MANILA, Philippines — Ron Harper arrived at the SM Megamall Activity Center straight out of the 1990s. He was wearing a white baggy collared shirt, baggy jeans, and black rubber kicks. Like I said, straight out of the 1990s, back when fit was frowned upon and baggy was the in thing.
Ron Harper was also considered an in thing back then, playing in 3 of the 6 Chicago Bulls teams that won NBA titles and dominated that era.
Harper has noticeably aged since his last title run (with the LA Lakers back in 2001), but he still has a big “marketable” smile that can send hoop nuts tripping down memory lane. He looks every bit the 6’6″ big guard he was back in the day as he played mostly SG for the Cleveland Cavaliers (1986-1989) and the LA Clippers (1989-1994) before sliding to a faux point guard role alongside Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan for the Bulls (1994-1998).
He has the customary long limbs of any legitimate basketball star, and, naturally, he dwarfs the event’s emcee – the petite Ms. Rizza Diaz. Perhaps the most noticeable quirk of Harper’s, however, is the occasional stutter when he speaks. I had to look at my media colleagues beside me whenever I noticed him grasping for those syllables. Apparently, Mr. Harper has battled stuttering all throughout his 49 years of existence, and he is currently involved with the National Stuttering Association, which tries to encourage people with similar difficulties not to let stuttering hinder them.
Mr. Harper, who was once dubbed the “Ohio Flyer” and “Hollywood” in NBA circles, was drafted out of the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks program by the Cavaliers in 1986. He was known as a shooting guard who could score with impunity and jump out of the gym, averaging 22.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.5 steals, and 1.0 block per game. Yes, this guy was that good. He would go on to play for the Cavs until 1989, when he was traded to the Clippers for, gulp, Danny Ferry. He stayed a Clipper till 1994, becoming the “other” LA team’s chief wing scorer – he never normed less than 18.0ppg in his Clipper years.
And then in 1994, in what probably was the most important basketball decision he ever made, Harper signed with the Bulls. At that time, MJ was still busy chasing his baseball pipe dream, so Chicago needed a new guy to put the ball in the hole. In many ways, Harper was supposed to be that guy, but things didn’t exactly turn out the way both parties had planned. Harper struggled in his first season in the Windy City, playing under 20 minutes per game for the first time in his career and averaging just 6.9ppg. Clearly, the Ohio Flyer just couldn’t cut it as a scorer for the Bulls.
Luckily for the franchise, His Airness returned with under 20 games to play in the regular season and pushed the Bulls back into the Playoffs. With Jordan back, however, Harper’s production continued to dip. He played just under 7 minutes per outing in 6 playoff games, norming 2.0ppg.
Things suddenly didn’t look so promising for the once promising 1987 Rookie-of-the-Year runner-up (Chuck Person won it that year). Coach Phil Jackson wanted to “convert” Harper from a scoring two-guard to a defensive point guard. He would be someone who had two main jobs – to bring down the ball and give it to either Jordan or Pippen (either would then call the plays), and to clamp down on the opposing team’s chief outside threat (or, in the case of John Stockton and Reggie Miller, try to). It was a career-defining change, but one cannot argue with the eventual results – Harper won 3 straight titles for the Bulls, and became part of the first and only (so far) 70-win-team in league history.
Naturally, Harper remembers that run with a deep sense of fondness and gratitude.
“The championship closest to my heart is the 72-10 team,” Harper revealed to the fans in the NBA Global Games Fan Fiesta this Sunday. “That was my first NBA championship.”
Harper flashed a big smile after uttering that statement, and he also showed the crowd a rare sight – an NBA championship ring gleaming under the SM Megamall’s lights.
“This is the LA Lakers 2000-2001 NBA championship ring,” Harper shares, beaming with the pride that comes from knowing that winning feeling all too well.
Indiana is team to beat
When asked about his pick for the upcoming NBA season, Harper didn’t hesitate one bit.
“My team this year will be the Indiana Pacers with Paul George,” says the 5-time NBA champion. “Though the Chicago Bulls, with the return of Derrick Rose, also have a legit chance.”
He would make the same pick in the first ever NBA preseason game here in Manila.
“This entire series of events is about showcasing the NBA life and about seeing two of the most exciting young teams play,” explains Harper.
“But I would pick the Indiana Pacers to win over the Houston Rockets,” he adds.
Cheers and jeers from the crowd erupt. Even with his relative obscurity (he did play with two sure-fire Hall-of-Famers in Chicago and, well, there was the never-boring Dennis Rodman, too, right?) Harper strikes the Filipino NBA fans present at the Fan Fiesta with a ton of charisma. His ear-to-ear smile and solid baritone overshadow his mild stutter, and his candid responses to some of the fans’ impromptu queries provide some of the occasion’s most notable moments.
MJ is unbeatable
His comment on the current issue of whether MJ can actually beat Kobe and/or LeBron, in particular, is one to remember.
“Nobody can beat Michael Jordan,” Harper states frankly. “Nobody. He’s the one and only.”
“There are a lot of very good players today, guys like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Derrick Rose,” he expounds. “But none of them can beat Michael. LeBron James impresses me a lot, though, because he can do it all.”
“Michael Jordan, in his heyday, was twice as strong as Kobe was,” he continues. “MJ can take on Kobe any day.”
Blind loyalty? Shots fired? Or just the plain truth from a guy who has seen it all?
In the end, Harper tries to motivate the budding young hoopsters and hoop nuts out there by saying, “If you have a dream, just go for it. Our game is a global game, and there are a lot of talented people in the Philippines. Go out and give it your all.”
It seems the NBA picked the perfect ambassador to drum up the Manila leg of the Global Games. Harper’s candor was infectious, and, well, he did make some really interesting picks. Indiana over Houston? The Pacers as the team-to-beat? MJ over LBJ/KB24? I can already see some heads nodding, some heads shaking, and bar/online debates about to come to a head. – Rappler.com
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