Except for the troublesome ‘Bad Boys’ basketball ‘machine’ from Detroit, there was virtually no stopping Michael Jordan throughout the 1980s. But the player who came the closest in matching up with the 1988 MVP was Cleveland Cavaliers jordanesque shooting guard – Ron Harper.
Episode 3 of ‘ The Last Dance’ tells the story of the other late 1980s NBA Central Division squad, alongside Chicago Bulls, which was eager to challenge the aging Detroit Pistons – Cleveland Cavaliers.
This team was primarily the brainchild of GM Wayne Embry who, to a surprise of many, successfully ‘harvested’ the notorious 1986 NBA draft, bringing home the nucleus of the future EC powerhouse – PG Mark Price, SG Ron Harper, PF John ‘Hot Rod’ Williams, and C Brad Dougherty.
Under the leadership of the future Hall of fame head coach Lenny Wilkens, this new talented young group developed and quickly became the force to be reckoned with. Already in 1987-88 and 1988-89, the Cavs reached the play-offs but were eventually eliminated by the same team – Chicago Bulls.
“I think we would have won more than one ring. We would have had to beat Chicago; we would have had to beat Detroit, we would have had to beat the [Boston] Celtics. There were a few teams we would have had to play against, but I felt that we were young enough and naive [enough] to feel that we were that good.”Ron Harper, Cleveland.com
On May 7th, 1989, in the closing moments of Game 5 of the EC semifinal series in Cleveland, it seemed that Cavaliers had the game locked up after Craig Ehlo made an amazing layup.
With only three seconds left in the game, it was the Bulls #23 who felt it’s his turn to have the last word. Using his tremendous quickness, footwork, and patented MJ hang-time, he first got rid of Ehlo, got the ball on an inbound pass made by Brad Sellers, and then hit a perfect jordanesque jumper.
Interestingly, according to Ron Harper in episode 3 of ‘The Last Dance,’ during the last Cavs huddle, he (Harper) openly suggested to coach Wilkens that he should let him guard Jordan on the previous play.
“I got him. I got MJ”Ron Harper, The Last Dance
But Wilkens rejected. He had already decided and was looking in the direction of – Craig Ehlo. The rest is history – Jordan hit the shot, the Bulls advanced before losing in the EC finals by the eventual 1989 NBA champions – Detroit Pistons. Harper’s reaction to Wilkens’s last decision tells everything.
“Yeah, OK, whatever, f— this bullshit.”Ron Harper, The Last Dance
From today’s perspective, if we try to visualize that great play, and put Harper on MJ instead of Ehlo, Harp would undoubtedly have much less trouble in covering surging Jordan.
His footwork was fast enough to try at least to keep up with MJ and try denying him the ball. And if Jordan eventually got the ball and went for the jumper, left or right, like in front of Ehlo, Harper would have a much better chance in trying to deflect Jordan’s shot, at least. Last, but not least, Ehlo was injured and in no condition to match up with MJ. The GOAT agrees.
“They had Craig Ehlo on me at the time, which, in all honesty, was a mistake. Because the guy that played me better was Ron Harper.”Michael Jordan, The Last Dance
Only seven games into the 1989-90 campaign, the Cavs decided to trade always quiet but media-friendly Harper to the L.A. Clippers for G/F Reggie Williams and sharp-shooting F Danny Ferry. But that deal was practically a wash – Williams appeared in only 32 games for 1989-90 while averaging 6.8ppg in only 16.9 minutes per. As for Ferry, who came back from Italy to join the Cavs, he never fulfilled his promise.
Originally from Ohio, Harper always, up to that point, sincerely believed that his future is with the Cavs:
“I was so mad. But I wasn’t mad at the guys on our basketball team. I wasn’t mad at the head coach. Me and them, we were always on the same page. I was mad at the Cleveland Cavs, but, then again, it’s a business, and so they thought they made the right move, and I had to move on.”Ron Harper, Cleveland com
With Ehlo succeeding Harper as the Cavs starting shooting guard, the team barely reached the postseason in 1989/90 (lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the EC First Round by 2-3) and completely missed the playoffs after the injury-plagued 1990-91.
Not to mention that during 1989-90 campaign The Michelangelo of basketball went to work and humiliated Ehlo and the rest of the Cavs cast with his 54, 38, 41 point-performances, before ‘painting’ his ‘masterpiece’ – career-high 69 points and 18 boards on March 28th, 1990 in The Richfield Coliseum.
After that, the Cavs suffered three consecutive bitter exits to the Chicago Bulls – in 1991-92 EC finals by 2-4, in 1992-93 EC semifinals by 0-4, and, with Ehlo and coach Wilkens both gone to the Atlanta Hawks, in 1993-94 EC first round by 0-3. 1991, 1992, 1993 Chicago Bulls teams became the World champions.
Harper found his place under the Californian Sun embraced by the exciting and talented L.A. Clippers. After the grand opening, he had knee surgery, which limited him to only 57 games combined in 1989-90 and 1990-91 campaigns. But once he came back in the full strength, the quiet kid from Ohio went full steam ahead – while delivering All-Star kind of numbers, he led the Clippers to 1992 and 1993 postseasons.
With Jordan gone in the summer of 1994, Bulls GM Jerry Krause wisely signed unrestricted free agent. Jordan’s return in the early spring of 1995 made Krause look like a genius – Harper was just a perfect complement to MJ, and the Bulls, suddenly, had not one but two jordanesque players in their backcourt.
Harp was one of the players who bravely decided to stay with the Bulls for the 1998-99 NBA season. In the lock-out shortened season, he started all of his 35 games while averaging 11ppg, 5.1rpg, 3.3apg and 1.7spg for the team, which finished 8th in the NBA Central Division with a 13-37 record.
The following two seasons, Harper provided his veteran expertise and savvy for the 2000 and 2001 NBA champions L.A. Lakers led by Shaq and Kobe, expanding his collection of championship rings to five!
Basketball Network contributor Murray A. a.k.a. Marjan Crnogaj, the 1980s and 1990s basketball specialist, is the proud co-author of the Amazon.com TOP 100 basketball biography ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon.’