August," he says, smiling hard to fend off pity. "She was my rock."

His shyness stunted his education. One doctor suggested tongue surgery. After failing to play varsity basketball as a freshman or sophomore, he transferred to Kiser High School in Dayton, which, in 2006, would rename its gym for Harper.

"When I was a young kid going to school, people were making fun and laughing at me," he says. "When we stepped on the football field, the baseball field or the basketball court, I laughed at them back."

The values that encouraged him to invest in his athletic talent would also enable him to express himself. These days he speaks of returning to Miami (Ohio), which enrolled him in a speech therapy program while he became the school's all-time leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker. "If you slow down, it comes out really smooth," he says. "The problem is you try to get stuff out too fast and that's when you have a hard time doing it."

Michael Jordan Ron Harper
Ron Harper won three titles with Michael Jordan.

Over his last two years at Miami, before he went No. 8 overall in the 1986 draft to the Cavaliers, he was helping youngsters overcome their own learning disabilities. Harper was beginning to choose his own priorities, and when he decided right from wrong then good luck to anyone trying to convince him otherwise.

"It made me stronger," he says. "It made me deal with more than most kids do. Till this day I've had young kids come and talk to me about their stuttering, and how did you do it? I just tell them that everybody ain't the same. It's just who I am. I'm not going to go hide. I'm not ashamed. People laugh all the time. It doesn't bother me. Because you know who you are. So you can't worry about what everybody else thinks about you.

"Listen, I'm proud of it. Very proud of it."

His first season in Chicago, in 1994-95, when Michael Jordan was in the second year of his leave to play minor league baseball, was hard on Harper. His minutes were slashed in half and his scoring plummeted from 20.1 points (with the Clippers in 1993-94) to 6.9 as a 31 year old with the Bulls. Harper had been having a hard time with the role laid out for him by coach Phil Jackson when Jordan made his dramatic return to the Bulls for the end of that season.

"I struggled sitting on the end of the bench," Harper said. "Phil told me, 'Keep your head up, you'll get your chance.' When we got to the playoffs and we played Penny Hardaway, a big guard (for the Orlando Magic), Phil said, 'You're going to start. I want you to guard Penny Hardaway.' I'm the 11th man on the bench. He said, 'Next season I see us going with big guards: you, Scottie (Pippen) and MJ. This is your chance to show me that you can play point guard.'

"I hadn't played point guard since high school. Scottie was primarily the guy with the ball; but when we had our set pieces, I would get the ball. Even though we lost that year, it made us a stronger team because we knew what to expect the next year. So it made me stay in Chicago that offseason, and I worked extremely hard."

All of his struggles would make the rewards feel more valuable. The last three years of Jordan's career in Chicago were the ultimate.

"Every drill we did, every practice we had, we competed," Harper said. "It was two on two, three on two, four on five, one on one. We didn't waste time on drills where we didn't compete. We wanted to compete every day, and you couldn't wait to compete against the other team. We knew we could beat them down because of our desire to compete."

When Harper won his first championship in 1996, he could not explain how he felt.

"It's indescribable,'' he says. "We won at home and it was the most unbelievable feeling in the world. I was seeing a piece on TV about Detroit, when they were the Bad Boys, when Isiah (Thomas) won his first championship, and he said: 'You are the best in the world. Nobody is better than you.' It was great to share with my daughter, with my Mom, my fans. Chicago was the greatest place to play. I can go back there now when people still know you and take care of you and love to sit down and talk with you. It's one of the greatest things in the world."

The scoring averages do not reveal Harper's importance as a defender, a playmaker and a reliable teammate in the biggest games of his life. He can see what it meant more clearly now than he could at the time.

"When you're playing, you don't really get a clear concept -- you don't really understand it," he says. "Because you are trying to get the next one. When I got my first championship, MJ was staring at me and he said, 'OK, I've got four. And next year we're going to get five. In the following year were going to get six.' And I'm like, let's do it. So you kind of enjoy it that you want to get more. It's okay to win one, but I want to win more.

"He taught me that one is not good enough. He said, 'I want one more than Magic Johnson had.' I said Magic's got five. He said, 'Next year I'm going to have five.' I said, I'm down for the journey. I'm down for it."

The Bulls broke up after Harper helped Jordan win his final three championships in Chicago. When Jackson moved to the Lakers in 1999-2000, Harper was invited to join him in Los Angeles for two more NBA titles.

"I can truly say on that Chicago Bulls team, everybody was very happy, all 15 guys," Harper says. "All the guys came to work hard every day, practiced hard, enjoyed it just as much as MJ, Scottie and myself. They were part of something special, part of something great.

"But when we won the championship in LA, some guys were still unhappy about their playing time. How can you be unhappy about that? I just realized that some people put themselves first. It's a team sport and you work hard every day to enjoy it. Some people don't get this. People don't understand that when the opportunity comes, you have to take advantage because you don't ever know when it is going to come around again.''

Looking at the current championship race against the backdrop of his own career, Harper can see the players of every generation having to learn the same lessons for themselves over and over again.

"If you go back to all the NBA championships, you show me one team that won by shooting the ball from the outside -- instead of playing from the inside to the outside," he says. "If you are shooting the ball from the outside for over 100 games, you are going to get tired. You get fatigued. It happens. Golden State, they're off to a great start, a wonderful start. But I want to see them at the end of June, taking the same shots."

He doubts whether the Warriors and the Hawks -- currently the No. 1 seeds -- will survive.

"Most teams don't know who the Hawks are yet,'' he says. "When you have a chance to study a team, then you will figure that team out. The 82-game season don't mean nothing. It all starts when the playoffs start."

The teams he will be following over these next few meaningful months will be the Spurs and the Bulls, with their big experienced front line. Harper also believes the Cavaliers will have a chance. They have a power forward with an all-around game, he says. And when Love figures it out? It will be as if everything has slowed down, the impediments and the glitches and the stats will be robbed of their power, and he will discover the best kind of upside in pro basketball.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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