In this ongoing series, we will take a trip to yesteryear to highlight some Los Angeles Lakers players whom some fans may have forgotten. These players didn’t get the billing that some others enjoyed, but they were very instrumental to the Lakers’ success.
Some Lakers fans may not remember or know about Ron Harper. Those who do remember him may remember him more as a member of the Chicago Bulls or Los Angeles Clippers. But the 6-foot-6 guard played an integral role in the Lakers’ return to glory at the turn of the century, even though he was at the tail end of his career.
Harper helped teach the Lakers how to win and play as a team
In his early years, Harper was a high-scoring, high-flying player who played his first three seasons and change with the Cleveland Cavaliers. After spending some time with the Clippers, he joined the Bulls for the 1994-95 season, and once Michael Jordan returned from his baseball sabbatical, he was a nice complement to arguably the greatest player ever in the backcourt.
Together, Harper and Jordan won three straight NBA titles from 1996 to 1998, and they helped make the Bulls arguably the greatest defensive team in league history.
When Jordan retired following the 1997-98 season, legendary head coach Phil Jackson did the same, only to be hired by the Lakers in June 1999. Jackson saw potential in the Lakers’ roster, which featured Shaquille O’Neal and a young Kobe Bryant, but he knew that their roster was flawed and in need of veteran leadership. In addition, he needed someone who could help him teach his complex triangle offense and be a coach on the floor.
Jackson recruited Harper to L.A., where he became the team’s starting point guard. At age 35, the guard’s knees were about as useful as a 1978 Honda Civic without an alternator, and he had about as much athleticism as a pigeon. But his basketball IQ, eons of experience and Dale Carnegie-esque ability to critique teammates in a constructive and humorous way were invaluable to a Lakers team that had known nothing but playoff failure.
Those Lakers were coming off back-to-back playoff sweeps, and they needed a serious dose of something. Harper knew how to win, and he was only too happy to teach his new teammates how to do so.
Bryant, in particular, benefitted from Harper’s presence. The 21-year-old iteration of Bryant was supremely talented and skilled, but he was occasionally prone to trying to do too much by himself. Harper’s tutelage, as well as the structure of the triangle offense, helped mold Bryant into the legend everyone remembers him as.
Harper's impact cannot be measured by numbers
Harper’s statistics during the 1999-2000 season — 7.0 points on 39.9% shooting, 4.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 25.5 minutes a game — look very pedestrian. But he would prove to be the glue that would hold the team together.
Jackson felt it would take Los Angeles some time, possibly even a season, to be ready to truly compete for the world championship. Sure enough, after it got off to a 31-5 start, it lost six of its next nine games, and all the bad feelings from the recent past came unhinged again. A player such as Harper proved to be integral to keeping the Lakers from coming undone whenever they looked to be in trouble that season.
They got back on track with a 113-67 thumping of the Utah Jazz, who had been their own personal tormentors over the past few years, on Feb. 4. With that, they were off and running to a 67-15 record and a spot in the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. After getting out to a 3-1 series lead, the Lakers again reverted to their old inept selves, losing Game 5 and Game 6.
When they looked tentative and unsure of themselves in Game 7, Harper helped keep them together. He hit the first basket of the game and gestured to his teammates with his head as if to say, “Let’s go!” But L.A. fell behind by 16 late in the third quarter, and Staples Center looked like it was about to be turned into a funeral.
That’s when the Lakers staged their historic comeback and won 89-84 to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1991. There, they faced the Indiana Pacers, and once again, Harper was there when needed with a key basket or to settle them down.
A prime example of how Harper stabilized the team all season long was Game 2. He scored 21 points to help L.A. win after Bryant went down with an ankle injury in the first quarter. It was Harper’s highest-scoring game of the season, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
With his help, the team won it all in six games.
Harper returned for one more season, and although he missed much of the year due to injury, Jackson turned to him during crucial moments in the championship series versus the Philadelphia 76ers. Once again, he kept the team organized and together, and it won another NBA title, its second of three in a row.
Harper will likely never make it to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But he was a living example of how a player can transcend his mere stats with his leadership, intangibles and steady hand, even when his best days as a player are far behind him.