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From Superstar To Super Role Player: The Story Of Why Ron Harper Is Better Than You Remember

From Superstar To Super Role Player: The Story Of Why Ron Harper Is Better Than You Remember

Many people remember Ron Harper as the sidekick to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen during the Chicago Bulls' last three title runs.

But what if I told you at a point in the 80s, Harper was one of Jordan's biggest competitors. Some people even compared Harper to Jordan, including the former teammate of both players, Dennis Rodman.

“The quiet assassin on that team was that one guy, Ron Harper. Nobody talks about him. He probably could’ve been the best player ever if he didn’t have that knee injury. He was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan to me because he was good.”

That's some high praise, especially since Michael Jordan started in the NBA two years before Ron Harper, the point is valid.

Praise didn't always come to Harper so easily. In fact, at Belmont High School, which is located in Dayton, Ohio, Harper would get cut from his school's basketball team as a freshman.

As a sophomore, Harper didn't play, either. So, to think one day, he'd have a career in the NBA was pretty far-fetched.

But things would change for Harper, in more ways than one. Harper would transfer to another high school in Dayton, named Kiser High School.

This would be the first change in Harper's life. The second change is Harper would make the basketball team, and he'd play.

As a senior, Harper averaged 20.5 points, 13.4 rebounds, five assists, five steals, and an incredible six blocked shots per game!

Harper was named first-team All-Ohio, and rightfully so. He's beloved in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. In fact, his old high school, which has since been changed into an elementary school, gave the ultimate sign of respect to Ron Harper.

In 2006, the now Kiser elementary school named their gymnasium after him. That's pretty good for a guy who didn't play basketball in his first two years in high school, eh?

Yes, little Ronnie Harper was finding his rhythm on the basketball court by the time colleges came knocking.

Harper did go to college to play ball, and he decided to stay close to home by choosing Miami University of Ohio.

In his freshman year of college, his team didn't do so well. They finished with a 13–15 record. This wasn't because of Harper, though. No, he played well as a freshman.

Harper led his team in rebounding with 7.0 per game, and he averaged 12.9 points per game.

In his sophomore year, not only would Harper improve, so did his team. With a 24-6 record, Miami University of Ohio won the Mid-American Conference championship, the MAC tournament championship, and they earned a berth in the NCAA tournament.

Ron Harper led the team in scoring with 16.3 points per game and once again in rebounding with 7.6 per game.

His junior season saw his best improvement yet. Harper averaged 24.9 points, which is second all-time in school history.

Harper also averaged 10.7 rebounds, and 2.6 steals per game. These were all team highs.

Ron Harper's game soared to new heights, and it didn't go unnoticed. Harper was named MAC Player of the Year.

On this year, Miami University of Ohio, went 20–11. They finished second in the MAC tournament, and they earned another berth in the NCAA tournament.

As a senior, Harper led his team to a 24–7 record and a MAC title. Once again, Miami University of Ohio earned a berth in the NCAA tournament.

Ron Harper showed, as a senior, that he was ready for the NBA. He averaged 24.4 points, 11.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 3.3 steals per game.

Harper also set a few school and MAC records in the process. He set both a school and a MAC tournament single-game scoring record of 45 points in one game. The craziest fact about that game is he also had 18 rebounds!

Harper also became the first MAC player in history to record a triple-double with 38 points, 19 rebounds, and 12 assists in a game against Ball State University.

Once more, Ron Harper was named MAC Player of the Year, and he was also named to the second-team All-American by both the Associated Press and United Press International.

After finishing his college career as Miami University of Ohio's all-time leading scorer with 2,377 points, and leading rebounder with 1,119, Ron Harper was indeed ready for the NBA.

The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Ron Harper eighth in the 1986 NBA Draft. Harper stormed out of the gates as a rookie.

In just his sixth game, he scored 34 points in a game against the Sacramento Kings.

Harper would score as much as 40 points in a game against the Boston Celtics. He'd also have a 16 rebound game against the New York Knicks.

Harper was a solid rookie indeed. He averaged 22.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.5 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game.

These numbers are good enough to win the Rookie of the Year Award…

Unfortunately, for Ron Harper, he'd finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Indiana Pacer rookie, Chuck Person.

This could have been because of the poor performance of the Cavaliers in the 1986-87 season. They finished last in the Central Division with a 31-51 record.


Ron Harper vs. Michael Jordan 

Dennis Rodman compared Ron Harper to the great Michael Jordan, so, how did a rookie Ron Harper fare in his first game against His Airness?

The Chicago Bulls would get the best of the Cleveland Cavaliers by winning 94-89. Jordan would have a monster game (of course) with 41 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks.

Rookie Ron Harper played well himself. He scored 23 while grabbing 5 rebounds, collecting 4 dimes, and snatching 2 steals.

In his second season in the NBA, Ron Harper would suffer a setback that would eventually plague him throughout the remainder of his career.

In just the second game of the season, Harper would severely sprain his ankle. This injury lingered and limited him to just 57 games played for the season.

Harper would return and be ready for his playoff showdown with Michael Jordan. And he'd play well.

