Sports aren’t cool. I think we can all agree on this, righto?
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I mean, this stuff sells light beer. Light beer. It sells one-day fantasy whatever and it makes your favorite standup comics do weird ads for football on their podcasts. It sells the idea that you’re part of something bigger, even though you wouldn’t want to waste a minute with another person that happens to root for a similar team over a lukewarm cardboard tub of boneless wings that are about to be dipped in ranch [dressing]. The guy just ordered them without bones.
When you’re 15, and it’s the fall of 1995, the only thing you want is to be cool. You’ve got to nail the right t-shirt – Dinosaur Jr. for Tuesday, but save the Afghan Whigs for Friday – while pretending to be bored by it all. And if you get a chance to move to some new burgh, to start it all over again, you take advantage.
That means you never tell any of these new friends that you played sports, that you obsessed over box scores, or that you fought with your coach in junior high about your Chucks. It means you start over. Cool guy, James Iha-hair, no working knowledge of the triangle offense, new town and new guise.
Then Ron Harper has to go and get in the way.
Harp moved before I did, signing as a free agent with the Chicago Bulls during the 1994 offseason. His slashing, scoring style was supposed to augment a Bulls team that miraculously won 55 games the season before, one that I pretended (in the old town) to not notice prior to bashing my head against the bathroom wall after Hue Hollins’ call went wrong.
Harper didn’t fit in. He was out of shape and outmoded, the rust of an ACL tear and years spent working in front of Billy Crystal flying in the face of the modern-as-tomorrow angularity of Chicago’s offense. Stuck on a Bulls team working from the wrong end of the court, he was a punch line to be served alongside the dumb “Buechler” jokes we were making on a Wednesday night in front of our unimpressed girlfriends.
Then your parents allow you a release, and you spend the summer either in a Doug Collins-approved outpost, or back in the city. And then you move to a state where, they tell you, basketball is king. And you pretend you’ve never heard of it. Don’t try out for the team that nearly made state, sell yourself as a beatific guy that knows how to play like Jimmy Reed.
You keep tabs, though. Flush with a video cassette recorder, you tape every game while allowing yourself to describe a trumped narrative to the New Kids. You never used to play. You wouldn’t go out for any sports squad. Sure, you’ll sit in with his band on Saturday – the VCR is taping WGN’s game against the Jazz at home.
And through this, through all of this nonsense, Ron Harper emerges as the avatar. His knee was busted. He rebuilt his game while nobody was watching. He ran the offense and locked you down defensively. How could you not adore this man?
Out of nowhere, while you were telling the unknowing Hoosiers about Urge Overkill, Ron Harper became your favorite player. He became the guy that, 20 years later, you modeled your career after
The Bulls, while your friends weren’t looking, made B.J. Armstrong available in the expansion draft. Harper, at 6-6, would be placed alongside Michael Jordan in a backcourt that – thanks to the triangle offense – wouldn’t need a “pure” point guard. His knee would never been the same, the Cleveland era-hops that you remembered from a time before girls and hoped-for sideburns and guitar callouses were long gone, but that hardly mattered.
What he did was enter the ball into an offense that just made sense. What he did was act as the lead dog on a defense that topped the league. What he reminded you of, whether your snotty-ass mug wanted to believe it or not, was that you loved this game.
And that was just fine. That year spent wearing a Scottie Pippen jersey to school in 1992 seemed ever so long ago – 36 months is a lifetime to someone who had only lived 180 months in his life – and the new hero was in town. Michael Jordan and Billy Corgan couldn’t hold a candle to the guy that completely rebuilt his game to adapt to the city by the lake that you came from. Ron Harper looked irrelevance in its face and told it to go wash its car. He was going to be a giant – not a star, but a man – on his own terms.
That, to a boy that thinks he’s a man, means something. And, as the months moved along and 12-2 turned into 72-10, you kind of realize what makes you whole. And this sport, this stupid sport, somehow makes things work.
The NBA begins play on Tuesday evening. It’ll make a silly showcase that helps us forget that the real moments come in June, like when Ron Harper came back from a debilitating right knee procedure to guard Gary Payton in Game 6 of the 1996 NBA Finals. Like when I convinced myself that it was OK to cheer out loud again, like nobody was watching.
I very much hope that some 15-year old is finding their Ron Harper right now. I’m damned lucky to have found mine.
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