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"I want the SOB out of here" — How the NBA's drug problem got Ron Harper traded out of Cleveland

Ron Harper was caught in the wee hours of the night hanging out with people under the surveillance of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Ron Harper

Ron Harper

Like any other society, a drug problem hounded the NBA, especially in the 70s and 80s. Cocaine was their drug of choice, and even a young Michael Jordan witnessed his teammates on a drug binge. By 1983, a drug act was implemented to eliminate the drugs destroying the league. Apart from getting rid of the powdery substance, the league needed to pluck out the paranoia attached to it. Ron Harper fell victim to such phobias. So much so that he was booted out of the Cleveland Cavaliers due to his suspected drug links.

Drug ties

It all started when then Cavalier's general manager Wayne Embry got a call from Horace Balmer, the NBA's head of security. Balmer said that Harper had been spotted in the wee hours of the night rubbing elbows with suspected drug traffickers. The proposed prognosis was that Harper should steer away from his friends.

But Harper ignored such suggestions, noting that “he was old enough” to choose who he wanted to hang out with. Besides, he was 21 years old at that time. He didn’t want to sit on his couch all day. He wanted to live his life.

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This proved a pivotal mistake. Embry and then Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens did not believe their guard was into drugs. However, the rumors were taking a toll on their basketball team's reputation. As Embry wrote in his book “The Inside Game: Race, Power, and Politics in the NBA,” he recommended trading the guard to the Los Angeles Clippers, who were serious about acquiring Harper.

"There still had not been one shred of evidence implicating Ron in drug use, but I was tired of distractions," Embry wrote. "Ron was a likable guy, and a good leader, and I was worried some of our younger players might want to follow in his footsteps.”

The final decision

In a meeting with Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund, Embry and Wilkens shared the rumors about Harper and the fact that he’s been hanging out with friends under the surveillance of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Gund did not hesitate to vent out his decision on the matter. As Wilkens wrote in his book “Unguarded: My Forty Years Surviving in the NBA”:

"'I want the SOB out of here,' Gund screamed, and that shocked me. I had never heard Gordon yell like that. He also dropped in an obscenity into the sentence, and I'd never heard him swear. I had never seen him so agitated,” Wilkens wrote.

And so the Cavaliers, much to Embry and Wilkens’ chagrin, traded away Harper to the Clippers. Wilkens believed that if they had kept Harper, the Cavaliers would’ve ousted Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls — the team that eliminated them two consecutive times in the 1988 and 1989 playoffs. Wilkens’ misfortunes did not stop there. After five seasons in Los Angeles, Harper found himself alongside Michael Jordan. Harper became a critical part of the Bulls’ three-peat from 1996 to 1998.

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