The man with a lightning bolt shaved into the hair on his right temple and thunder in his legs knows all about playing with pain. He'd done just that for most of his 25 years.
In school, he hated it when teachers called on him to read aloud. He found comfort on the basketball court, even though his future in the game looked about as bright as his chances of making the Social Register.
"For a kid growing up with a speech problem, you might as well be in jail," Ron Harper said. "Jail is a lot easier."
Harper grew up with a speech problem. From elementary school through junior high to high school, peers mocked him, laughing as he stammered and stuttered through sentences. Basketball was an outlet, one of the few activities in which the youngest of six kids raised by a single mother in Dayton, Ohio, could find self-respect.
He wasn't much good at basketball, either--the 12th man on the freshman team at Dayton's Belmont High, whom the coach told that next season he'd be welcome to come out, but don't expect to play.
Ron Harper transferred across town to Kiser High, a smaller school with about 325 students. He made the team, gained confidence and earned a scholarship to Miami of Ohio. He was a first-round draft choice of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the eighth player picked in 1986.
By the week before last, when Harper came to the Clippers in a trade that included three former first-round selections and two in the future, he was better than ever, in several ways. He doesn't shy away from talking to people, strangers even, and oh, how people like talking about him.
"In the transition game, he's as good as Michael Jordan," said Don Chaney, coach of the Houston Rockets. "And that's not an understatement. He can do everything Michael can do in that phase of the game--handle the ball, run and dunk, and be quick enough to pull up for the jumper or go by the defender on a drive."
That only makes Harper one of the best off-guards in the world. Get past Jordan, and it becomes dealer's choice among Dale Ellis of Seattle, Clyde Drexler of Portland, Byron Scott of the Lakers, Joe Dumars of Detroit, Rolando Blackman of Dallas and Harper, who last season averaged 18.6 points and blocked more shots than any guard and eight starting centers.
"He can fly through the air," Blackman said of Harper. "He's a very acrobatic guy, a guy you have to contend with every time he's on the court."
The Clippers became believers some time ago. They had pursued Harper for six months before finally sending Reggie Williams and the rights to Danny Ferry to Cleveland for Harper plus a No. 1 draft choice in 1990, a No. 2 in '91 and a No. 1 in '92.
The appeal was obvious. Harper, a 6-foot-6 1/2, 198-pounder, is only 25, yet has already been in the playoffs twice in a three-year career, averaging 18.8 points in nine games. He went into this, his fourth season, with a career average of 19.4 points, and although the major knock against him is his outside shooting, he had improved from 45.5% to 46.4% to 51.1% from the field each season. In the first seven games with Cleveland this season, he averaged seven assists and 6.9 rebounds.
Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor calls Harper a basketball junkie, with the perfect blend of experience and youth. Lenny Wilkens, his coach at Cleveland, talked of Harper's court sense in knowing everyone's role on every play, not just his own. Cavalier center Brad Daugherty said Harper plays to the fans and feeds off their energy. Blackman said the best defense against Harper is simply not to let him have the ball.
The Cavalier players had the day off when Baylor called to discuss the trade with Harper, who happened to be on his way out the door to play basketball. Baylor enjoyed that, but he shouldn't have been surprised. Harper plays basketball the way some people chain-smoke. It's an appetite more than something to do.
He was the kid that neighbors would tell to knock off the racket and go to sleep--it was 2 a.m., for goodness sakes. He and four older brothers would often play for so long in the back yard of their home in Dayton's ghetto neighborhood that they would start when the ground was covered by grass and go until it was Pig Pen regulations--on a court of dirt and dust. Snow was not a deterrent, either.
This was Harper's place to stand out, even if he was around only because of persistence, rather than talent. He could handle getting a shot blocked by a brother eight years his senior better than feeling the stares while struggling through a response to a teacher's question. Nobody laughs when the best answer is swishing a ball through the net-less bent rim.
"It gave me a chance to express myself," he said. "Once I got on the court, I always felt away from things. I felt comfortable. When I was on the court, I would lose all my problems.