Harper averaged 17.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.8 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. These numbers are incredible, especially for a second-year man coming off an injury.

The problem was, Michael Jordan was on another level. MJ scored 50 and 55 in the first two games, becoming the first and only player to score back-to-back 50 point games in playoff history.

The Bulls defeated the Cavs 3-2 in a hard-fought series. The Chicago Bulls' home-court advantage helped them secure the series, since the home team won every game.

In his third season, where he played all 82 games, Harper averaged 18.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.3 steals.

Harper would get a rematch in the first round against Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

Like the previous year, the Cavs and Bulls would go the five-game distance. But this year, the Cavs would have home-court advantage.

But it didn't matter. Despite Harper's 22 points, and 6 assists in game 5, he couldn't match Jordan's 44 points and his famous “Shot” to beat the buzzer.

The Bulls beat the Cavs 101-100, and the Jordan legacy really took off after his incredible game-winner.

In the highly anticipated and acclaimed “The Last Dance” documentary, Ron Harper made some bold statements about the last play of game 5:

“We’re up by one, and I said, ‘Coach, I got MJ.’ Coach (Lenny Wilkens) tells me, ‘I’m going to put Ehlo on MJ.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.”

Craig Ehlo doesn't remember Harper asking to guard Jordan for the final position, so we don't know for sure. Harper clearly did a better job on defending Jordan, so he would've been the better choice.

Harper's fourth season would bring change and heartache. After playing in seven games, the Cavs traded Harper to the Los Angeles Clippers.

There, he'd play in 28 games before a season-ending ACL tear would change the trajectory of his NBA career.

Harper would play four more seasons in LA as a Clipper, and his points averages were still solid:

-19.6 (91)

-18.2 (92)

-18.0 (93)

-20.1 (94)

Even though Harper's numbers were still really good, his explosiveness wasn't there the same way it was before the ACL injury.

Ron Harper's rival, Michael Jordan, unexpectedly retired after the 1993 NBA season. This left the Bulls with a need for a new guard…

Ron Harper would be that guard to fill the Bulls' void. He'd go on to start 53 of the 77 games he played in.

Harper's production drastically dropped from his Cleveland and Los Angeles days. He only averaged 6.9 points per game.

By the time Michael Jordan returned to the game, Harper's role appeared it would diminish even further, but it wouldn't, it would evolve.

By 1996, Michael Jordan was back in basketball shape and ready to win his fourth title. Alongside Pippen, new addition, Dennis Rodman, and sharpshooter turned coach, Steve Kerr, you don't hear much about the other Bulls' players.

This is a mistake. The Chicago Bulls were a solid team from the first man to the last man on the bench.

One of their most important pieces to their championship puzzle was Ron Harper.

He may not have scored a lot as a member of the Chicago Bulls (7.9 per game in his 5 seasons), but his defense and his “brains”, helped the Bulls win three in a row.

Let's talk about Ron Harper's defense. He's 100% underrated as a defender in the league.

The fact he's never made an All-NBA Defensive Team, not even the second team, is outrageous.

A part of the reason the Bulls were so good was because of their smothering defense.

With Jordan, Pippen, and Harper taking turns guarding their opponent's best player, they'd get worn out.

In the 1996 NBA Finals against the Seattle Supersonics, Ron Harper's importance was quickly learned.

Harper played excellent defense on Supersonics guard, Gary Payton on games one and two. He held Payton to just 13 points per game on 37.5% from the field.

Not only was Harper's defense legit at slowing Payton, but his defense also gave Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen a chance to rest and focus on other players.

Harper injured his left knee in game two, but he gutted it out. In games three, four, and five, he only played a combined 15 minutes, with only one minute of game time in both games three and five.

In those three games, Gary Payton played much better. He averaged 21 points per game on 43.8% from the floor.

Payton's shooting still wasn't the best, but he did raise it 6.3% while scoring 8 more points per game.

The most important stat was the Supersonics won two out of the three games where Harper was hurt.

Harper would play 38 minutes in game six, and he added 10 points on not his best shooting game (3-11).

Gary Payton would, in fact, have his best shooting game of the series by shooting 7-10 and scoring 19. But having Ron Harper back meant Michael Jordan didn't have to chase Gary Payton around, which meant he could focus his energy on offense.

The Bulls would go on to defeat the Supersonics, 87-75, and Ron Harper would become an NBA champion.

After winning two more titles with the Bulls and filling his role perfectly for the team, he'd play one more season in Chicago, the lockout-shortened season without Jordan and Pippen in 1999.

In 2000, Harper would reunite with Phil Jackson, who was the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, Harper was back in LA, but this time, his experience would be much different.

Ron Harper would play the same role as a Laker as he did when he was a Bull. He played great defense and helped run Jackson's famous triangle offense.

After two more titles in LA, bringing his total to five, Harper decided to call it a career.

Ron Harper is a winner, a true professional, and a hell of a basketball player. Not many guys could have gone from being a star, the number one option on a team, to a role player who may not get a shot in any given game.

But Harper did adapt, and with his impact on some of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen, I believe Ron Harper deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and you should too.

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